Short version: Well intentioned, but ultimately a failure as a novel. Dodie Smith
published this novel in 1967. In it, an impoverished, emotionally battered young woman is rescued in her darkest hour by a saintly gay man who marries her. For awhile she finds contentment in the moderately wealthy life & very fond friendship the two share. But in her 30s, she meets a widower who immediately falls in love with her & whom she loves back. The action of the novel is how all these issues get resolved.
Smith worked in the theatre first as an actress & later as a successful playwright, & was friends with Christopher Isherwood. So she had an opportunity to know gay men in a more reality-grounded way than those who thought they knew no gay people, even if they had met some passing as straight. That she wanted to write a book that conveyed some of her better understanding to a bigoted world is respect-worthy. However, her prejudice-fighting instincts distorted her art.
Miles, the gay husband, is (yawn) noble, generous, empathetic, & a gifted actor and director. His 2-dimensional characterization isn't as distracting as you might predict because although he is the pivot around whom the action turns, he is actually a secondary character. Readers don't spend much time in the room with him -- we hear about him from others, principally his wife Jill. Jill is the protagonist, which is the reader's good luck, because she is the most developed character in the book -- she has faults, she has passion, & her character matures in the course of the tale.
Her suitor, Geoffrey, is far more implausible than Miles. My guess is that Smith wanted him to be Miles's equal in virtue, but also someone who inspires a woman's passion, & that's the circle she does not square. We are meant to think of him as a strong personality, successful as a barrister and politician. But once you see what he allows or even encourages his children do, it's hard to accept that characterization.
I note one other Goodreads reviewer
called the "children" (really older teens/young adults) the "creepiest, most horrible...in the whole of fiction." I see her point. The problem, though, isn't with the kids, who merely fill a vacuum created by their father's behavior. What kind of man holds a family council with his adult (or nearly so) children to determine how they en masse
can persuade an already married woman to leave her husband? Who delegates his courting to his daughters? At one point, Miles is accused of pedophilia by someone who wants to blackmail him. Jill seeks Geoffrey's advice partially because she trusts him but mostly because he's a barrister -- she's asking for legal advice. She assumes as she consults him that he will keep the matter confidential, & then she explictly states that she expects confidentiality. Instead, he replies that he of course
will tell his kids; naturally
she must see
that he should
tell his children.
This was the point that I wholly lost my already diminished ability to immerse myself in the story. In some other parts of the book, when the characters were expounding their theories of homosexuality, I started a kind of running dialog with myself along the lines of "Remember, it's 1967, attitudes were different then, you liked The Well of Loneliness
well enough. Read on." But I cannot imagine an era in which a compelling, plausible romantic lead would have so little sense of appropriate boundaries between parents and progeny, nor one in which such a character would be so self-righteously dismissive of the legitimate demands of professional ethics. & what kind of mature male assumes the best way to keep a secret is to blab it to 2 teenagers? Had anyone but Smith written the book, I would have chucked it then.
& while it's clear what the actions/characters of the kids do to distort the story, it's much harder to see what they add. Geoffrey could have pursued Jill without any help from his daughters. The central conflict between Jill's sense of loyalty to Miles and her desire for Geoffrey (who, like Anne Boylen, disdains the role of lover & holds out for marriage) is resolved by the actions of one of the kids, and the blackmail issue is resolved by another. But both those resolutions have a kind of deus ex machina feel -- the plot would have worked better if the adults had done the work.
I continue to respect Smith as a writer. Even a fantasy like The Hundred and One Dalmatians
was deftly written enough to allow me to enter into the world of the story & not leave until it ended. No one can always be successful, & I fear she was not in this particular story. I recommend her other works far more heartily.