The distinguished English composer Alice Smithson has died. Her daughter Lizzie discovers an often fragmentary journal, which reveals that Alice had an earlier, much more disturbing relationship with a friend from her school days, which involved much playing about with English canes.
Lizzie is not altogether surprised, for her Mother was always a little odd about CP and there was that incident with the hairbrush when Lizzie was all of eighteen. However, she gradually realizes that there is a real mystery about the extent to which her Mother's old school used corporal punishment. Most English girls schools of the Sixties did not use it, but did her Mother's?
In particular, was Elizabeth Rowan, Alice's friend and later lover, a frequent recipient of the dreaded cane? Alice used to tell such strange stories. Could some of them be true?
Much of the novel is taken up with Alice's slow change of direction as a composer, which leads to "Pathways", her first symphony and brings her real success in the latter part of her life. This musical change of direction is paralleled by Alice's slow movement away from her first husband and her old school friend Elizabeth Rowan, to a much happier second marriage and a new (and much younger) female lover, Anne Harkness.
Hovering at the back of our heroine's musical and personal transformations is her very elderly, but extremely alive Father, at whose funeral the novel culminates. Andrew Smithson has served through the two World Wars, coped with two difficult bisexual wives and run a successful art gallery. He is also perhaps Alice's conscience. At any rate he often tells her the things that she needs to hear and does not want to.
And there again Lizzy finds herself staring uncomfortably at her own far from easy younger self's relationship with her Mother.
The novel has strong elements of Romance and Corporal Punishment, but is also about relationships within families and English Music in the Twentieth century.
I find it hard to remember my mother as she must have been in her forties. I think her eyes were her most remarkable feature. They were extraordinarily still, in an almost oriental way. I think this was why she had only to walk into a room for all of the men, and not a few of the females, to fall under her spell. It was a gift that she was oddly unconscious of. You will not find a mention of it in her journal. But it was remarkable, how wearing the simplest (and often not the newest) of clothes, and with hair that was never unkempt, but never obviously cared for, she could always turn heads. and she was oddly shy. She always had to be drawn into conversation, but once they had made the effort few men drew back. I remember as a very shy adolescent it infuriated me how she always had my boyfriends chatting to her (and in one case at least) chatting her up.
Looking back all the signs of promiscuity were there. Yet she hid it with remarkable ease. The number of times when I was a child that she had to go out to some meeting (and certainly she was on some committees, not least that of the local Buddhist Society)! And my father for many years accepted it, and said almost nothing. She could do what she liked, provided she was discrete. It ought to have been an unhappy marriage, kept together for the sake of the child who was myself, but as one who had cause to know it better than most it had more life than most. They were great talkers together, and on their good days they shared a certain sense of fun.
But (which was my mother�s darkest secret) it was not just men. My mother�s relationship with Elizabeth Rowan had begun at school. It is clear there was a physical relationship that went on for nearly a decade from their late teens to their mid twenties, and (which is important to the story) involved spanking. When my mother was in London beginning her musical career, and Elizabeth was in Brighton as a student, they spent most weekends together. And yet even then, my mother was being very promiscuous with boys in swinging London in the week. My mother was to be just the same with men, when she married my Father, somehow keeping a close and real relationship going, while insisting on her right to be promiscuous. How she did it with either Elizabeth or my Father I really do not know, but somehow or other she managed it, and somehow they coped with it. But later Elizabeth and my mother were pulled apart by living in different parts of the country, and the relationship probably palled of its own accord, not least
because my mother had rather surprisingly decided to marry my Father. But it was actually Elizabeth who said it was over in the only letter from that period that my mother bothered to keep. It has neither date nor address. �Tiger� was my mother�s school nickname, which Elizabeth always used.
We have had a good, mad ten years, and really I shall never want to stop being your friend. However, as to the rest of it, I just do not think I can cope with you having a husband, and anyway I liked Mike when we met. No, much better we just go on being friends. And incidentally, I hope you aren�t going to go on with all those other men! There have been days I could have stuck a knife in you for it (quite a few days!). Mike might not be so patient, which would be a pity, for I think you have the making of a good couple.
Be happy my love
And yet despite this long affair, and then friendship, there are days that I wonder if my mother ever really knew Elizabeth after that letter, which Elizabeth wrote when she was nearly twenty-seven and my mother was twenty five. And by the time that I am talking of Elizabeth and my mother were not as close as they had been, even as friends. True there can have been very few days that they did not meet or talk on the phone. Yet there was something rather mechanical about their relationship. My mother with her quiet dogged pursuit of her career as a composer seemed not quite in the real world to Elizabeth, working in a very tough London comprehensive school, and more and more disillusioned by the middle class culture of her youth. And Elizabeth would bitch about this side of my mother, whenever we were alone. It always worried her that my mother simply had no idea of what it was like to teach Turks or Greeks who spoke almost no English; and though my mother was genuinely interested in Indian culture, she was not at all interested in the problems of teaching real people from the Indian sub continent in an English school.
Yet there is little in the journal to suggest these tensions. The thing that worried my mother was quite different. Essentially she wanted to resume the physical affair with Elizabeth, and did not know how to ask her.
The journal has numerous entries like: �I wish she would come round to doing sex with me again. I would like her fingers on my breasts and clit. Nobody else ever did it quite so well, even if that part of our relationship is two decades ago. I love her bum. It�s just like a pear, and a cane lightly applied used to caress it so beautifully; and she would get so worked up. I always used to fantasise that I watched her being caned on her tights, so that was how we did it. In fact it was her hands, which I did not get to watch and was not at all erotic. Goodness knows what Mike would think if he knew I am in to this sort of thing. It�s my guilty secret. He thought Charley and all the men since were bad enough, even though C was never a lover! But we seem to cope with that.�
And indeed to the outer world Elizabeth was supposed to be a spinster, who had a bad experience with a man when she was young at Sussex University, and would not go out with anyone .Certainly for a lot of years apparently she would not go out with men, but on the face of it got on with being an outstandingly good classroom teacher, and lived a quiet life. Some of the happiest parts of it she spent elder sistering my mother, and later being rather a good honorary aunt/god mother to me. And her relationship with my Father was always amicable. At least this was how my Father knew it. In reality Elizabeth must have been moving in what today would be called Gay Circles, but she made no attempt to come out. And in the end she decided that if my mother could make a rather odd success of marriage and have a child, then so perhaps could she. So she persuaded herself she was not really gay, and went hunting for a man.
And so in her early thirties my Aunt Elizabeth after a couple of years of trying not to be a lesbian, and to land the right man, met and very abruptly married Alan Bleadale. He was a very, very gentle man. He had been to the Royal College of Music, where he had been my mother�s junior by two years, and highly regarded as a would be composer. Yet after he had left college he drifted into musical administration at which he was outstanding, and composing eluded him.
My mother, who was not perhaps as unworldly as Elizabeth believed her, remarks in her diary of the time: �He sounds so suitable: genuinely nice, very much in love with Elizabeth, and (which E will need!) very careful with money. They are coming for a meal on Saturday night. I must try and make friends. And he is a composer, though not much I think since he was a student.�
It is uncomfortably noticeable that my mother makes no mention of Elizabeth being in love with Alan.
�I think she is genuinely fond of him� she wrote �but I think she chiefly feels the clock ticking, and wants a child with the least disagreeable man she has yet met.�
And a friend my mother made of Alan. I have indeed heard my Father complain the triangle between Alan, Elizabeth and my mother was so intense that he felt left out. Certainly he moved on the outside of it. Certainly it weakened my Parents� marriage much more than my mother�s frequent but usually casual affairs.
But pulling within the triangle was yet another relationship - that between Alan and my mother. He was very much in love with Elizabeth, but my mother was more ambiguous.
�I do not know what I would do if he were not going to marry Elizabeth.�, she wrote the morning after that dinner party�, He does seem remarkably attractive, but he is not the sort of man who could be casual about love, and he is totally gone on E. Knowing E�s distinct luke-warmness to men in general, I hope he does not live to regret it. And I hope he is not too gentle with her. To handle E in bed you would need a firm hand. I speak from experience! But I suppose I cannot tell him to spank her if she plays up, and that she would probably enjoy it. It is not the sort of advice you can pass on, not least because it is not exactly PC! I would never mind ending up with him and her in the same bed, but that is too much to hope for..�
There is little doubt that she quite willfully played on Alan�s vanity about his success as a student composer.
�I wonder if he would see me alone, if I asked him to look at my latest score with me� she wrote some weeks after she had first met him �I do not see E. could/would object to that. And he had such a reputation at College, which is the opposite of me �.
Elizabeth positively encouraged the arrangement.� She says that A would be terribly helpful in getting my music put on. I think too, though she does not say it, that she finds his sheer intensity a little difficult. Almost suspect that she would not care greatly whatever I did with him. But I cannot do that, though if I am honest I would like to.
And so my mother�s record of her first session with her second husband to be.
�We were very business-like. We went through the Wind Quintet in some detail, and he was very pernickety about the actual sound my love of polyphony leads to, but often right. Said I would think about it.�
By the third session she was writing: �He is so gorgeous. His first lover (from College) left him after a few years. It was very stormy I gather. They threw things and shouted. When I played my usual card with men, and mentioned the fact my Father used to spank me, he laughed, which is not the usual reaction, but I liked him for it. Then he told me that his lover was called Alice too, and on one occasion she ended up across his knee. I said rather archly perhaps he should have given into that inclination more often, and perhaps she would have stayed, at which we both for no apparent reason had the giggles. We said nothing more upon the topic, but I think we both thought it. I certainly did. I would have liked to have asked just what he and E. get up to in bed, but somehow it did not seem quite right. It might help E if he would get into things like that with her. I�m sure this dreadful silence, this insistence that punishments I know happened never took place, is the cause of a lot of E�s inner turmoils, though since she won�t discuss it, how can one know for sure? I am quite sure he is not a wife beater incidentally. I have met several in my time, and they are best avoided rapidly. He just has a frisky side that would be interesting in bed. Or at least I think so. I�ve already seen alarming signs E is not enjoying life as much as she should be with such a dish. Quite likely I will hear all, but not I hope too much from E.�
A number of sessions later they got on to a very delicate topic.
�He asked, if what I say about the cane at St Mary�s (my mother and Elizabeth�s old school) is true, or just a fib to annoy E. I gave him my solemn word it is true, and E really had it and when she was quite old. I knew the idea would turn him on; and sure enough it did. I could see it in his eyes.
Yet really if I am honest I think it is true, but I am not quite sure. There were a number of times when our headmistress said to Elizabeth, �You had better see me after school� . And E always spent those afternoons in a state of extreme nerves, declaring she wasn�t in the least frightened of the Head, and she could not possibly have the cane for something like this, could she. That she was afraid she was going to be caned is certainly true, but she never actually said she was. I have to confess I just assumed it. Anyway she always begged me to go with her, and seemed to be on the verge of tears. I waited for her, but not outside the Head�s door! I sat on the stairs at a safe distance away. Even from there I could hear the head bawling her out and E getting more and more distressed. Then E would stagger out looking as if a whirlwind had hit her. And whether she was caned or not (and I was never quite sure, for Elizabeth was always very tight lipped after those sessions) I had very vivid fantasies about her being bent over and her skirts taken up from when I was very young.
Where those fantasies came from I have never been too sure, but they played a large part in our sex life in the days we were lovers. I was never sure whether she was really frightened of the whippings I used to give her when we were in our early twenties or she was just laying it on thick. Certainly she used to get upset and cry and was very reluctant to bend over. And yet it always turned her on like mad.
Anyway I told Alan I am pretty sure that E must have been caned at school. I was there and I ought to know etc. In fact I am not very sure. She could well have been and at the time I assumed it. It was well known A.M.A. had a cane, though it was much less certain whether she ever used it. Elizabeth was several times in sufficient distress when she emerged from the Head�s study to suggest quite strongly that she probably did have it, but it is also quite possible too that she had been told off so severely that it seemed like it. Certainly to be fair she never said a word about what had passed within the walls of the Head�s study. Possibly I was over influenced by the very flexible cane in my Father�s study, which was used very effectively to over awe me as a teenager. Yet, I was there and I do think the balance of probability is that Elizabeth had it on a number of occasions. But equally of course she fiercely denies it.
I have quoted this in full because it is probably the sanest account in the Journal of the punishments that my mother alleged Elizabeth suffered at St Mary�s. Even here (as Alan observed when I showed him this passage recently) the number of punishments is quite probably exaggerated. Alan says he thinks maybe it happened once and my mother multiplied the number of times. However, neither he nor I know if this guess is right. Gilly Northcott, the very helpful current Librarian at St Mary�s, is quite sure there were a very limited number of canings under Miss Alison�s regime (though always on the hands as far as she knows), but has never heard of anyone having that punishment more than once. �On the other hand� she says dryly �With the parents� permission there is no reason why it should not have happened on this scale, and anyway the punishment book has not survived, so nobody can be absolutely sure!.� And yet Elizabeth (as my mother was very well aware) always accused her of lying, and said none of this had happened.
Anyway, what however is obvious is, that whether Elizabeth was caned or not, these incidents were the beginning of a lot of the sex life that she and my mother enjoyed when they were young.
So once a week usually, and rarely more than two or three weeks apart, Alan and my mother met and discussed her current work. He was very clear, very precise, and very broad. There is no evidence that she let him write a note of her music, but she frequently rewrote passages that he disliked. A lot of their meetings make boring reading. This bar dubious, that one not quite right.
And yet she wrote �I am coming to love this man as I have never loved anyone, but one cannot do things like that to one�s best friend!.�
He became the person to whom she could tell anything. And beyond that there was a great worldly boon. Alan realized very soon that my mother was too busy writing her music to be very efficient at promoting it, and he was in a position to do something for her...
This irritated Elizabeth a little. I do not think she was fearful of losing her husband to her best friend, but who knows. And there was gossip. When I was in the Lower Sixth at Grange Manor Comprehensive, one of my pals Paula was a musician, and in the county youth orchestra, and she came back in great excitement. They were going to play a modern work by a woman.
�Who is she called,� I asked.
�Oh Alice Smithson. She must be a real freak. It�s really weird stuff.�
�That�s my mother,� I said.
I knew of course that Paula thought of my Mum as Mrs. Kershaw. She only used her name for professional purposes, and she was not at all well known. Anyway Paula was suitably apologetic, and I got regular progress reports.
She came eventually to like the piece, but she formed a theory.� Our conductor says we�re doing it because he has a friend called Alan, who�s a friend of your Mum. I bet your Dad does not know about that.�
I tried to disillusion her, but she would not believe me. At the time I thought it was funny, and indeed it became a sort of family joke.
Because there was Elizabeth and Alan there was also Isobel. She was almost my sister. I remember her as a very independent, bouncy creature. She learnt to read very early and she was always a loner. She was one of those bright children who are occasionally very naughty, and I remember my very proper adolescent self thinking that it would do her no great harm to have her bottom smacked. This was probably fairly natural reaction to a rather trying child who I was distinctly jealous of, and my own experiences, which were distinctly traditional (if usually fair) but also reflected all the stories that I had heard about my mother suffering that, and on one occasion at least rather worse indignity at home.
She had not been a well-behaved child. My Grandfather, who did not really believe in corporal punishment, but had been driven to it out of self-defense, used to make a joke of it in old age, but it was not a very easy joke.
�But at least she was not the sort of little girl who only loved cats and ponies� he used to say �At least she read books and did her music. Perhaps that was why she was so naughty.�
He had, I think, mellowed after his second marriage to a much younger woman.
My Grandmother in the lonely Cornish exile of her old age was more astringent.
�What that girl needed was one real thrashing,� she used to say. �And he would never give it her.�
And yet my Grandmother was often kind and considerate to my mother. She believed in corporal punishment as some people believe in God. And yet her bark was always worse than her bite. One curious thing is that she firmly believed, and said (although I was her favourite) that I was brought up very slackly, whereas in fact, my mother was by the standards of her generation extremely strict. I got away with nothing as a child. My mother had the great advantage of being one of those very unfair adults who have only to look at a child for it to know it is doing wrong.
However, there was also a brief period when I was absolutely insufferable. I behaved for my Grandmother because I loved her, but I was appallingly rude on principle to everyone else. My mother punished me in various ways, which did not seem to work. Occasionally she resorted to spanking .She always claimed that she could not bear it, and usually stopped in the middle. Whatever the truth of that the real punishment was always the ferocious lecture I got beforehand. I ought to be ashamed of myself making her use this unnecessary out of date punishment. She had always tried to bring me up in a sensible rational way and now look at what I had reduced her to.
She made me so ashamed that the actual punishments were I have always thought unnecessary. I invariably cried a lot, and felt very shamed. It probably did not do me a lot of harm: I was a stuck up little thing.
But then came a day when she totally lost it with me, when I was quite old (In the Upper Sixth and Eighteen, a fact which was ignored). I defied her for ten days over my bedroom. Each day I promised to tidy it, and each day I failed to. She several times threatened a real thrashing in a very old fashioned way, which I thought was bluff. I calculated I was too old now, and she just would not do it; and anyway I had not been punished for a long time. One day she just irrupted in the most tremendous fury, and I found myself bent across my own bed for a beating with the hairbrush that really was severe, and bruised me a lot. I suppose I could have refused to take it, but somehow I bent over and took it. I was not exactly pleased with my mother, but oddly I regarded it as her right to do it, and anyway I did not want other adults involved: it was between her and me. I did not even tell my Father, who however knew because my mother rather innocently told him. According to Mother�s diary he was absolutely furious.
�He accused me of assault and practically threatened to divorce me.
I said to him �If you are really that angry hit me, you can spank me if you like�; but he totally ignored it. It�s a good job he is going away for a week. I could not take him brooding.�
However they made it up on his return. It says something for my parents perhaps that I never heard a word of this. But my mother took to heart what he said. That was my last punishment. Curiously, not knowing what my parents were thinking, I was just a little cautious after that about how far I pushed her! It was very painful. I have often wondered if the cane would have hurt as much.
Elizabeth by contrast was much more the sort of mother that my Grandmother imagined. She was not I hasten to add a bad or unnatural mother. She did give Isobel intense bursts of attention, but her main interest was her teaching, and she was more than grateful to leave most of the care of her daughter to her husband and best friend.
Alan�s job involved frequent evening work, and he was the sort of man who likes looking after a child or tidying a house, so much of his days were spent doing just that. And when he was not available my mother always was. And by the purest of coincidences if he and Isobel felt like a tea party my mother was always glad to come. I honestly do not think even my Machiavellian Mama intended it, but those three gradually became almost a family in their own right. And strangely Elizabeth let it happen. And yet like much else in my mother�s life it did seem to work. Indeed, except in her music, which was never as successful as she would have liked, she seemed a happy and deeply fortunate woman as she reached her middle Forties.
However, over three or four years my mother�s unorthodox, yet deeply civilized world dissolved.
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