House of Cards, a novel
by Alice Curtayne (Cluny Classics, £14.50/$17.95)
We often hear it said that before the rise of modern feminism, marriage was seen as the summum bonum of a woman’s ambitions. In Alice Curtayne’s compelling novel, first published in 1939, an Irishwoman makes it indignantly clear that this was not the case in Ireland.
Our heroine, Anne Farrelly, is making a successful career in Italy as a business administrator, but she’s appalled by the Mediterranean idea that there are only two acceptable life choices for a young woman: marriage or, if of a religious disposition, the convent.
“It is different in Ireland,” she tells her Italian hosts. “There, a girl who is not drawn to a religious life, nor romantically inclined toward marriage, may seek a third course in a career, and find just as much happiness.”
This is very much Anne’s point of view (and I think quite true for some women in the 1930s) and her experience.
Orphaned young, Anne was raised in the West of Ireland by an aunt – more dutifully than warmly – and sets off, aged 17, to earn her living as a teaching assistant in an English city, which the author calls Mallingford, though probably based on Alice Curtayne’s own experience in Liverpool.
Anne’s driving ambition, from the start, has been ‘independence’. She has been given a fine convent education – which involved some financial strains – and that is her one asset. The hardships of life in an English town in the 1930s are evoked with a gritty realism: people weren’t always kind to teenagers struggling to make their way in the world, work conditions were tough and lodgings were basic. And life could be lonely.
Sexual harassment is encountered in the form of the men in the street who would habitually ‘pester’ young women”
But Anne is fiercely determined to succeed; she studies at night to master office skills, beginning with shorthand and typing. Significantly, she is discouraged in this endeavour by the one kind landlady she has found: “Teachers are ladies, you know, but typewriters [typists] ain’t…you’re leaving your own class to go into a lower one.”
But Anne is a resolute kind of character: she doesn’t feel she has the disposition for teaching, and she perceives there is more scope for ambition in business.
Then, suddenly, she’s in Italy, when she’s given the chance to work for an international American electrics firm in Milan. (Again, this is very likely based on Alice Curtayne’s own experience of working in Milan.) It’s a culture shock, but also an opportunity to learn, to expand horizons, to absorb the glories of Italian art and opera, to meet new people, see exquisite churches; it is all impressively described and memorably observed.
Sexual harassment is encountered in the form of the men in the street who would habitually ‘pester’ young women, and in some cases pinch their anatomies. Anne is utterly exasperated by this, and in one satisfying scene, delivers a firm slap across the face to one of her pesterers. But, custom of the country, she is told by Italians that “ladies do not go out alone”. Girls should be in groups, or with a companion. (The role of the chaperone, or duenna, also figures in Maura Laverty’s contemporaneous novels about Spain, No More than Human.)
There’s a significant – and prescient – account of an American woman who tries to prosecute a street sex harasser. She is laughed out of the Italian court, and told to lighten up; accept the Italian way.
Romance looms in the shape of a very nice American called Jim – a good Catholic (which is important to Anne) – and she comes to value his friendship greatly. He is truly smitten, yet she cannot bring herself to accept his marriage proposal.
Anne has become outstandingly successful in her job, rising in the ranks through her brains and dedication, and is much appreciated by the company (earning the dizzy sum of £1,000 a year). But for a woman at this time, marriage usually implied renouncing a career and giving up independence. It would have meant joining Jim in America. The story really brings home how solemn a step it was, in those times.
The joys of conjugal love might balance the choices for some, but in a frank moment of disclosure, Anne admits she regards sex with distaste. “Marriage means exploring all that too – oh, I couldn’t.”
A modern feminist reader might perceive Anne’s temperament as fundamentally lesbian: she has a basic ‘scorn’ for men, and she is usually more inclined to befriend women.
Although I think the author’s intention was simply to tell the story of a serious-minded young woman who cherishes her independence, loves her work and cannot yield that independence; but realises, too, there is a price to pay.
House of Cards achieves an admirable balance of being a riveting social history as well as an absorbing narrative about a young woman’s life. I would call it a minor classic, and I greatly welcome its re-publication.