One of the key scenes in "A Woman of Her Times" takes only a dozen lines and bears very peripherally on the life of the book's heroine, Elizabeth Wingate. David O. Selznick is auditioning bras to be worn by Vivien Leigh, who has beaten out Elizabeth's daughter, Jennifer James, for the role of Scarlett O'Hara:
"He spent the better part of a day fussing about the way her breasts looked. She modeled bra after bra for him. 'More pointed,' he demanded, waving his cigar in the hot and dusty room smelling of cloth and sweat. . . . 'Tape,' he said. 'Use the tape to push up her cleavage. . . ." The moral of this scene, first novelist G.J. Scrimgeour points out, is that "Women's real selves are not the stuff of most men's dreams."
The author is one clear exception to the rule thus graphically stated. The picture on the dust jacket is unquestionably masculine, even without the pipe and tweeds that were once almost mandatory in photos of novelists, and we are informed that he is a New Zealander, now living in Indiana with his wife, Helen Collier, who is a psychologist and writer. He, too, is clearly a psychologist and writer, although before writing "A Woman of Her Times" he had tried careers as a professor of literature and a businessman.
His first novel is a sweeping account of the war between the sexes, examined closely during a 35-year segment between those other conflicts, World Wars I and II. These were mere skirmishes compared to the fundamental struggle that is Scrimgeour's subject, but they provide some colorful and interesting background material, some handy symbols, plot twists and motivations to shed light on the larger theme. Scrimgeour tells the story primarily from the women's viewpoints: Elizabeth's, Jennifer's and occasionally that of their friend Ginny, a.k.a. Lady Pearsall, who begins the story as the governor's wife in colonial Ceylon and ends it as a very solitary, independent grande dame in England, doing what she can to help her country at the outbreak of World War II.
For a mere male, Scrimgeour is a remarkably thorough, readable and precise spokesman for women's point of view. He has also produced an intricately plotted, splendidly atmospheric novel, rich in vivid characters and incidents--a real page-turner, one might say, except that the author (fortunately) keeps slowing down the action to deepen his characters, drop obiter dicta and intensify the atmosphere, which is well-realized considering that the scene moves across three continents (or two continents and one tight little island) and more than a generation of rapid social change.
The battlefields of the war Scrimgeour chronicles are bedrooms, dining rooms, screening rooms and offices that range from a Hollywood studio to a London bank. The weapons are chiefly those of domestic relationships, though the battles sometimes escalate to legalism. As in most wars that are unfinished (as the battle of the sexes certainly is) there are no clear-cut winners, though the book's ending seems to forecast an ultimate victory of feminine stability, warmth and good sense over the masculine nonsense that sends bombs falling from the skies.
Nor are the qualities of the opposing forces as clearly good and evil as they were in the struggle against the Nazis. Most of the men in the book are not exactly evil, though they tend to be thoughtless, pitifully limited and given to striking awkward poses that they consider impressive. And not all the women are wise or noble--Jennifer, for example, is a foolish, self-indulgent person who gets away with a lot of nonsense because she happens to be pretty.
She gets what she deserves in the person of her husband, Anthony James, who is one of the book's true villains: a British banker who treats his wife as property, opposes her career as an actress, intervenes unilaterally to prevent her accepting starring roles not only in "Gone With the Wind" but also in "Rebecca," kidnaps her daughters and sues for divorce on the grounds of adultery (accurate, but he is playing the same game). Placed in charge of Elizabeth's estate, he unlawfully keeps her in a condition of poverty (though not dependency--she is not that sort) for years.
The book begins with a dinner party to which Elizabeth has invited all the women she knows to have been mistresses of her husband, James--with their husbands, of course. He notices that they are all women with whom he has slept, but the point of the dinner is lost on him because he thinks it is a coincidence and he is too busy leaning back and reflecting on the good life:
"Men compete; women satisfy. . . . It was a jungle out there, but one had women to come home to. . . . He did not know which pleased him more: his silver or his women. Both were riches."
In the final scene, Elizabeth, Ginny and Jennifer are together in London. It is Sept. 3, 1939, and the air raid sirens have sounded in earnest for the first time though there are no German bombers actually in sight. An air raid warden runs toward them, red in the face and decked out with badges of office. "Don't you hear the bloody siren?" he asks. "Don't you know I'm here to take care of you? That you got to do what I say?" Ginny brushes him aside: "My good man. We do not require your help. We do not need you to take care of us. . . . We most certainly do not want you to take care of us." And the last sound heard in the book, over "the high, pulsing wail of sirens," is "the mightier, further sound of high, human women's laughter."
It is a sound that runs through the book, punctuated at times by the deeper sounds of anguish, puzzlement and frustration, and Scrimgeour has registered its overtones loudly and clearly.