22 April 2019

Millar's Experiment in Springtime in Springtime

Experiment in Springtime
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

Margaret Millar's seventh novel, Experiment in Springtime is the first to not feature a dead body. The original dust jacket describes it as a love story, but the design suggests otherwise.

Experiment in Springtime is a dark tale of an unhealthy marriage. Charles Pearson, the husband, is himself unhealthy. In April, he arrived home from work complaining of a headache. Martha Pearson, the wife, gave him two aspirins, which sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Well, that was Dr MacNeil's diagnosis, anyway.

For several days, it looked as if Charles might die. Dr MacNeil did what he could, and Martha spent many hours playing nurse by her husband's bedside. Not to worry, though he's still bedridden, the novel begins with Charles well on the road to recovery. Convalescence has given Charles time to reflect on his five-year-old marriage to Martha. She doesn't love him – of that he is sure – but he hopes that she one day will. Did she ever love him? Martha has changed. Gone is the young woman of twenty-one who accepted Charles' proposal, replaced with an prematurely middle-aged matron for whom duty and appearance are paramount. Martha dresses the part, always in black, with hats as sensible and durable as her "low-heeled black suede oxfords." The car Charles presented as a birthday present is too sleek, too ostentatious; in her opinion, it doesn't match "the personality she had selected for herself."

Others living in the Pearson house – which was built for Martha – are more keen on Charles. The servants like him, in part because he's easygoing and not terribly demanding. Lily, the blushing young maid, has a bit of a crush on her employer. Laura, Martha's sixteen-year-old kid sister, likes that Charles doesn't treat her like a child. Mrs Shaw, Martha's widowed mother, is just shy of being indifferent; she's happiest when alone in her room counting tangerine pits. Everyone, Martha included, agrees that Charles is a highly intelligent man; after all, he's on the board of directors of the Matson Trust Company.

Though Charles and Martha's marriage is at the centre of this novel, scenes featuring the couple are few. Early in the novel, quite unexpectedly, Charles accuses his wife of having tried to murder him. Concerned with keeping up appearances – the staff are around – she places a hand over his mouth. Charles bites her, drawing blood. The following day, with chauffeur Forbes, Charles departs for rest at some remote, unknown location.

Enter – or re-enter – Steve Ferris, Martha's former fiancee, now back from the war. She rents him the vacated chauffeur's flat above the garage. Given Martha's obsession with what others think, it might seem an odd thing to do – but she has her motivations, not the least of which is spite.

Experiment in Springtime does not have a dead body, though the appearance of one wouldn't have been at all jarring. There is danger in this novel in the form of a denial of mental illness. It's all to do with ignorance and the desire to maintain – I'll say it again – appearances.

It's frightening to think how little things have changed in the seven decades since it was written.

Dedication: "To my husband, Kenneth Millar."

Trivia: Early in the novel, Steve is invited to dinner at the home of his aunt and his spinster cousin, leading to this exchange:
"Well Bea," he said. "How's business?"
     "Oh, fine." She sat opposite him, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees. "Same as usual."
     "I thought the old bas— tyrant would have made you vice president by this time."
     "It's all right. You can say bastard as long as mother's not around."
     They both laughed, but he knew he had offended her by changing the word to "tyrant." It was like moving her back a generation.
     She said crisply, "Remember the cartoon in Esquire years ago? 'I may be an old maid, but I'm not a fussy old maid.' Well, that's me."
The cartoon to which Bea refers appeared in the May 1934 Esquire. It isn't quite as she remembers.

Object and Access: Experiment in Springtime was first published in 1947 by Random House. There was no second printing, and no other editions followed. Its inclusion in the second volume of the Collected Millar marked the novel's first appearance in print in seven decades.

Curiously, a German translation was published in 1995 under the title Umgarnt. Its cover uses a detail of Felix Vallotton's At the Café (1909). One wonders why.

The Random House first is surprisingly uncommon. As of this writing, four copies are offered for sale online. At US$35, the cheapest is a Good copy that once belonged to collector and bibliographer Adrian Goldstone. Tempting, but the ones to buy are a signed Near Fine copy in Very Good jacket (US$45) and a Very Good copy in Very Good jacket inscribed by Millar to her sister Dorothy (US$375).

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