The Love Child by Edith Olivier – an Imaginary Friend becomes real in a 1927 novel now reprinted in the Women Writers series

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The Love Child by Edith Olivier

This is a delicately written book, in which a child, a small woman appears in a life of quiet loneliness. A book originally published in 1927, this unique novel has been republished in a stylish new format in the British Library Women Writers series. There are added sections to give context to the story of the 1920s, and the author’s life. An Afterword by the series consultant Simon Thomas points out the legal context as well as the themes of this novel. In addition to the main story there is also an account by Olivier of sightings of strange things without explanations. Overall this is a well presented book in all senses, an attractive addition to a smart series. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this lovely book. 

The story introduces the character of Agatha Bodenham, a single woman of thirty-two. It is the day of her mother’s funeral, and she is realising that with this death she is totally alone. Perceptively Olivier writes “Perhaps Agatha felt nothing. Certainly she could never tell what she felt, nor ask and receive sympathy.” A Cousin Louise notices, and volunteers to stay for a few days rather than leave Agatha alone, an offer that surprises the young woman. She is uncomfortable with her guest, unable to embark upon the necessary tasks following a death, unwilling to take any pleasure or reassurance from her relative’s presence. Her own reserve, combined with that of her mother’s, had meant that neither had really sought or achieved friendship. At the sudden realisation of her loneliness she remembers Clarissa, an imaginary friend from her childhood, who she felt able to play with until her obsession was condemned by her governess Miss Marks. After eighteen years Agatha remembers the comfort and joy of having a friend to talk and play with in her garden, to enjoy make believe games. 

After a little while it feels like Clarissa has returned in the same form she was last seen, a small girl in a white dress. For a while it seems as though she can only be seen by Agatha, and the servants and gardener wonder why the sedate lady is chasing around the garden like a child playing games with an imaginary companion. Then gradually they catch glimpses of a child, while Agatha can actually see and touch the small girl. Knowing that it will be impossible to conceal a child in a house, Agatha suddenly decides to go Brighton, which profoundly confuses her servants, and has to make secret arrangements to find something suitable for the child to wear. She has to cope with the form of a child through which things can fall, which seems to be inconsistent in how she appears. It proves difficult to explain the appearance of a small child in the life and home of a single woman. This is the central conundrum of the novel, where has the child come from, and how real is she, and can Agatha carry on concealing her indefinitely.

This book depends on a charming conceit, the existence of a child from imagination, the solid manifestation of a woman’s intense desire for company. I loved the idea of the games the two women play, of adventures in a car, of imaginary journeys that exceed reality. It is tragic in terms of the desperate loneliness of a woman in the period following the First World War, when so many women were resigned to living alone as what seemed like a generation of men had been killed. Agatha is not poor in a financial state, but for a relatively young woman she has no real hope of finding anyone to share her life with, which is extremely tragic. This is a beautifully written story which lingers in the mind, for the powerful effect of imagination, and the unexplained nature of Clarissa.