This charming 1945 novel by Ethel Voynich was my first exposure to her writing, although it appears that she is rather well known (in Russia at least) for The Gadfly, a book published 48 years earlier. She took a break from writing for 25 years to focus on composing music, and returns triumphant to the written word with this book. Put Off Thy Shoes is an attempt to lay the ancestral roots for her first book, so she sets the scene in mid 18th century England, beginning with Henry Telford dressing for a ball “with care, but without enthusiasm” as his search for a wife to bring back to the farm from London has thus far been fruitless. At this ball he meets a mopey, innocent girl (Beatrice) who isn’t trying all that hard to find a mate in her coming out season, who looks downright depressed. We soon learn why– her mother has remarried a scoundrel after her beloved father’s death; the step-father attempts to rape Beatrice and she fights him off, determines she must marry to get out of the house and summons her brother to fetch their younger sister to protect her virtue.
Into Henry’s arms she is swept, albeit still reluctantly, his ardor disgusting her on all levels. On their honeymoon, she walks to the end of a jetty and drops a knife into the water, an instrument she’s kept on her person ever since the incident with her mother’s husband. She marches to her imagined doom in the bridal chamber and ends up with four children. One final pregnancy kills the baby and nearly her, so she is freed from Henry’s unwanted embrace forever when the doctor says no more babies. Beatrice’s maternal feelings take awhile to develop, if at all:
As if she did not know that all the talk of mother love is nothing but hypocrisy and lies! Cats apparently love their kittens while they are small, and some women– especially the most stupid– feel a kind of animal attraction towards an extension of their own fowl flesh. But a child is its mother’s natural enemy: created at her expense, deforming and torturing her, parasitic on her body, hated and hating. Had she been any different from her own hideous mother, she would have killed herself rather than put a helpless being into the world like this. Yet she had put it there, had dropped into the water the knife that would have saved herself and it; and now, in bare decency, she must do her best for it, till it grew old enough to loathe and curse her in its turn, as she loathed— A queer kind of farce, this living and causing to live.
Eventually she has a son (Bobby) who she feels a special connection to. The last child, Gladys, a daughter, is a charming miracle as well. And oldest son Harry is very respectful. But the 2nd son, Dick, asks to be adopted by his aunt in order to inherit a much larger estate. And Bobby dies after being gored by a bull (Beatrice flings her body in front of it, but can’t save him, is injured herself). She gives up any interest in living until spirited away to her brother’s windswept cottage on the Cornwall coast where he is hunkered down reading and making discoveries about ancient burial grounds (and hiding from hideous wife Fanny). Harry & Dick are allowed to visit, and they nearly die when disobeying orders to stick with the fishermen’s boats, are saved by a curmudgeonly poverty-stricken fellow with a too-large family, Penwyrne. To repay him for his heroism, Beatrice buys them a new boat, a cottage, and takes their gifted son Arthur as her own to educate. Quickly Arthur becomes her favorite.
The end is too tidy, death and marriage and all loose ends tied up. But ends are hard, they are so final.
Excellent writing throughout, as evidenced by:
Mealtimes at The Chase especially disgusted her. Reared in the abstemious atmosphere of her father’s house, where not even her mother had been guilty of overeating or drunkenness, she loathed the coarsely intemperate habits of the midland squirearchy. In Henry’s social circle nearly all the men were usually a little fuddled and bloated after dinner. Their wives tended to a more moderate excess of indulgence in food and wine, but Lady Monckton’s gluttony had a quality that was scarcely less than obscene. Nauseated, Beatrice would often drop her eyes to avoid seeing the gloating appraisal in her hostess’s face when some favourite dish appeared on the table, the swinish gormandizing and guzzling, the gradually increasing signs of repletion, the bleared eyes and stumbling tongue after too many glasses of port.