The Distaff Side
The Distaff Side is a tale of greed, manipulation, and cunning among England’s moneyed upper classes between the World Wars. Doesn’t that sound juicy? I thought so, too. But as it turns out, it’s not nearly as entertaining as it sounds.
The plot centers around three strong-willed and intelligent women: Augusta, Mai, and Zhenia. Augusta Langham is a tyrannical matriarch who rules her household (and her son, Bertie) with an iron fist. Bertie is affianced to his childhood friend, an attractive heiress named Mai Binnington. Augusta discovers that Mai is involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and is furious. She demands that Bertie forbid Mai from taking part in such an unseemly pursuit, with the result that Mai breaks it off with Bertie. Mai goes on to marry an apparently-nice man named Ned Fielding, while Augusta casts about for another match for the biddable Bertie. She eventually lights upon a stunning and mysterious young Russian, Princess Zhenia Dashkova, who apparently escaped from the Russian Revolution with a tsar’s ransom of emeralds tucked into her bodice. We know from the prologue that Zhenia is no princess and the emeralds are stolen. Nevertheless, Augusta and Bertie are taken in by Zhenia’s act, and Bertie marries her. The real fireworks come after the wedding, when Zhenia and Augusta clash.
The story of these three women goes on for years. We learn the ins and outs of their marriages, and their paths cross again and again. Mai’s marriage to Ned falls apart, while those who discover Zhenia’s secret – or who get in Zhenia’s way – have a tendency to encounter shockingly bad luck soon afterwards.
Now, I’m not one who needs read only about perfectly nice, sympathetic characters. I am more than capable of gleefully rooting for the bad guy; there are few reading experiences I enjoy more than the pleasurable tension between relishing a character’s wicked deeds and longing for him to receive his comeuppance. So I should have enjoyed the exploits of Zhenia, the central character of this book. But I didn’t; nor did I particularly care about Augusta or Mai.
Why? Because they’re utterly one-dimensional. These characters can all be summed up in one word. Augusta is Autocratic, all the time. Zhenia, of course, is Evil. Mai is Good. (Nicolai is Good, Bertie is Ineffectual, and Ned is Insane.) They never falter from these traits.
Annoyingly, the author seems to doubt that her readers will be able to figure out who’s good and who’s bad, because her methods of making sure that we’re up to speed are anything but subtle. For instance, the characters’ sexual lives serve the same function that white or black hats used to serve in old Western movies. Zhenia is sexually voracious: bad. Augusta is frigid: also bad. Mai likes sex, but only with the man she loves: good! In case that’s too understated for readers, there’s another character (Mai’s stepfather, Joseph) who is both Good and Omniscient. He instantly knows, and repeatedly informs others, that Ned is creepy, Bertie is weak, Augusta is an autocrat, Zhenia is up to something, and so on. He is never wrong about anyone. I really don’t like being hammered over the head with the obvious, and this author does it constantly.
The Distaff Side is historical fiction, not a romance novel, and readers should be aware that there aren’t any happy endings here. One character – one who was somewhat more complex than the others, and who I actually liked – came to a particularly undeserved end. But generally, the most gloomy thing about this book was how little I cared about what happened to any of the characters.
If you’re interested in naughty goings-on in the English countryside, may I recommend the delicious and riveting Glittering Images by Susan Howatch? That book, and the other five novels that make up Howatch’s Starbridge saga, are complex, compelling, and unforgettable. When there are books like that out there waiting to be read, drearily obvious stuff like The Distaff Side just can’t compete.