The Love Child by Edith Olivier

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

Edith Olivier’s The Love Child (1927) was her first novel, and easily her best.  Although rediscovered as a ‘modern classic’ in 1981 by Virago, it has not been reprinted until now – perhaps because it resists categorisation – yet it deserves a far wider, rapturous audience. Bello are to be celebrated for making that possible.

The Love Child tells the story of Agatha Bodenham, a middle-aged childless spinster mourning the death of her mother as the novel opens.  She fondly recalls her childhood imaginary friend, Clarissa, and even copes with her loneliness by talking to Clarissa again.  This attachment grows until one afternoon, to Agatha’s surprise, Clarissa herself appears in the garden:

She was smaller even than Agatha had imagined her, and she looked young for her age, which must have been ten or eleven.  […] Physically, she looked shadowy and pathetic, but a spirit peeped out of her eyes, with something of roguishness, perhaps, but yet it was unmistakably there.

Initially Clarissa is visible only to Agatha, but gradually others can see her also – and Agatha copes with both the joy of new-found companionship, and the embarrassment of explaining the sudden appearance of a child.  Eventually she decides she must pretend that Clarissa is her own daughter; her love child:

She had saved her.  But at what a cost!  Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers.

Olivier constructs a mother/daughter relationship which is more poignant, and more vulnerable than most.  Clarissa may disappear as suddenly as she appeared – especially when, as the years progress, a local man named David begins to fall in love with her.  Agatha’s possessiveness and uncertainty are drawn beautifully, demonstrating the pain suffered by one unused to love when her creation may be taken from her.  She is not cast as a villain, but simply a lonely woman battling for the solution to that loneliness.  Olivier herself had neither husband nor children when, in her fifties, she was inspired to start writing novels.  According to her autobiography, the idea for The Love Child came to her suddenly in the middle of the night, and was written ‘during those feverish wakeful hours when the body is weary but the mind seems let loose to work abnormally quickly.’  The novel certainly reads with the enchanting spontaneity this writing process suggests and, although often addressing sad topics, is far from a melancholy book.  This is primarily due to Clarissa herself.  She is a captivating character – naïve, almost elfin, yet fascinated by science and delighted by motorcars – she animates not only Agatha’s monotonous life, but enlivens the whole novel.

In a short book, which could easily be read in two or three hours, Olivier encompasses moving and involving themes in a warm, lively manner. There is a wit, sensitivity, and lightness which permeates every page – leaving the reader loving Agatha and Clarissa as though they were real people. Agatha’s accidental creative act is mirrored by the intentional creative act Olivier performed when writing this joy of a novella. It seems absurd to me that this beautiful novel should ever have fallen out of print.  A new generation of readers deserve to discover The Love Child – and now, thanks to Bello, they can.

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and  loves this book even after writing part of his doctoral thesis on it. A version of this review previously appeared on Simon’s blog.

Edith Olivier, The Love Child (Bello, London, 2014) ISBN 978-1447263333, paperback, 200pp.

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