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The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
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The Friendly Young Ladies (1943)

by Mary Renault

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The writing is excellent which makes the story effective. The young Elsie is a very sad character who doesn't have much grasp of the reality that everybody else seems to understand so well, but their reality strains all credibility. I think that Renault intends us to sympathize with these other characters, but their reality makes so little sense. Why is it an alarming faux-pas to accidentally get a facial sunburn? What's wrong with telling someone directly what's expected of them? How can the way a person applies lipstick be imbued with so much significance? To me Elsie is a tragic figure, unable to escape her solipsism because even those who might have bothered with her are too reserved in what is probably an English fashion to have any effect on her. She's the only character whom I can like and yet she is doomed while the rest are overwrought, pretentious, and just as self-absorbed in their own way.

Mary Renault and Dorothy Sayers were two really talented women drinking the same disturbing Kool-Aid and then inflicting it on the rest of the world with a mordant effectiveness. Renault's early contemporary novels are direct descendants of Sayers' last, Gaudy Night. ( )
  themulhern | Jul 7, 2013 |
This book has me questioning my country shelves. Country shelf is at the moment hovering between country of author/country of publication. The Friendly Young Ladies is set in England by an English author who lived most of her life in South Africa. Categorisation is no easy task.

As for the book itself, for many, many pages it lives up the the back cover blurb of a 'stylish social comedy set in the 1930s', 'delightfully provocative', 'partly in answer to the despair of Radclyffe Hall's [b:The Well of Loneliness|129223|The Well of Loneliness|Radclyffe Hall|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1171984586s/129223.jpg|1156985]' right up to the end when it got morose and despairing. Oh well.

Mary Renault is deft, sharp and hilarious. She picks apart her characters' seams and then sews them up again. It's worth reading for the social comedy and not worth reading for the tedious last minute melodrama. Social comedy outweighs melodrama, btw, and if you stop at the end of Chapter 19 you'll have got most of the comedy. Trust me, the end will just make you want to kick an armchair psychiatrist.

One of the best parts of the copy I read is Mary Renault's marvellous afterword, where she not only puts the boot in to poor, glum Radclyffe Hall, she begins, 'On re-reading this forty-year-old novel for the first time in about twenty years, what struck me most was the silliness of the ending.'

Also, houseboats.

And that's as good a last word on the book as anything. ( )
  veracite | Apr 7, 2013 |
Acquired via BookCrossing 18 Dec 2009 - picked up at Urban Coffee Company's OBCZ

An interesting Virago, quite charming but with an intriguing message as well. This was apparently written as a riposte to Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness". Hall posits the idea of a "third sex" of women who are "inverts", ie they have a masculine appearance and nature, while being genetically women. They famously wear "masculine underwear" (Renault mentions this in her Afterword and I've heard it discussed before) and try to make their way in the world as men.

Renault introduces us first to gentle and unformed Elsie, who lives with tyrannical parents, tyrannical because they use her in their battles against each other, so nothing she can do is right for the one, if it's right for the other. She is aware that her older sister, Leo(nora) ran away from home eight years ago. Encouraged by a smarmy locum doctor, she eventually snaps and runs away herself, seeking out her sister on the narrowboat she shares with the pretty medical illustrator, Helen. Leo shares her life and her bed with Helen, but as gentlemen callers, from the smarmy doctor to the half-wild author Joe, circle the boatful of girls, we wonder if Leo could have been turned from her rather masculine early life and dress, if only she'd met the right man...

The doctor, Peter, is a hilarious creation, with his psychological reports on his patients to the long-suffering Norah, but Renault doesn't seem to like her other characters much and the ending, she admits too, is a bit silly. Also, I'm sure she has written books about and accepting male homosexuality, while seeming to cast doubt on the female variety in this novel.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable read with some wincy and some very funny moments.

Offering to the LibraryThing Viragoites. ( )
2 vote LyzzyBee | Feb 19, 2010 |
I hadn't expected to find this book about a young girl's awakening and the allure of the daring lesbian lifestyle (!) in a bygone bohemian age so charming - it's very funny, in a wistful, bittersweet way. It made me smile, rather than laugh, but I smiled all the way through. I remember reading Mary Renault years ago, rather stodgy historical fiction stuff about ancient Greece - I wouldn't have expected a book as sensitive and delightful as this from her on that basis. Pleasant surprise! ( )
1 vote murunbuchstansangur | Apr 16, 2009 |
I think I enjoyed this book more this time than I have previously. As with other Renault books, every re-read seems to reveal something that you had missed earlier. I feel sorry for Elsie, I dislike Peter more intensely every time, and like Leo and Helen more and more. I can't remember what I thought about the ending earlier, this time I found it still quite confusing - I'm not entirely sure about what Leo intends to do.

This edition incorporates Renault's 1983 afterword and a new afterword by Lillian Faderman - I enjoy Renault's but didn't think Faderman succeeded in adding anything to the text itself. ( )
  mari_reads | Mar 28, 2008 |
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Very quietly and carefully, hardly moving her thin young neck and round shoulders, Elsie looked round the room, first at the french windows into the garden, then at the door, measuring distances.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Sometimes published in the US as The Middle Mist.
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Book description
From the book cover:
"For one thing, stupidity about people like me is all to the good and makes life much more comfortable all round."

Elsie Lane is seventeen and unhappy. Stifled by life with her parents in a bleak Cornish village, she falls in love with the first presentable young man she meets--an ambitious London doctor called Peter. On his advice she leaves home, going to live with her sister Leonora who escaped eight years earlier. But there are surprises in store: not only does the boyish Leo now live in a delightful houseboat on the Thames, but she also writes Westerns, goes punting with the avant-garde writer Joe, and cohabits with the lovely Helen. Then Peter pays this strange ménage a visit, and turning his attention from one "friendly" young lady to the next, he begins to disturb the calm--with results unforeseen by all. . .
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375714219, Paperback)

Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.

Mary Renault wrote this delightfully provocative novel in the early 1940s, creating characters that are lighthearted, charming, and free-spirited partly in answer to the despair characteristic of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness or Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. The result is a witty and stylish story that offers exceptional insight into the world of upcoming writers and artists of in 1930s London, chronicling their rejection of society’s established sexual mores and their heroic pursuits of art and life.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:16 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Set in 1937, this title is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naive, and just 18, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents' home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. Originally published: London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1944.… (more)

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