Kathy Page’s latest novel is a portrait of a marriage. In this respect, and in its linking of personal and historical events across the 20th century, Dear Evelyn is familiar, even conventional, both formally and conceptually. But Page’s finely wrought story – by turns tender, acid, and poignant – reminds us that marriage is a condition as infinitely variable as the individuals who enter into it, and that the kind of fiction some consider old-fashioned can be both beautiful and valuable for its sympathetic insight into ordinary lives.
The husband in Page’s story is Harry Miles, born to working-class parents in London between the world wars. “Male, unremarkable,” read the midwife’s notes after his birth. As Harry grows up, only two things about him challenge that terse assessment: his love of poetry and his devotion to his wife. His teacher, Mr. Whitehorse, sparks the first of these life-long passions. Whitehorse, who bears both physical and emotional scars from his injuries in the Great War, wants his students to “learn poetry so that [they] have it in [them] forever, beating like a second heart.” His poetry class becomes Harry’s favourite: “You never knew … how you might feel, what you might discover or be forced, suddenly, to think about.”
Schoolboy Harry wonders what the future might hold for him. “He could not know,” Page comments forebodingly, “that a new war would begin in just six years’ time” and the questions prompted by Whitehorse’s impassioned descriptions of war as a “hellish” place –“Suppose I had to? … Suppose I killed someone?” – will prove anything but rhetorical. Before then, though, Harry meets Evelyn Hill on the steps of the Battersea library. His infatuation is immediate, profound, and lasting. “Evelyn, Evelyn!” he thinks much later. “He had loved her all his adult life, long after the gloss of their youth and its illusions had been worn away and left them with the essentials of who they were, along with a collection of sometimes contradictory memories.”
During Harry’s wartime service, their marriage consists of “islands of cohabitation in an ocean of separation”: it is intense but also incomplete. It’s only after the war ends that their marriage becomes “an everyday actual thing instead of a frenzied week trying to make up for lost time.” Sadly, it is just this longed-for daily proximity, with all its inevitable endless small frictions, that gradually erodes their happiness.
The novel’s title alludes most directly to Harry’s wartime letters, which give us vivid glimpses of the “grisly business.” But it also signals the extent to which Evelyn – “strong, hungry, wilful, beautiful, sometimes kind, sometimes harsh: completely extraordinary” – dominates both him and their marriage. From the moment he returns from the front, Harry dedicates himself to providing everything Evelyn wants, “material or emotional,” regardless of his own desires. This means focusing on “the need for security, the bank balance, the constant thinking of the future,” not the “unsettled life” Harry really wants: “Read for hours every day. Hike for weeks on end. Travel.”
Harry’s selflessness backfires, however. Though Evelyn acknowledges that Harry is a far better man and husband than her own drunken wreck of a father, she comes to despise what she perceives as his weakness; the strong-mindedness Harry loves her for hardens into intolerance, even cruelty. His final act of submission is to accept that “what she desired now was his absence from her daily life” and move into a retirement home alone.
Through it all, Harry’s poetic sensibility stays with him as an unfulfilled longing. “He would never complete a poem to his satisfaction, much less send one to a little magazine.” It is hard not to see in the thwarting of this dream a sad parallel to the curtailed careers of the war poets Whitehorse preferred not to teach. No longer “that boy who had sat on the back step, his heart thudding as he read the sonnet his teacher had assigned him,” who then has he become? “He was a father and very glad of it,” he thinks, and “more than anything he was a husband.” His loyalty makes Evelyn’s callousness all the more difficult to bear and gives more pathos to the evidence that, as Harry always believes, the woman he fell in love with “existed in her still.”
Dear Evelyn is divided into three chronological parts that cover in turn the early, middle, and late phases of the couple’s journey from that first youthful intoxication to discord and alienation. This simple linear structure gains dimension and complexity as additional details accumulate through Page’s deft use of flashbacks and prolepsis; her precise and graceful prose gives the emerging picture nuance and shading.
Marriage may be a commonplace subject for fiction, but like Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop” – a poem in which, young Harry thinks, “nothing happens” and yet “the words remade the room” – Page’s touching novel makes the ordinary extraordinary.