One of the things which set me off on the blogging trail was the lovely Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing, a very friendly bunch who share their love of all things Virago. I’ve been reading these since the first Virago Modern Classic, “Frost in May” by Antonia White, but there are still many, many that I haven’t come across. This book is one of them and it comes highly recommended by Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book and many others in the Virago group so I tracked down a pre-loved copy to see whether I agreed with them.

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The edition I have is an original style Virago, in the green we know and love, and with a very apt and evocative picture on the cover. The story concerns Agatha Bodenham, whose mother dies leaving her on her own, with no resources to fall back on as she has led a dull, lonely, reclusive life and has no close friends or nearby family. We see her unable to relate to her aunt at the beginning of the book and it is obvious she is unable to deal with people at all – we would probably described her as “emotionally damaged” nowadays. Agatha, in her loneliness, conjures back into life her make-believe childhood friend, Clarissa, who is everything that Agatha is not – spontaneous, lively, curious and mercurial. Initially, only Agatha can see Clarissa but gradually, as Agatha’s love suffuses her, Clarissa becomes real to everyone.

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the rest of the book revolves around Agatha and Clarissa’s intense love for each other, the destructive effect of the incursion of outsiders, and a very poignant but not unexpected ending. The book is beautifully written, very readable and surprisingly complex. Clarissa represents in some ways Agatha’s repressed maternal love, an outlet for the emotion that she has never been able to express. She also in some ways is the person Agatha might have been, had she been brought up in a different environment and allowed to blossom instead of having her growth stunted.

This is a remarkably good book and Olivier’s handling of the various emotions between the two main characters and those who circulate around them is masterly. She’s very good at conveying the intense feelings they have and the differences (and also similarities) between Clarissa and Agatha. In different ways, each only exists because of the other and so any exterior influence is bound to destroy the bond between them with catastrophic effect.

I believe this book is no longer in print, which is a great shame as it deserves to be. Pre-loved copies are available and I highly recommend tracking one down. Thanks to all those in the Virago group who pointed me at this!