- Carolyn Geiser, The New York Times Book Review
This beguiling story begins with an Irish maid announcing the arrival of a man in a wheelchair at the stately home of Mrs Blunt. The large property sits on the edge of a forest in Wiltshire. Mrs Blunt has been a widow for three years and continues to dress in mourning, although her attire is pearl-grey as black is too violent. Her beloved husband, the Colonel, lies in the village graveyard so she carries fresh flowers to his resting place nearly every day.
Mrs Blunt has a difficult relationship with her daughter, Nadine, who lives in Chelsea. Nadine is frustrated by her mother's helplessness and apathetic way of thinking her best years are behind her. But Nadine has some serious issues of her own to deal with. She is in a loveless marriage to a rather vile narcissist who 'liked to needle her - to puncture her confidence.' When Nadine needs support she turns to her friend from childhood, Sabrina. The two girls have been confidants since their days at boarding school.
'Sabrina had done her best to comfort the unpopular and miserable little girl when she heard her sobbing at night under the brown school blankets. In those days, even in high summer, Nadine had always felt painfully cold.'
Returning to the present and Mrs Blunt's home...the Irish maid, Mrs Murphy, is required more for her presence than her cooking or cleaning skills.
'Lying in bed in the morning with the lilac wall-paper of her bedroom enclosing the grey mist of loss and nostalgia that seemed to seep out of her brain and then re-enter it, Mrs Blunt was quite glad to hear the sound of Mrs Murphy crashing about downstairs in the kitchen. She rather like to hear her slamming the frying-pan against the steel of the sink with such savage gusto that she might have been beating a gong. It created the illusion that her house was still the centre of some kind of important activity.'
Mrs Murphy has a keen eye for reading situations and a healthy sense of distrust when it comes to her employer's new associate. She could often be found with an ear to the door when it was opened suddenly. Having said that, she also mistrusted the law as the blind love she had for her wayward sons frequently questioned the attention they were given by the police. Mrs Murphy would rather die than place a call to the local constabulary for any assistance regarding Corrigan.
Corrigan has movie-star good looks and a lyrical way with just the right words to beguile Mrs Blunt. He weaves a tale of travelling throughout the countryside appealing for funds in support of St Crispins, an institution near Paddington station for others who are also disabled. The long and short of it is that if Corrigan, forever sentenced to life in a wheelchair, can move heaven and earth to perform charitable work then Mrs Blunt should be capable of much more than simply existing in her lavish lounge. Corrigan is masterful when it comes to initially shunning the widow's small gestures, gently implying that the absence of any pleasure in Mrs Blunt's life means she cannot afford to donate to charity. This produces the desired effect and before you know it the champagne, fine china, and silverware are out of storage along with some hefty cheques.
This is when things get interesting because while the reader is quite sure that Corrigan is padding his pockets under the guise of fundraising, Mrs Blunt has a renewed sense of self. Suddenly she realizes that acres of her property could be used to farm fruits and vegetables for St Crispins. Mrs Blunt also decides to get a driver's licence and buy a van so she can help Corrigan collect furniture and other goods. In no time at all there is colour in her cheeks and her bony frame begins to fill out. Mrs Blunt is literally 'gaining' from this relationship. Nadine is devastated by Corrigan's influence over her mother and the changes being made to her childhood home to accommodate his wheelchair. Inevitably there is a situation that forces a turn of events which leads to an interesting revelation or two.
It's not exactly clear when this story takes place. Corrigan was published in 1984 and the period could easily sit within that time frame. There is no mention of the internet, where a simple Google search would have shed light on certain business practices, but there is mention of Sony and earphones. Despite the modern branding here and there the story does have the distinct feel of a vintage novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Last but not least, it was fascinating to learn a little about Lady Caroline Blackwood; there is so much more to this author than meets the eye! She was the eldest child of the 4th Marquess of Dufferin and Ava and brewery heiress, Maureen Guinness. Blackwood was married briefly to Lucien Freud who painted her portrait, highlighting her large blue eyes. A story within a story.
Girl in Bed, 1952