Sunday, 14 September 2014

Penguin no. 1398: A Perfect Woman
by L.P. Hartley

Cover illustration by Charles Mozley.
     Love is its own torturer; and, like cruder tortures, it makes its victim want to tell the truth — the truth about itself. It is by nature self-betraying; if nothing else, the eyes give it away. Denying Irma, Harold had denied the thing that meant most to him; now, instead of a sweet thought of her, he had only this monstrous lie, which came between him and his image of her, threatening it with extinction. In a panic, feeling she would be lost to him unless he testified, he said:
     'You were right, Alec. I am ... well, I am interested in Irma.'
     Relief came instantly. So might the victim feel when the thumb-screw is loosened.

Harold and Isabel Eastwood are a conventional middle-class couple living in a coastal town with their two young children. They share a married life which has been largely uneventful until now, and which they accept without too much reflection. But A Perfect Woman tells the story of a crisis in their marriage—or perhaps it could be described as an adventure—which occurs after Harold meets the moderately-successful novelist Alec Goodrich while travelling by train.

Until that day their marriage had served to give their lives structure, and provided a way for them to define themselves within their community. Isabel had devoted herself to being an enlightened mother and housewife, and had never reflected for a moment - or perhaps had carefully refused to reflect for a moment - on whether she was personally fulfilled in these roles. And being a husband and father gave Harold a sense of his own importance, and provided a platform from which he could look down upon all those who had failed to achieve such steps. But this all changes when Harold meets the author on the train; soon after both Harold and Isabel seem prepared to abandon everything which had served to give their lives meaning, without a second thought.

Goodrich is engrossed in a book for much of the journey and so there is little conversation - it turns out to be one of his own, for he is ever-hopeful that a fellow passenger will notice his choice of reading material and be effusive in praise, and so we learn early on that this is a man who is unusually self-concerned and in need of affirmation. But this is one pleasure that Harold cannot offer him, as he is not a reader, and he certainly knows nothing of Goodrich's novels.

But Isabel is one of Goodrich's fans, and this tentative connection with Goodrich has her smitten. In her mind they share a connection already, just through her having read the thoughts he has captured in his semi-autobiographical novels. And as reading is an activity she enjoys apart from her family life, her feelings for the author are associated with feelings of nostalgia, and they remind her of the years of freedom she enjoyed before her marriage.

Isabel was a different person then, or at least people viewed her differently when she was young and carefree and living alone in London. While that side of Isabel still exists, it is subsumed within her other identities of housewife and mother. Isabel projects onto Goodrich an ability to intuit her true self and to recognise and appreciate all the qualities she possesses of which her husband seems unaware. But whether Goodrich is really capable or even interested in doing so is something she never stops to consider.

In contrast to his wife, Harold is dull, conventional and generally disapproving - he is portrayed as an accountant who conforms to the stereotype*. But as an accountant he possesses something of real value to Goodrich, in that he knows all the various legitimate ways and means of minimising tax, and there seems few subjects dearer to Goodrich's heart. By the journey's end, Goodrich has persuaded Harold to take on his financial affairs, and these two men, who are as dissimilar as two men can be, begin on an odd relationship which is to change both of their lives, and the lives of those connected with them, in unforeseeable ways.

Goodrich's friendship with the couple is not disinterested, but it would spoil the experience of reading the novel to state just what he is after. In return he provides them with the thing each most wants - for Harold it is introductions to new clients and the potential to earn more money; for Isabel, it is romance and a sense of having been evaluated at her true worth. Goodrich is like a conjurer, capturing their attention with these paltry baubles, so that they fail to see what is really going on. And the strange thing is that this man who is clearly adept at manipulating people is in other ways just like a child: he is narcissistic and impetuous, and completely unable to cope with setbacks. Is it strange how much of Alec's personality seems mirrored in the behaviour of Harold and Isabel's daughter Janice.

A Perfect Woman is an engrossing book because of the way it is written, in that the narrator seeks to not only describe the events which take place in the Eastwood household, but also to explore why they have occurred. The behaviour of each of the three main characters seems underpinned by a variety of factors which include their personalities, their upbringings, the people they have known, and the various experiences of their adult lives. In consequence, each views the world differently and as they interpret each others' behaviours from their own particular points of view, there are many misunderstandings. At every point in the novel the smallest actions and attitudes are both simultaneously described and explained, so that while the story might be a simple one, its telling is complex. And this continues until the end: an outsider seeks to explain it all to them, but Harold and Isabel choose not to listen.

I have no idea why it took me so long to read this book, given how much I enjoyed The Go-Between, but it was Harriet Devine's recent review which encouraged me to take it down from the shelf, and I am very glad that I did.

First published by Hamish Hamilton 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1959.

* I note this as a statistician for whom the stereotype is far worse.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1306: The Go-Between

Reviewed elsewhere:
Harriet Devine
Cosy Books


  1. FYI #2340 is, I think,Updike's The Centaur.

  2. Harriet's review made me run to the library and grab a copy. Initially, the synopsis didn't really grab me...which is a shame because I almost missed out on an excellent read! Have you read The Hireling, Karyn, it is still my favourite.

  3. You’ve been nominated for the Liebester award! If you want more information just follow this link:



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