I saw the cover of this book at the library and did a double take. Mary Renault? The Mary Renault who wrote The King must Die, The Bull from the Sea and other historicals which I read when I was young and now can’t remember much about? I had no idea she'd written anything like this.
The Friendly Young Ladies was published in 1944 but is set before the war. In an afterword written forty years later, Renault says that she and a friend had laughed at Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness with its ‘impermissable allowance of self-pity, and its earnest humourlessness’. She wanted to write something more positive about people’s sexual choices and praises Extraordinary Women by Compton Mackenzie because it’s funny; I now want to read this.
The story begins in Cornwall with dreamy Elsie, seventeen, who lives at home with her constantly bickering parents. She has a sister, ten years’ older, who left and is never spoken of; Elsie assumes she must have run off with a man. A failure at school, Elsie does nothing but mope around in a world of her own, reading romantic novels. Then she gets ill and is treated by a handsome young locum, Peter. Peter is genuinely a good doctor but has the unfortunate belief that he understands female psychology and can cure women’s problems. Of course Elsie falls in love with him and as a result of his talks, discovers her sister’s address and runs off to join her.
The scene now moves to Mawley (Henley?) where boyish sister Leo turns out to be living on a houseboat with her pretty friend Helen. Elsie takes it for granted that the older women will look after her and they do, up to a point. She’s so naïve and divorced from reality that she fails to appreciate the ambiguities in the relationships around her. Leo and Helen share a room. Leo seems very close to fellow (male) writer Joe. Then Peter turns up and both Leo and Helen are attracted, in spite of seeing through him. So it goes on: Joe and Leo, Leo and Helen, Helen and another man, Leo and Peter, Peter and Helen. What of Elsie and Peter? The drippy girl is eventually disillusioned and it’s to be hoped she grows up.
I enjoyed the social comedy of the first half of this book. Then it went off the boil and I found the pages and pages of analysis of people’s feelings and motives rather wearing. I couldn’t like Leo as much as the author did and Renault herself wrote of ‘the silliness of the ending’. It’s a curiosity, though, and I’m glad I read it.