Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Ada Leverson’s The Little Ottleys

Photo on 2013-04-15 at 20.07

We read The Little Ottleys.

Sometimes a comedy is stripped to the bone.  The plumage is colorful but the skeleton pokes through.

Ada Leverson’s novels are a bit like this. Her style is minimalist.  The plots are contrived.  The characters are sticks.  They walk around the stage and chat.

Yet Leverson is charming.

If you like an epigrammatic style, witty dialogue, chic characters, and drama that unfurls in drawing rooms, you will probably enjoy Leverson’s novels.

Leverson is like a second Oscar Wilde, albeit female and heterosexual.  And she was indeed a close friend of Wilde, and even published parodies of his poems in Punch.

The Little Ottleys by Ada LeversonI am not a fan of Wilde, but Leverson’s trilogy, The Little Ottleys, is important not only for its Wildean entertainment:  Leverson obviously  influenced the comic voices of Angela Thirkell and Violet Trefusis.

In Love’s Shadow, the first novel in Leverson’s witty trilogy, the beautiful but practical heroine, Edith, works constantly to manage her profligate husband Bruce, a hypochondriac who skips work,  fritters away hours at amateur theatricals, and cannot be bothered to sit down and look at their finances.

We love Edith, but are frustrated and puzzled by her choice of husband.  How did this happen?

Much of Love’s Shadow revolves around another bad match, that between Edith’s beautiful, rich friend, Hyacinth Verney, and Cecil, a charming man in his thirties who is madly, miserably in unrequited love with an older woman who urges him to marry Hyacinth.

The story of Hyacinth and Cecil, though outwardly romantic, is chilling.  So this is what love comes to.  One can’t get the one one wants, and so….   Hyacinth loves Cecil, but he simply obeys Eugenia in attempting to love and then marrying Hyathinth.  Maybe Eugenia fixes everything by rejecting Cecil, but we doubt it.  Love has shadows and doubles wherever we look.

Equally chilling is Leverson’s portrayal of Edith, the amused, strangely unruffled wife and mother who expects very little and who mothers her husband almost as much as she does their hilarious son, Archie.  (And by the way, Mrs. Moreland’s loquacious son Tony in Angela Thirkell’s High Rising MUST be modeled on Archie.) Bruce doesn’t bother to hide his extreme admiration for Hyacinth from Edith, and even admits he can’t go see his mother because he has asked a woman from the amateur theatricals to lunch (but she turns him down).  None of this bothers Edith.  She is serene and gently humorous.

The novel ends with an odd little scene:  the Ottleys are cruising in a taxi looking for the house of the Mitchells who have invited them to dinner.  Bruce has forgotten the address.

Tenterhooks by ada leversonAnd so that odd scene is their marriage.

In the second novel, Tenterhooks, Edith prefers the company of Aylmer Ross, a widower she meets at a dinner party.  We still don’t know why she married Bruce, though they’re still together.

In the case of Aylmer, a successful, hard-working barrister with a large income and extravagant tastes, we know  exactly how he got married, and how unimportant it was.

People had said how extraordinarily Aylmer must have been in love to have married that uninteresting girl, no-one in particular, not pretty and a little second-rate.  As a matter of fact the marriage had happened entirely by accident.  It had occurred through a misunderstanding during a game of consequences in a country house.”

This is perhaps a bit too-too, but it’s charming.  Marriage proposals are not always about champagne and rings in cupcakes.

Aylmer’s chivalry is unrealistic, but that’s Leverson’s deadpan comedy.  Such romantic gestures are taken in stride.

What will happen?  Edith and Aylmer see each other every day.  She buys a new dress to get his attention.  Or rather, her good friend buys it:  Edith doesn’t like to shop, and her friend doesn’t mind doing it for her.

Finally Aylmer and Edith kiss, but don’t have sex.  Then Aylmer takes off and rambles around Europe because he is so unhappy.  Edith misses him very much.

And even Bruce has a moment of jealousy.  When Edith won’t show him a letter, he physically takes it away from her.  It is not one of Aylmer’s, though:  it turns out to be an advertisement.

Will Edith and Aylmer get together?  I’m guessing not in this book.

But I still have the last book to read.

These books are a feather-light, charming entertainment for a rainy afternoon.

4 thoughts on “Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Ada Leverson’s The Little Ottleys

  1. You’ve solved a problem for me. I caught what was obviously part of one of these books being dramatised on the radio last week and was completely enchanted, but had no idea what I was listening to. These are going onto my must read pile immediately. Thanks for the serendipity.

  2. Non sequitor & besides the point, still: Trollope’s older son, Henry, was married to Ada and I half-remember they had two sons. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Glad you’re better.

  3. Ellen, she was married to someone named Leverson–but I wish she HAD been married to Henry, because that Trollope connection would have been interesting.

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