‘The Love Child’ by Edith Olivier is a fascinating novel, half steeped in reality, half steeped in fancy and flights of imagination that will captivate the reader from start to finish.
Published in 1927, this book is another product of the interwar years, a story centred around a lonely, single woman, a ‘surplus’ woman of the Great War- who is left quite, quite alone in the world after the death of her Mother.
The depth of Agatha Bodenham’s loneliness is so deep, she remembers an imaginary playfellow from her youth, a young girl called Clarissa and thinks about her constantly and the make-believe games they used to play. One night, Agatha dreams of Clarissa and the dream feels most real and offers Agatha some respite from her loneliness. But slowly and surely, Clarissa visits Agatha during the day time and little Clarissa gains more life-like qualities.
Worried about what the servants might think of the sudden appearance of this strange child, Agatha flees to live in a hotel in Brighton for a few months. There given the peace and solitude needed to live happily with Clarissa without scrutiny, the young girl turns slowly but surely into a girl with real flesh and bones and human characteristics, observable by fellow guests at the hotel.
On returning to her home, Agatha introduce Clarissa to the servants in her house as her adopted daughter, a young girl belonging to their extended family who has recently been orphaned. The servants and neighbours accept this fact without demur, pleased to find their mistress with a renewed interest in life.
Life is blissful for Agatha. She and Clarissa live a beautiful life, constantly in each other’s company, playing games and reading books and preoccupying themselves with all those activities that Agatha had been denied as a child herself.
And then one day, a neighbourhood policeman demands to know details of Clarissa’s parentage and threatens to take her away to the Workhouse if facts are not furnished. Agatha in her despair tells a lie and describes Clarissa as being her ‘love-child’ – a fact that embarrasses the policeman but succeeds in silencing him.
Clarissa is now secure in sight of the law, and no one can take her away from Agatha. But as Clarissa grows up and finds interests, pursuits and friends of her own, Agatha is thrown into a constant tumult of jealousy and frenzy and Clarissa’s existence is jeopardised once more.
‘The Love Child’ is one of those rare novels where realism mingles with fantasy and whimsy and the whole is rendered quite believable. What is most interesting to observe are the forms that Clarissa takes – how she waxes and wanes between imagination and real existence, how her life blood ebbs and flows in perfect harmony with Agatha’s most inner and tender emotions.
I enjoyed watching Clarissa’s gradual appearance in Agatha’s life. I was astounded at the way in which she achieved human form and was gradually recognised by others and it was interesting to watch the interplay between Clarissa and Agatha.
It was also very interesting to witness the fact that Agatha would rather heap ignominy and shame on herself by referring to Clarissa as her ‘love-child’, at a time when illegitimacy was severely shunned in society, rather than lose the child altogether. There is a gnawing sense of loving and wanting to be loved, a need to nurture that pervades the book and haunts the reader.
‘The Love Child’ may start out as a novel about loneliness but mostly it is a novel that centres on possessiveness – the idea of controlling and being consumed by a relationship, barring all outsiders. And Clarissa is undoubtably the projection of Agatha’s psyche, a person not to be shared by others.
What happens to Clarissa? Does Agatha have her happy ending? You will need to read the story for yourself to find out. The writing is very good, the storytelling compelling and original. A page turning novel that will keep you guessing right down to the last word.
I was sent this book as a review copy from the publisher but as usual, all opinions are my own.