Sunday, 3 February 2013

Penguin no. 963: Trio
by Dorothy Baker

     'Now that I think about it,' he said, 'I'm tired of having people tell me that I haven't read anything because I read translations. I know as much about The Magic Mountain as anyone whoever read it in German.
     'I've got a private theory,' he said direct to Mrs Girard, letting her in on something, 'that the cult for originals is a form of National Socialism - nothing impure, nothing adulterated, nothing translated.'
     He nodded his head emphatically. 'It's a kind of evil intellectual snobbery, and I'm glad I thought of it. Now I don't ever have to read The Magic Mountain in German.'

Trio is the story of three people, two of them rivals for the affection of the third, and it is told in only three chapters, all of them fairly dramatic. This unusual structure signals it as another novel which must have been initially conceived of as a play. We are witness to the events of two distinct days: the first is the afternoon on which Janet Logan meets Ray MacKenzie, the young man who will change her life. The second is the evening when she tries to end her friendship with Pauline Maury, with whom she has been living for the past four years, in order to take up with MacKenzie. Janet must choose between the two, and from MacKenzie's point of view the solution to Janet's problem is simple: he and Janet love each other and they should therefore marry, but things are far more complicated for Janet. Her story is revealed through the dialogue, which seems mostly a mixture of conflict and confession.

This is the 1940s and Janet is a Ph.D. candidate at an unnamed Californian university, although a reference to eucalyptus trees perhaps suggests the setting as the University of California, Berkeley. She is studying French under the supervision of Maury, the first female to be awarded a chair at the University. Their relationship is an unusually close one, and it is perhaps understandable that Janet was her enthusiastic protégée at first. Maury is from Paris, and stylish, well-dressed and confidant, and knowledgeable about art and literature, all attributes which Janet lacks. She has allowed the older woman to take control, and to instruct and fashion her according to her whims, and through this process she has become almost entirely dependent. She is unhappy, though, and longs to escape the influence, but lacks the willpower to act.

But breaking the connection with Maury will not be easily done, for Maury has made plans for the pair of them, and refuses to consider revising them. She clings to Janet, fighting her every attempt to leave, and displaying an intense jealously in response to the developing relationship with MacKenzie. Because of the student/teacher relationship she has many weapons at her disposal: with a word she can end Janet's academic career and prevent her from ever finding employment. At other times she uses emotional blackmail, feeding Janet's sense of guilt by reminding her of everything she has been given, or plays upon her pity. This overt manipulation has been going on for years, until Janet lacks the ability to assert herself and retake control of her life. This is a professor as the enemy but in the guise of a benefactor, feeding upon her student's vitality and destroying her in the process, and demonstrating again that what manifests as benevolence may actually be a desire for power and control.

The story seems more than a study of an abusive relationship, for it questions the whole nature of academic life. It can seem as if Maury's real transgression has been luring Janet into the insular dead end that is academia, with Ray MacKenzie representing an alternative. He has travelled the world and learnt from his experiences. He knows how to think independently, and has confidence in his ideas, feeling no need to conform with any academic viewpoint. He would seem to represent not only an escape from Maury, but also an escape from what is presented as a limiting academic world.

The complication is that there are suggestions that Pauline Maury and Janet Logan's relationship may have been a sexual one, but this seems almost incidental, more a symbol of Maury's enticement and degradation of Janet, than any exploration of female homosexuality within academic life. It is perhaps being used as an example of the ultimate corruption, and to show that there was no part of the student's life which was left uninvaded.

Perhaps the story was a little melodramatic, but this was probably inevitable given its unusual structure. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of Ray MacKenzie, who seemed a wonderfully forthright and free-thinking character, though perhaps he is a little disappointing in the end, but then his viewpoint is inevitably derived from the 1940s world in which he lives.  There was a simplicity and a clarity in the writing which I really enjoyed. It was interesting to read that Dorothy Baker, together with her husband, rewrote Trio as a play, which received mixed reviews. It was eventually withdrawn when the theatre's license was threatened after complaints from 16 Protestant clergyman and a former Justice of the Domestic Relations Court, for clearly in the 1940s there was little sympathy with homosexual themes, no matter how incidental.


  1. It sounds weird but fascinating, I would certainly read it if it came my way. I suffered slightly from an odd and rather manipulative relationship with a PhD supervisor and I know these things happen far too often. Thanks yet again. And by the way I have just read A Family and a Fortune, after reading about it on here. I'll be reviewing it soon.

    1. I will look forward to reading your review of A Family and a Fortune, Harriet.

      The offer of a PhD candidacy, at least in Australia, comes with so many conditions these days, that there was a lot about the relationship presented here which seemed rather shocking. There seems no question of such things happening now, because there are so many rules, and so many penalties for violating them, although I guess that implies that such things probably did happen in the past. Hardly anyone does a PhD in Maths these days, so my experience was rather isolating, and very, very different to the social and claustrophobic world described here.

  2. Sounds very intriguing, this one. She's not an author I've come across before.

    1. It is certainly unusual to have a lesbian relationship alluded to in a book dating from the 1940s, but it was very interesting to see how it was dealt with without making too much of a fuss. It is definitely worth buying and reading if you stumble across it.

  3. the name Dorothy is such a classic of its time.

    just re-read Dorothy Parker's short stories and her bitter and twisted poems.

    never met a Modern Dorothy.

    have you?


    1. You are right. I know a few women named Dorothy, but they are all of an age which suggests they may have been named for the Wizard of Oz (and perhaps it is like the name Violet, which I gave to my daughter who is now aged 8. I have been told countless times since that it is a name for an old woman, though I didn't realise this; many people, it seems, have an elderly Aunty Vi.)

      I love the photos of your new apartment,
      Best wishes,

  4. Not a novel I'd heard of before - but one that does sound fascinating. Thank you for the review.

  5. I stumbled across this - I quite enjoyed it, though I found the varying pace between the three sections quite strange, but I can see how it would work as a play

    I reviewed it on my blog



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