Books Fiction: An appeal for teacher

THE REMARKABLE STORY OF MISS TRANBY QUIRKE by Elizabeth Ridley, Virago pounds 9.99
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In this very readable second novel, Elizabeth Ridley explores the unconventional heart of an outwardly arid teacher, 34-year-old Miss Tranby Quirke, "spinster", in a school for young ladies in 1909. While she pronounces drily on how to fold bed-linen, cook and bear children, she harbours the troubling secret of her lesbian sexuality. This unacceptable perversion (or "inversion") is perceived by Miss Tranby as all the more doomed because her first and only girlfriend, the tomboy Johnnie, came to a bad end aged 12.

Automatic writing is the only vehicle by which Miss Tranby can express a fantasy life in which she is male, an explorer, and wildly free. These passages will perhaps be too long for some readers' tastes, but the detail in each is always metaphorically pertinent and worth the effort. As for Miss Tranby's outward life, it is largely made up of loneliness and lies. She is secretly a supporter of the suffrage movement, but would never mention this to her employers. She has an admired friend, the founder of an organisation called The British Society for the Aid of Distressed Spinsters and Gentlewomen-in-need, Agnes, whom she tends on her death- bed - but they maintain the stiff-upper-lip right up to the end.

Into this dark picture steps Lysette, a beautiful 19-year-old student who presents Miss Quirke with a note to match Bathsheba's life-changing edict to Mr Boldwood in Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd : "Marry me". "Release me from my misery" is what Lysette, in earnest (unlike Bathsheba) writes to her mentor. Miss Tranby's imagination is stirred for the first time in many years, and the combination of suppressed desire and intense clandestine passion inevitably results in fireworks.

There is Lysette's abusive husband to contend with, and the ever watchful eye of Miss Tranby's colleagues, but they pursue their dangerous passion until they get found out. Then what? Do they overcome? In peculiar ways which you will have to discover for yourself, Ridley - I think - offers us two possible endings: one negative, one hopeful. Yet this is oddly done, and many may find her techniques confusing. On balance, however, the artful, pleasurable prose style and sheer romance of the story sweep us away.

This is a a slip of a book, a novel to be read in one or two sittings, but encased in its story is the power to make us think about an entire generation of women in a way we may never have done before. Many a family in Britain will have in its recent history a maiden aunt whose emotional life will have been assumed to be arid, or non-existent. Not all of them will have been as secretly impassioned as that of Miss Tranby Quirke, but her story certainly gets us wondering and restores some colour to the assumed greyness of their lives.

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