I knew less than halfway through this book that I was going to have to lend this to my sister and my mother, and as soon as I finished this book that it was going to be this week’s BotW. Hands down. And as you’ve probably never heard of it (I hadn’t before I got given a copy) this makes it possibly the best sort of BotW – because hopefully it means I might point a few more people towards it.
In To Bed With Grand Music we follow the wartime adventures Deborah, a young wife and mother whose husband has been posted to Cairo. On the first page, while in bed together before he leaves, he says that he cannot promise to be physically faithful to his wife because “God alone knows how long I’ll be stuck in the Middle East, and it’s no good saying I can do without a woman for three or four years, because I can’t.” Instead he promises not to fall in love and not to sleep with anyone who might possibly take her place. He asks Deborah to promise same. But Deborah doesn’t take him up on his offer, instead she promises to be absolutely faithful to him and not act on any attraction she might feel to anyone else – in the hopes that he’ll change his mind and do the same. He doesn’t and is soon off to Egypt, leaving Deborah and their son Timmy at home in the countryside with the housekeeper come nanny.
But it doesn’t take long for Deborah to get fed up of life in the countryside and bored of her son. Deborah, it turns out, is a terrible person. She’s got a gift for rationalising in her mind whatever it is that she wants to do as being the best solution to whatever problem (real or imagined) that she is facing. So she decides that the best solution is for her to get a war job in London. This would mean being away from Timmy during the week and leaving him in the cae of the housekeeper, but she rationalises this as being the best thing for him – because although he’ll see her less, he’ll only see the best parts of her because she’ll be so much happier in herself. So off she goes to London, where she meets up with an old friend in the hopes that she can help her find a job. She and Madeleine (the friend) end up going out for dinner with a couple of soldiers and Deborah ends up staying the night and sleeping with one of the men. Oops. So much for that promise Deborah. She’s repulsed by her own actions and scurries back to the countryside and puts off the idea of getting a job. But soon she’s bored again and changes her mind and takes a job in London and moves in with her friend, however she’s determined not to make the same mistake again…
Madeleine at first was quite prepared to make Deborah’s life less lonely. She accepted as a natural obligation that for a week or two she would introduce Deborah to people until gradually Deborah could build up a circle of her own. But Deborah resisted all Madeleine’s suggestions for companionable evenings: if I once give in, she told herself, I’m done for, certain in her own mind that even a sherry party or a game of bridge could have only one conclusion. She martyred herself til her very martyrdom became her excuse for her release.
And that pretty much sets the tone for all that happens next. I think you can probably work out where this is going, but I don’t want to spoil it for you because it’s so much fun watching in fascinated horror as Deborah manages to justify abandoning bit by bit whatever moral code she has as she tries to get herself the glamourous life she thinks that she deserves – and how the climate in wartime allows her to do that.
As you’ve probably worked out, this is not a home fires burning, sweet little wife pining at home sort of World War II novel. This is the seamier side of wartime relationships – if you can’t cope with casual sex and marital infidelity, don’t read this book. But if you read the Camomile Lawn and want to read about a character who has all of Calypso’s worst traits and then some, then this may well be the book that you have been searching for. Equally if you’ve read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, then there’s all the bad bits of Villy and Louise and early Zoe here without the redeeming features. Deborah is brilliantly, splendidly dreadful and her exploits are compulsively readable.
To Bed With Grand Music was originally published in 1946, with the author given as “Sarah Russell”. It’s now been republished by Persephone Press (one of my favourite sources for books like this) with the real name of its author – Marghanita Laski who (under her own name) was a journalist and author from a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals. Given the book’s frank depiction of sex and morality, I can totally understand why the author didn’t want to attach her real name to the book at the time.