This was a short and deceptively easy read that’s stuck with me. Tight plot, characters that are unlikeable on paper but compelling in your mind, vividly drawn. This is the only Forster I’ve read, but she seemed to be able to write novels effortlessly (check her bibliography) and yet to be haunted by this single one. I felt a bit bad for putting it on my list when I learned how she’d tried to outrun it. Well, it’s done now.
The lightness of Georgy Girl is what feels so deceptive to me. Like George herself, who wears humour over her insecurities, the novel wears its vivid voice over an uneasy halfway period of British history, where freedom is within reach but not quite comfortable yet. Women are free to do what they want but the habits of centuries die hard (men’s habits, too, by the way). Manservants still exist but going into service is seen as degrading, not the honour of yesteryear.
It seems like such a simple little story, with a few sharply-drawn characters, as cosy as George’s terrible, tiny flat with the fire on, but the characters refuse to stay in their boxes. George’s expansive sense of humour, defiant confidence and gnawing insecurity mean that none of the other characters (or the reader) can quite get a handle on her. Jos’s kindness and weakness have him doing the right thing and then immediately changing his mind. Meredith is the most straightforward character, but even her ice cold sociopathic tendencies backfire on her. She’s very much her own downfall, and though you might see in her everything wrong with woman (or the portrayal of women) you can’t say she got out unscathed. She learns a couple of hard lessons with only herself to blame, and though you might wish a harsher punishment on her, I found that my relief at George’s freedom from her outstripped my desire to see Meredith’s chickens to come home to roost.
We get to sit inside every character’s head for a while, and I found that I enjoyed all of them, even Meredith. I found Meredith’s honesty… refreshing. She knew what she was and didn’t try to delude either herself or others. Her charisma seemed to be an unconscious thing that she took for granted.
For such a lighthearted book, Forster blithely takes us through a lot, refusing to take one side. Anyone who’s looking for an instruction manual or a rallying cry should look elsewhere. George’s shameless loneliness and self-effacing maternal instinct seem to belong to one narrative, and her sex obsession and refusal to conform to feminine norms seem to belong to another. And the single adopted motherhood? And the marriage of convenience? How to pigeonhole those? She’s just written as a very complex character, and I never found myself second-guessing her choices – even when they weren’t perhaps choices I could or would have made – because she was so transparently trying to do the right thing with all the tools at her disposal.
Jos was probably the character I found it hardest to get along with. Like the others, he was just trying to make his own way, and I can’t deny he was helpful, but… Forster gives us the beginnings of an almost idyllic relationship between him and George, organic and personality-driven, but of course it can’t last. And as soon as it gets hard, Jos gets out. He does his part to help George oust Meredith (neither of them could have done it without the other) but I have to say, he only helps her when it’s easy, and when it helps him. He spends half his time at the beginning angsting over how Meredith uses George as a servant, but is perfectly happy to have her do the housework and take care of him. When it comes to George wanting to do the right thing for her own reasons (like, you know, adopting an unwanted baby which is also Jos’s baby by the way) he puts in the minimum effort and then leaves. (I’m sorry, his job at the bank is hard and soul-sucking? He made zero effort to make friends or develop an interest in his work, let alone get a job that would interest him.) He’s willing to help the poor oppressed George up, but unwilling to put in much effort of his own or budge up a bit.
So yeah George makes some questionable decisions at the end, there, but you know what? She gets what she wants. And as we learned in Modern Romance, marriages of convenience can be happy, stable marriages, so I’m not going to knock it. In fact, let’s end on a song.