While I truly enjoyed the story of Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music, I have to admit that I did not like the protagonist, Deborah. I felt pity for her, as well as anger and frustration at her. During the beginning of the novel, I felt that poor Deborah was manipulated by not only the men she slept with but also the members of her own household. Deborah’s mother, Mrs. Betts, and her mother’s helper, Mrs. Chalmers, seemed to fuel Deborah’s less than enthusiastic thoughts about being an essentially single mother rather than boost Deborah’s spirits and encourage her engagement with her young son. I feel that even her husband, Graham, manipulated Deborah’s feelings from the beginning with his giving her permission to sleep around as long as she didn’t fall in love. After finishing the novel, however, I had to rethink if Deborah was manipulated at the beginning of the novel or if her stealthy role as manipulator began on the first page.
Had Graham not broached the subject of allowing Deborah to be physically unfaithful to him during the length of time he’d be gone, would she have sought the company of other men? Would she have had that niggling thought in the back of her mind that if Graham was going to sleep around, why shouldn’t she? Throughout their conversation, it seems as though Deborah is protesting a bit too much when after professing her faithfulness, “She stopped and wondered frantically, isn’t that enough to make him say the same, if I can do it, he can. But he remained silent, and she drooped a little” (2). Though she wishes to remain faithful to Graham, Deborah cannot even remain faithful to herself because she doesn’t know who she actually is.
Through Deborah’s lack of knowledge of her own mind and heart, she even appears to manipulate her own thinking. I think she wants to appear as though she wants what she’s supposed to, to be happy caring for her son and waiting patiently for the return of her husband, rather than actually wanting it. She manipulates herself into thinking that Mrs. Chalmers and her mother are better equipped to take care of her child simply because Deborah herself wants to be free of the responsibility. What angered me about Mrs. Betts agreeing that Deborah needed to move to London and take a job is that Mrs. Betts knows all along that Deborah is a manipulator and would twist the situation to her benefit. Mrs. Betts coddles Deborah and shows her own poor parenting skills when she tells Mrs. Chalmers that “I’m sorry she had the baby so soon. [. . .] it’s not doing her or the child any good, her staying here and feeling thwarted and unhappy” (14). Rather than telling her daughter to “buck up” and face the responsibilities of her own life, Mrs. Betts allows Deborah to go thinking that as a mother, Mrs. Betts still knows best, knows her daughter best, and how to keep her happy.
Though Deborah’s manipulation of others begins almost immediately, her skills greatly improve and her manipulative attempts are much clearer toward the end of the novel, especially in the manipulation of Mrs. Chalmers and Ken Matthews. Through a manipulation of her physical appearance, Deborah shows her own recognition of her skills. She knows that she cannot appear in her identity as the London mistress/burgeoning socialite and recrafts the simple girl she was prior to London for her meetings with Ken. By choosing to involve her son and his wellbeing in her manipulation of Mrs. Chalmers, Deborah reaches a new low.
Though I felt sorry for Deborah in that she was looking for purpose and companionship but not necessarily love, she looked for that companionship in the wrong places beginning with a rekindling of her school relationship with Madeline. Though Deborah recognizes the irresponsibility associated with this choice, she does nothing to repair the damage to her marriage and her soul, and instead chooses to relish in the lavish lifestyle associated with being the mistress.
Deborah degrades herself through her multitude of lovers (I had to make a list to keep them straight), and shows that she values herself through how she can manipulate her situation or her next lover into providing for her lavish lifestyle, and only continues to value her pre-London lifestyle, including her child and husband, by the financial freedoms it has granted her. Deborah no longer values her life and purpose as a mother and wife or even as a useful wartime worker; she only values her skills as a manipulator. Deborah started as a poor country woman whom the world felt sorry for, but ended up biding her time as she blossomed into the fashionable and manipulating mistress she always wanted to be.
Laski, Marghanita. To Bed with Grand Music. Persephone Books, Ltd., 2012.