MARILYN FRENCH has written her second political novel, which is to say that the actions of the characters in both books are intended to demonstarte and ideological point of view. There was an almost documentary quality to The Women's Room, the long, widely-read first novel, which dramatized in two sections a rage-filled fundamentalist feminism. The first part laid bare the lot of the suburban housewife through the '50s and '60s, and was written with such passionate intensity, such attention to the details of our very recognizable trivialized lives, that I suspect it was the heart of the book's success with its readers. lThe second section opened in 1968 at Harvard and concerned a large number of bitter woman graduate students who find themselves doomed to act out their lives against the overweening and redoubtable power and malice of men. It was a Them-Against-Us book. "We understood that the laws were all for THEM, that the setup of society was all for THEM, that everything existed for THEM."
Polemical though it was, The Women's Room had its strengths. Its energy from start to finish derived from true fury. And in the beginning the wry voice of the narrator who walks along the Maine shore seemed to me quite fine.
This very validity is what is missing in the Bleeding Heart. Where the rage was fresh in the first novel, it seems indulgent here. The women in suburbia were crying into real dishwater. The heroine is merely pretentious. The Bleeding Heart is the story of the year-long love affair of two middle-aged Americans. Dolores Durer is a beautiful, slim, cigar-smoking Renaissance scholar, 45 years old, and with two books that have secured her place in the academic world. She has a grant that takes her to England for a year and has her shuttling between the "BM" in London and the "Bod" in Oxford. She is depressed, bitter, suffers from intolerable pain inflicted by men, so much so that she has renounced sex and has not slept with a man for five years.
Tiens! On the train to Oxford there enters her compartment a man in a "tweedy grey jacket, flecks of brown in it, nice. A grey turtleneck sweater. And a longish face -- looking at her!" She is outraged at his intrusion and tries to smoke him out, with the cigar. Nonetheless, as the train rolls on, she sees "eyes full of such longing that she could not abide it, face full of such intensity that she could not resist it." When she reaches for her bag in the overhead rack the train brakes, and he uses the occasion to put his arms around her, then takes her bags and carry them down the Banbury Road, up her stairs and into her kitchen:
"'Would you like a cup o tea?' Her voice was tense.
". . . suddenly their bodies were together. . . ."
To do Dolores justice, aside from the absolutely certifiable pain she has had to endure in life, she has had other experiences: "Beautiful afternoon on the beach at Lissadell [Ireland] . . . with a beautiful charmer named . . . what was his name? Terrible liar, but it hadn't mattered that day. The sky pale blue, the beach warm, they lay in reeds behind a dune that hid them from the hill behind them." And "two days in Venice with an Italian seaman whose name was forever lost, but she remembered the day at Lido with him . . . stopping on the little bridges to kiss or talk. . . ." Also, "the afternoon in Zmegrud with Adam" or "a day at Walden with Jack . . . She'd swum nude and delighted him. . . ."
Victor is a sort of multinational executive on furlough from Scarsdale for the year. In the course of the liaison, gradually and painfully, each reveals to the other a history of family violence and ugliness left in their two wakes (suicides, maiming, drugs). These subplots are the basic material of the novel, and I won't give them away except to say that they all illustrate the victimization of women by men. Virtually endless examples are called to mind. They make Dolores almost always distraught, but Victor loves her right through. It is an oppressive story.
I am myself a feminist and am affronted by three major unexamined assumptions that underlie this novel. First, the focus on sex, and Dolores' record of ecstasy, seem not only false by tyrannizing, and particularly unfair to readers, feminists or not, who can only look in dismay at their own poor showing. Second is the assumption that there is no moral dimension to sexual activity, that sex alone, among all interchanges between human beings, is free of this burdensome consideration. For instance, there is a turnover of lovers who are easily accommodated in the households where children are growing up.
And third is the attitude towards children. The many women in this book vow that they love and adore their children. But the children -- and we meet a lot of them -- turn sour. We are assured that the reason for this is the patriarchal structure of the family which fosters a viciousness in the father, and causes the mother to beome a buffer. No doubt there is an element of truth in that. But one is left with the further assumption that unbullied by vicious fathers, children could be relied upon to flower and flourish. It is their natural tendency. Their intellectual and moral development will require no self-discipline, self-denial, on the part of the mother. All she has to do is satisfy her own needs. Dolores tries and tries.