When The Love Child (1927) opens, Agatha is 32, a spinster, and lonely. Her mother has just died. Agatha’s life has been a blank, and she knows it. When was the last time that she did not feel lonely? Now that she finds herself finally alone, Agatha has the much-coveted freedom to fill in the blanks of her loneliness.
It all starts with a long-forgotten memory crossing her mind: Clarissa! Like a ray of light, bright and clear, clarus – Clarissa, an imaginary friend our spinster had when she was a child. Agatha used to play with and talk to Clarissa, but a governess put a stop to it, mocking her. “And as the old memory came back, it seemed to Agatha that, in losing Clarissa, she had not only lost a real playmate, but she had also lost the only being who had ever awoken her own personality, and made it responsive—she had lost something without which she had grown as futile as a racquet idly striking the air, against no ball.”
Now, no one can stop her: Agatha is a free woman – she finally has the chance to bring Clarissa back. And that’s what she does. It begins, innocently enough, in her imagination: at first, Clarissa only appears in Agatha’s dreams. Then, bit by bit, the imaginary friend gradually takes a more concrete shape: she leaves traces, makes sounds; then, Clarissa appears to Agatha in the garden, and they begin to talk and play.
At first, only Agatha can see her, and has total control over her creation: “Agatha was Clarissa’s only toy, and she was Agatha’s.” Soon, however, the imaginary friend starts to take shape outside from Agatha’s mind, and other people begin to see her, too. They treat the girl as if she were a real child, and Agatha is faced with the embarrassment of having to explain where the girl comes from.
When a policeman comes to inquire over the situation, since no adoption had been formalized, the heavy hand of the law will hover over Agatha. Who is Clarissa? Eventually, our spinster will feel pressed to tell the police that this mysterious girl is her illegitimate child, her love child, a child born out of love and outside of the law – which, in a way, is true, but not in the way people understand the expression. “‘A love-child.’ The phrase had surged up from her inner consciousness, and she spoke it without realising what it implied. It did just express what Clarissa truly was to her – the creation of the love of all her being. It was truth, and in face of truth she knew that no one could take the child away, she had saved her. But at what a cost! Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers, with a right which no law could override.”
Clarissa is a dream come true, she is love incarnated, she is impossible to rule nor to explain – she is the love child. I love the delicious oddness of this novella: Agatha not only takes her child’s existence as a given, but also, when seeking to understand it, she bizarrely turns to a 1770’s melange of science and theology.
In this case, Christoph Christian Sturm’s Reflections on the Works of God and on His Providence in the Regions of Nature, and in the Government of the Universe (Betrachtungen über die Werke Gottes im Reiche der Natur und der Vorsehung auf alle Tage des Jahres, 4 vols., 1772–1776; first translated to English in 1791): “We often see two bodies approach each other without being impelled by any external force. The cause which produces this effect is called Attraction, or that principle whereby the minuter particles of matter tend towards each other.”
For Agatha, her own body, like one of Sturm’s heavenly bodies, had attracted the particles of matter that composed Clarissa, “by a perfectly normal law of nature”. For Agatha, her body’s power of attraction had drawn her love child to her. “It was difficult to understand, but there was no doubt that Clarissa could be explained by the very same law which accounted for the appearance of the planets in the sky and the vegetables in the garden. She had her place between the stars and the cauliflowers.” But, as our love child then asks, what happens when a heavenly body goes a tiny bit far away from its sun?
Clarissa will eventually grow up, like a real child. And here is the trick: the story of a reality gain is also a story of loss. As she grows up, Clarissa grows increasingly out of Agatha’s control. The love child is a piece of shared imagination beyond the safe harbor of Agatha’s mind: she will want to travel, to learn new things, to make friends – and, finally, she will want to experience life beyond the realm of Agatha’s imagination. Can a creature go beyond its own realm? “She might go out, like a shooting star.”
I love how odd your book is: you never take us quite where we expect. There is something fierce behind your novella’s quietness. And there is a deeply melancholic undercurrent running alongside the book’s ever present, twisted sense of humour. It reminded me, at different times, of May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Barbara Comyns. And I recently read two short-stories that made me think of this novella and its portrayal of spectral motherhood: Olivia Howard Dunbar’s The Dream Baby (1904) and Josephine Daskam Bacon’s The Children (1909).
Clarissa will inspire love from other parts, and she will want to experience love. Will she ever break free from Agatha? Is that even possible? What would such freedom mean for our love child if not annihilation? What is the meaning of love? “And as that cry was heard, Clarissa went. In one moment, she had been beside him, slim and silver, like a ray of the moon; and in the next, she was lost. The shadows had swallowed her”.
In more than one sense, the story of Clarissa is the story of Agatha’s loss of control. Our spinster is losing her child, but she may also be losing her mind. The story of Clarissa is every mother-daughter story, and it is none. It is the story of a creature coming out of and then inevitably sliding away from its creator. The story of Clarissa is a story of love incarnated – and, as such, it is also a story of death. Who does the killing and how, and will there be a resurrection? We are left with ancient questions here.
About the book
- British Library Women Writers, 2021, 208 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 1981, 208 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1927
- My rating: 5 stars
- Projects: RIP Challenge; Virago Modern Classics