In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Photograph by Lucy Scholes.
“You are so exquisitely made,” the American Major in Edith Templeton’s 1968 short story “The Darts of Cupid” tells the object of his desire, “I could break every bone in your body.” This predation is unsettling, as is the completeness with which Eve, the young woman who’s being seduced, embraces the role of submissive victim. Entwined in her new lover’s arms, she’s reminded of a Japanese print she once saw, in which a naked female corpse, floating in the sea, is penetrated by the many tentacles of a large octopus. Her physical and emotional surrender is similarly all-encompassing: “I knew that this was the rendering of love as it should be: trapped inescapably, secure and fastened, drowned in bed and water, both cradle and grave.”
Such sexually explicit content became what Templeton was best known for during her lifetime—a reputation made yet more notorious due to the fact that she drew direct inspiration from her own illicit trysts. She was born into a wealthy upper-class family in Prague in 1916, and raised in a world of sophistication, civility, and gentility: this social milieu would have been shocked by such self-exposing erotica. Edith Passerová, as she was then, met her first husband, the Englishman William Stockwell Templeton, when she was only seventeen. They married five years later, in 1938, and lived in England. The union quickly disintegrated, but rather than return home to what by that point was a war-torn Europe, Templeton remained in Britain after their separation. She initially took a job with the American War Office, during which time she had the brief fling described in “The Darts of Cupid.” The story’s candid, violently charged eroticism caused a stir when it was first published in The New Yorker, but even its level of graphic sexual detail paled in comparison to that of Templeton’s most famous novel.
Gordon, which was originally published—though not under her own name—two years earlier, in 1966, is set in London shortly after the end of the Second World War, and fictionalizes Templeton’s own fleeting but seminal sadomasochistic affair with a Scottish psychiatrist twenty years her senior in the mid-forties. Less than an hour after they first meet, in a pub in Mayfair, the eponymous Gordon has Louisa (Templeton’s fictional alter-ego) flat on her back on a stone bench in a nearby public garden. “The whole was achieved in a matter of about four seconds,” she reports incredulously. “It was speedy and casual and effortless and at the same time seemingly impossible, like a virtuoso performance.” After a nine-month dalliance—during which time Gordon regularly pressures Louisa into intercourse, often in public places and often employing excessive force in the process; refuses to kiss her or engage in any tenderness; and commands she “make loo loo” for him on demand—he abruptly ends the liaison, shortly after which he takes his own life.
Although the sexual politics of the novel are decidedly disturbing—“Nobody could have called it a rape,” Louisa says rather unconvincingly of her and Gordon’s dramatic first encounter; “I was neither willing or unwilling. I was nothing at all. I had not been given the choice to be either”—it’s the novel’s treatment of psychoanalysis that dates it most. When he’s not forcing himself on her body, Gordon’s trying to wheedle his way into Louisa’s unconscious by conducting an unethical bedside analysis, through which we learn that an early separation from her father (which mirrors Templeton’s own) has left Louisa with certain daddy issues. “You are right,” she tells her paramour towards the end of the novel; “it’s never occurred to me before. But it’s true. You are—you were—like a father to me.” While it’s plausible that Gordon’s first readers might have found these revelations surprising, today, it’s all somewhat clichéd.
Speaking in 2002, more than half a century after the real-life Gordon’s suicide, Templeton still described their relationship as the “fundamental event” of her life. It is apt, then, that its fictionalized version has made the most lasting mark on her literary reputation. It’s the only one of her six novels still in print today (along with the short-story collection The Darts of Cupid, which was published in 2002 and a finalist for that year’s National Book Critics Circle award). This distinction is due, no doubt, to the scandal caused by the book’s initial publication, at which time its sexual explicitness, especially for a woman writer, was radical: “The original Fifty Shades of Grey,” reads the tagline on Penguin’s website. But although Gordon is a literary landmark of sorts, it is not Templeton’s finest work. In fact, it’s her first three novels that are her best: Summer in the Country (1950) (which was released in the U.S. under the alternative title The Proper Bohemians in 1952), Living on Yesterday (1951), and The Island of Desire (1952). What is explicit in Gordon is implicit in these novels. Although not officially a trilogy, they are best understood as a triumvirate of sorts: a detailed panorama of the upper classes of Central Europe between the wars, a society that gives the outward appearance of being refined, urbane, and elegant but has danger and disorder simmering beneath the surface.
Set in the sprawling castles that dot the Bohemian countryside and the large town houses of Prague’s most sought-after residential streets, Templeton’s little-known early novels depict a world of intricate, cryptic social codes—a language that is imprinted on those who belong but impossible to translate for those who don’t. Regularly dining out in restaurants is looked down upon (doing so implies deficiency in one’s own chef); ladies must employ a favored dressmaker (though it would be vulgar to wear actual couture); and the man who wears his slippers outside of the privacy of his own bedroom can never be a true gentleman. In a life so meticulously choreographed, the slightest faux pas is a red flag, a permanent sign of bad character. The inverse is true as well: a well-executed performance is interchangeable with an authentic one. “He looks like a man,” declares one character of another in Living on Yesterday. “And because he looks like one he thinks he is one.” (The real question, of course, is whether other people—the people who count—think he is, too.) In a society in which impressions are critical, nothing is ever quite as it seems; in Templeton’s novels, a polished exterior inevitably obscures a grubbier truth. These are ostensibly novels of manners, but as the English novelist Anita Brookner so astutely observes, “they are also something more, for running beneath the social comedy, so beautifully conducted by all the principal players, there lie acts of madness, of revenge, and of revolt.” Yet through it all, good etiquette prevails; neither comedy nor tragedy shakes the composure of Templeton’s characters—nor the controlled elegance of her own prose.
In Templeton’s first three novels, it is often the matriarchal figures who are the arbiters of social mores: worldly, inflexible women who see everything—or, at least, everything they want to see—yet give little away themselves. The Island of Desire features the especially self-composed Mrs. Kalny; ever perfectly coiffed and smooth of brow, she remains “outwardly calm” even as great currents of frustration (caused by the behavior of her tiresome teenage daughter, Franciska) roil within her. Here is restraint, Templeton writes, “no less ascetic than the discipline of the soldier or the nun.” In Summer in the Country, it is a Mrs. Birk who presides over the family castle. Too polite to explicitly articulate her dislike of her daughter, Alice, Mrs. Birk nevertheless makes a point of evidencing her disdain in a more artful fashion. “Would you like some of this sherry, Mr Marek?” she asks one guest. “There is whiskey and gin, if you prefer it, but you’ll have to wait till my daughter Alice comes. She keeps it locked up. It gives her something to do.”
It is Alice’s daughter’s husband, the nouveau riche Oscar Ritter, who makes the mistake of leaving his bedroom at Castle Kirna without first changing out of his slippers. Although the Birk family disdains their in-law for his poor manners, it is his money that maintains their ancestral home and estate. Much of the equilibrium of Templeton’s world is sustained by similarly Faustian pacts. In Living on Yesterday, another matriarch, a Baroness Kreslov—the wife of a prosperous industrialist, and the intimidating society hostess of the most famed soirees in all of Prague—marries her daughter, Hedwig, to the young and handsome Count Szalay, a man whose lack of fortune is made up for by his impeccable breeding. Hedwig will provide the capital; he will provide the class. When, after the marriage, it is revealed that Szalay is not the nobleman he claims to be, the baroness remains unruffled—all she requires is that he sustain the masquerade.
Of these three novels, The Island of Desire showcases the most stinging examples of the same ruthless sangfroid that’s so valued in the social world of Templeton’s writing. It’s impossible to tell, we’re told, how much Mr. Kalny knows about his wife’s habitual, though discreet, infidelities, “but it [is] certainly due to his sobriety and good sense—the good sense of the mediocre—that nothing scandalous ever transpired and that Mrs. Kalny had acquired the reputation of an allumeuse, which was flattering, instead of that of a society whore, which was not.” Templeton grasps the ferocity of her milieu, yet there’s nothing crude about the way she renders it on the page. As the Times Literary Supplement’s review pointed out, “This is a most savage book, but it is subtle too.” Templeton spares neither husband nor wife in the episode above; never has the term mediocre been quite so cutting.
Templeton’s world is particularly cruel to young women, for whom innocence and purity, though valued above all else, often become hazards that leave them especially vulnerable. When Franciska Kalny seeks to extricate herself from the clutches of her selfish, pampered other, she does so by rashly marrying a young Englishman whom she takes, based on the most cursory of observations, to be a suitable match. Mr. Parker is modeled on the real-life Mr. Templeton, whom the author married in a similarly naive state, and who, like his fictionalized avatar, would quickly disabuse his young wife of her illusions. For, sadly, Franciska “had not a sufficient knowledge of people in general to discern certain traits which are common to those of gentle birth in all countries,” and Mr. Parker soon reveals himself not to be the gentleman she thought he was, and perhaps not quite the husband either: it is delicately implied that he harbors homosexual desires.
All of Templeton’s novels are about power play, even as the settings change from the salons and drawing rooms of Prague to the bedrooms and backstreets of London. The brutality that bubbles beneath the surface in her early work is given merely a plainly sexual form in Gordon and “The Darts of Cupid,” though the subtlety of her prose, and therefore the mastery of her menace, is blunted in the process. But even in the first three novels, sex itself plays a—perhaps surprisingly—significant role for her characters. “Aren’t you sorry, Mama, after all that you did not marry Feldman?” asks Franciska, referring to a rather unattractive but “terribly rich” family friend. “Every day I am sorry. Every night I am glad,” is her worldly mother’s witty, and no doubt sincere, reply.
Templeton recognizes what is traded between people, and is unafraid to name it; for her, intimacy is a process of commercial exchange. “I have always prostituted myself,” she said in an interview in the early 2000s. “Do not misunderstand, I do not mean I went out into the street,” she clarifies. “I had no money, I had to live, so I married and I was kept by various men … I want to be a parasite, I need to be kept, so I can write.” Her commitment to her craft is as striking as her misogyny: in the same conversation, she dismisses feminism as “idiotic”; men, she declares, “are superior,” and that’s that. In another interview, she confesses that she never loved her only son. Though chilling, Templeton’s ruthlessness is channeled into rich form in her fiction. If her relationship with the real-life Gordon was the defining event in her life, the more ambient machinations of the society in which she moved had just as much of an influence on her, both as a writer and as a woman. In these novels—as in life, Templeton would no doubt have argued—virtue, decency, and kindness are not rewarded, and naivete and youth put one only at a disadvantage. “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be willing to be nasty,” she is recorded as saying, shortly before she died in 2006, at age ninety at her home in Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. “The idyllic does not work—maybe it does in painting, but not in literature.”
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.
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