Sunday, March 3, 2024

Review: Love's Shadow, by Ada Leverson

Review: Love's Shadow, by Ada Leverson

by Rich Horton

Looking for my next audiobook recently, I browsed a selection of free ones (mostly from Librivox), and this book seemed worth a try. The name of the author rang a very faint bell, and, hey, how wrong can you go for $0? And it came up aces. (I have, of course, since bought the physical book, or actually an omnibus of the entire trilogy for which this book is the first volume.) I should mention upfront the reader: Helen Taylor, who did an excellent job. (Librivox recordings can be a crapshoot sometimes, but this one is very good.)

Ada Leverson was born Ada Esther Beddington in 1862. She married Ernest Leverson, unwisely and against her father's wishes, at the age of 19, and had two children, one of whom died as an infant. The marriage was generally a disaster, and eventually her husband decamped to Canada. She began writing witty sketches in the early '90s, publishing them pseudonomously in places like Punch, Saturday Review, and (eventually) The Yellow Book. One sketch, a parody of Oscar Wilde's work, was praised by its subject, and the two became good friends. Wilde called Leverson "the Sphinx", a nickname that stuck with her.

Her six novels all appeared in the decade 1907-1916. Love's Shadow (1908) was her second novel, and it was followed by two more novels about the same people, Tenterhooks (1912) and Love at Second Sight (1916). The three together are known as The Little Ottleys, and have been generally available as an omnibus under that title since 1962.

I'm going to shamelessly steal the way Hyson Concepcion described these novels, because it's perfect: "at once frothy, angry, incisive, and hilarious." It ranges from brittle satire on the English upper class in the Edwardian period, to light romance, to laugh out loud sketches of various silly people, some harmless, some less so. It's a shortish, novel, at some 56,000 words, and presented in 39 short and snappy chapters.

The story essentially follows two threads. One concerns the marriage of Edith and Bruce Ottley, and the other concerns Edith's friend Hyacinth Verney and her romance with Cecil Reeve. The two threads intersect, of course. 

Hyacinth is an orphan, an heiress, and strikingly beautiful. So far she has had several suitors, none of whom have interested her much. But she seems a bit more attached to Cecil Reeve, perhaps because he seems unusual to her (though the other characters assure us he's a completely ordinay Englishman.) His main quirk is his fascination with Eugenia Raymond, a widow about ten years his senior, who clearly regards him as more or less a puppy. Partly at Eugenia's insistence, he eventually seriously courts Hyancinth and they marry -- but Hyacinth remains jealous. All this is nicely enough done but mostly a tad conventional.

The more engaging thread is about Edith and Bruce. Bruce works in the Foreign Office, and the couple have a son, Archie, who is about two. It's quickly clear that Bruce is a fool and a bore, and is unthinkingly abusive to his much more sensible wife. Edith has learned to maneuver him by suggesting the opposite of what she prefers, realizing that he'll insist on doing what she wants instead. But she can't get him to reliably go to work on time, or to perform his responsibilities, such as writing letters he has promised, or communicating with his parents, or managing the finances. All this seems at first merely the eccentrities of a rather dense young man, but before long it's clear that Bruce, without really much intention of being so, is a terrible husband.

Over time Bruce, while ignoring his FO duties, hatches a scheme to write a play that will, he is certain, make him a fortune. Then he decides to take a part in an amateur theatrical performance. He is a hypochondriac, to the point of eventually deciding that he is a hypochondriac -- in a hypochondriacal sense. He is often absent, and appears to either be philandering, or attempting to philander but failing because the objects of his attentions reject him. He accuses Edith of an affair with a strange friend of his named Raggett, whom he had thrust upon her. And of course he is a terrible spendthrift and the household is soon deeply in debt. All of this is portrayed with a savage but light touch by Leverson. (It is speculated that this marriage is based on Leverson's own unhappy marriage.)

Their are numerous gloriously funny set-pieces. One of my favorites concerns Bruce attempting to babysit Archie, who is a pretty convincing if slightly precocious two year old -- the sequence where Archie asks Bruce if parrots have pockets had me rolling in the aisles. Bruce's absurd pretensions about his acting ability, in the two tiny parts he is given (with three total lines) are hilarious. (Indeed, pretty much all of the Edith/Bruce conversations are, if uncomfortable at times, lovely to read.) Raggett's tics -- such as his adoption of the Legitimist position (arguing that the true King should be in the line of King Charles the Martyr) and his subsequent attempt to develop a sense of humour -- are great fun. The acerbic contributions of Hyacinth's companion Anne Yeo, who is evidently Lesbian and in love with Hyacinth, and who customarily wears a macintosh, a golf cap, and boots, are wonderful. Hyacinth's uncle and guardian, Sir Charles Cannon, is in another unhappy marriage, though in this case the primary fault lies with his wife. Lady Cannon is a pompous snob who is only too willing to give her unwanted advice to all and sundry. Cecil Reeve's obsession, Eugenia Raymond, is an eccentric 40-something widow, and her view of life is refreshing.

This is really a very enjoyable novel, sprightly yet at the core darkly portraying the place of women in society. As I noted above, there are two sequels, and I will be reading them soon. 


  1. Have you ever read Sylvia Townsend Warner? I read her Lolly Willowes a few months ago (after having it sit on my shelf for many years) and absolutely loved it, and have now laid in some more Warner novels. I half expected the book to be 1920's-feminist boilerplate-ish, but it was nothing of the sort. She was too independent-minded for that (though she did deal out many of the expected lumps, they always came from unexpected angles). She's been a major discovery for me.

    1. I read MR. FORTUNE'S MAGGOT, which I thought a pretty minor work. But I have been intending to read LOLLY WILLOWES, which everyone seems to love.