Dr. Sarah Cornish
War and Liberties, Masculine and Feminine
In To Bed With Grand Music, Marghanita Laski gives us, at face value, the sweeping romantic infidelities of a 1940’s British mother and wife during the Blitzkrieg bombings of London. Deborah loosens (or awakens) throughout the timeline of the novel – from pious and faithful to morally ambivalent, increasingly self-serving in a culture increasingly pushing civic duty and restraint, and cunning enough to always find the bill “footed”. Deborah Robertson, Laski’s main character, is forced to answer to many different societal forces throughout the novel: her absent husband Graham, her omnipresent mother Mrs. Betts, her nanny Mrs. Chalmers, and of course, the most constant of her young suitors, Timmy, her only child. However, her list of responsibilities do not end there: they continue with Britain, with stereotypical femininity, and the rising but unnamable unhappiness inside herself, seen firstly when she pushes herself out into London, and secondly, when the war tilts toward its conclusion and begins to squeeze her back into her former mold.
Is Deborah a woman with a great Lacanian lack, searching for love in all available places? Or a woman who has tasted a new measure of freedom and as such, has lost her taste for domesticity?
Laski makes it clear there is no fitting place for Deborah within 1940s British society – instead she exists only momentarily, in wartime. As in Swastika Night, the audience is confronted with a world in which women have no true resting place. When Graham leaves “the country” home, Deborah finds that she is not satisfied by the everyday fare of traditional female domesticity. However, her departure to London provides its own emotional turmoil as Deborah finds her needs are not overtly condoned by the “city”. Thus begins a menagerie of increasingly sophisticated and feminine/masculine-blending sexual advances. Laski’s novel takes place in a fractured moment in time and focuses on the emotional chaos embedded in this moment. Within this sphere infidelity can and does exist. The only certainty is that the sphere will eventually pop. Or will it?
At first glance, Deborah seems determined to offend her reader. The audience is given increasingly intentional stories of seduction. Deborah is seduced by men, yes, but also by the world of men: London, a job, a flat in the city, opulence in times of rationings. These seductions culminate in Graham’s friend Ken Mathews, who comes to give Deborah a package from Graham but is seduced into an altogether different contribution. The crocodile bag he sends to Deborah evokes the way male society would have the audience see her – she is now irredeemably a prostitute, paid for sex.
And yet, consider the war experience according to the men in the novel. Almost every male Deborah encounters has benefitted from the war. Each suitor is richer than her husband – mostly soldiers, with money to spend and a war looming over them to encourage spending it. Her second employer, Aradio, has an antique business that only grows as the war continues. Even Deborah’s husband Graham is described abroad having “moonlight picnics in the desert and sherry-parties and dances and what-not” (11). The war is not described as something to fear, but as a social event that thrusts men towards luxury and new horizons while simultaneously absolving them from familial responsibility. Consider Graham’s opening lines: “I’m not going to promise you I’ll be physically faithful to you, because I don’t want to make you a promise I may not be able to keep” (2). Why is this moment, arguably the beginning fracture of Deborah’s later infidelities, set up as nonchalant and honest? War is liberation – for men at least.
And what are the women left behind given? Deborah continues her discussion of the juxtaposition, telling her mother, “ I tell you it’s almost unendurable, thinking of him away in the sun, seeing new places and people and going to parties and things, while I’m stuck here. And I know I ought to write him nice long cheerful letters about the happy home he’s left behind and what-not, and I simply can’t. I’m too miserable. Most of the time I just wish I were dead.” (11). Deborah rejects the world she’s given for one she chooses, one that seems to mirror rather closely the liberated lives of men in wartime.
- What is Timmy’s function in the novel? What are we to make of Deborah’s interest in him, which rises mainly when he attempts to “woo” her (35)?
- What lack in her life is Deborah trying to fill by her actions in this novel? Graham’s love? Masculinity? Need for attention? Independence? A daily reassertion of external value?
- Deborah is an easy target as a bad mother, and yet in doing so, the audience lets off Graham scotfree. Why does Graham get a free pass at familial obligations, and what does it mean that Deborah is vilified by her same attempts to avoid them?
Laski, Marghanita. To Bed With Grand Music. 1946. Persephone Books Ltd, 2009.