Long ago, when my aunt and I were on a VERY long cross-country trip, we stopped for ice cream somewhere in Pennsylvania and then walked over to the used bookstore. It was in a musty old house, but had a great selection. In the course of our browsing, we agreed that we almost preferred Grade B+ almost-classics to classics.
On our list of Grade B+ were:
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas.
And, of course, H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia, which is a kind of inter-class Brideshead Revisited.
Some books come into your hands through serendipity. Others, like Love for Lydia, published in 1953, leap into your hands through Masterpiece Theatre.
Somebody (well, yes, it was I) saw the first episode of Love for Lydia and called up everybody else. Soon all the women in the family–forget the men–were watching the next 12 episodes.
And we read the book.
At the used bookstore, my aunt asked, “Do you think Arden has this?”
Arden was the wild card. She lived in a commune. She was mostly building bird-houses in those days (the commune’s buisness).
I supposed there was no TV, no Masterpiece Theatre, no bookstore.
So my aunt got her a copy. Lydia was not unlike Arden.
Set in the ’20s, the novel is narrated by Richardson, a young aspiring writer working unhappily on a small-town newspaper. His editor calls him “Clutterhead” and Richardson strikes back by shirking work–one bazaar is much like another–and going ice-skating.
And then he meets Lydia Aspen on an assignment.
He is supposed to interview the two aristocratic Aspen sisters about the death of their brother and the advent of their niece, Lydia, who has come to live with them.
Instead, the aunts, after inquiring about his family and deducing his class, coax him to take Lydia skating.
Lydia blooms from a shy awkward girl into a femme fatale over the course of the next few years. Skating awakens her passion. She is nervous during her first skating lesson.
She moved through all the early afternoon like a girl whose limbs had never been used. Her hands were quite fierce and terrified as they clutched me. She held her head too high, too stiff and too far backwards, and her body went forward as though on stilts. All her in-breeding, her seclusion and what I took to be a genteel physical frustration came out that afternoon in a painful wooden awkwardness that made her more clumsy than ever. We fell down every ten yards or so. Everywhere people were falling down in the same way, shrieking and laughing, but she did not laugh when she fell down. She got to her feet every time with a look of remarkable intensity, with dark eyes fixed ahead.”
By the end of the afternoon she can skate. Soon she is as outrageous as any flapper.
Richardson is her first lover; he is the first man she knows. But she is so excited about her freedom that it is obvious it could have been anyone. The aunts finally suggest that Richardson should arrange a party to go a dance. Aunt Bertie interrogates him about class of each of his friends before she approves. She decides that his friend Tom, a farmer, and his sister, Nancy, are “a real yeoman family.” She has doubts about Alex Sanderson and his fashionable dancing mother, until she learns that Mr. Sanderson is in leather and not related to the wild Sandersons.
So no one is in the same class as Lydia–and yet she falls in love briefly with each of the men.
There is more, much more about class, more about love and sex, and real tragedy in this novel.
It is so good. I urge you to read it: honestly, if you like Brideshead Revisited, this is a look at a decaying family (not so rich, though) and love, from an underclass perspective. No, there’s no house like Brideshead.
And here’s a scene from the show (YouTube). Yes, that’s Jeremy Irons: