To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski was first published in 1945. It’s a very unusual book, for me anyway because although there aren’t really any likeable characters, it still manages to be a great read. Normally that’s a state of affairs that really puts me off a book as I want to be in the company of people that I would be happy to have as friends in real life.
The book begins with Graham and Deborah Robertson in bed, Graham is in the army and he’s about to leave for Egypt. Deborah is miserable at the thought of being without him and she desperately tries to get him to promise to be faithful to her, no matter how long they are apart. Graham is unwilling to give promises that he feels he may not be able to keep, but he does promise that he will never form any relationships with any other women. In other words it would be ‘wham bam, thank you ma’am’. Deborah has to be satisfied with that but she swears she will never look at another man.
Deborah’s mother Mrs Betts knows her daughter too well though and when she sees that Deborah is taking out her frustrations on her young son Timmy, the grandmother in her puts the child’s interests to the fore. Mrs Betts tells her daughter that she believes there are fundamentally two types of women in the world, the mother type and – the wife type. She hesitated over the second epithet, unable to say the word that was really in her mind. Basically Mrs Betts knows that her daughter can’t live without a man in her life, she is completely self-centred and is uninterested in Timmy.
The upshot is that Mrs Betts is able to manipulate Deborah very easily, Deborah jumps at her hints that she might be better getting some sort of war work and leaving Timmy’s upbringing to Mrs Chalmers who is her housekeeper. A local job is not good enough for Deborah though, once she has made up her mind to do war work it’s only London that she’s interested in and she moves into her old friend Madeleine’s flat and Mady helps her to get a job.
But Mady has a bit of a reputation and Deborah knows that Graham wouldn’t be happy about her living with Mady, so she keeps quiet about that and so begins a life of deception. In no time Deborah is being wined and dined every night in posh hotels and clubs. London was jumping during the war, especially if you had money. People lived life to the utmost, knowing that they could be dead at any minute.
Deborah has turned into a ‘good time gal‘ and she is having a great time, manipulating men who are happy to pay her in designer clothes and jewels, allowing her to feel that she is doing nothing wrong, after all she’s not accepting any money. She is handed from man to man, as they are called away to various different spheres of the war. Deborah is briefly appalled at her own behaviour but in no time she is able to justify everything that she is doing. Anything is acceptable if it means that she gets all the material things she wants and is kept entertained by well off men.
She’s a snob and a social climber, in fact she married Graham mainly because she thought his family was wealthier than they actually were. She dreams of divorcing Graham and getting married to one of her gentlemen friends, she has no inkling that the fact that she sleeps with them as soon as she is introduced to them means that she would be seen as completely inappropriate as a wife. In fact, she quickly ends up going way down the social scale.
Meantime of course, Mrs Chalmers the housekeeper is looking after Timmy without so much as one day off in all that time.
So you see what I mean about there being no likeable characters, unless you count Mrs Chalmers who is genuinely very fond of Timmy. Mrs Betts set her daughter onto that path in London, knowing exactly what would happen, she knew her daughter took after Mr Betts whom she had had trouble with early on in their marriage! Still, it’s a really enjoyable book.
I believe that To Bed with Grand Music was reprinted by Persephone books but I borrowed a large print copy from my library, which was published by Isis.That word seems to pop up everywhere, and it used to have such pleasant connotations.
If you mooch around second-hand bookshops you might find a copy of the book with the author named Sarah Russell, the name she originally wrote it under. Possibly this book was seen as being a bit much at the time of its publication, the complete opposite of the sorts of books that kept people going in times of war, light and uplifting tales where women were selfless and uncomplaining, but I’m sure that for a lot of people it was more realistic, perhaps too realistic for some to contemplate.