This is one of my occasional series where I share my thoughts on the whole of a book, so if you don’t want to know how it ends, look away now …
First published in 1920, Tension has attracted renewed interest after being reissued as part of the British Library Women Writers series.
Tension is told from the waspish perspective of Sir Julian Rossiter, a Devon landowner whose responsibilities include a position on the board of the local technical college. Here people learn vocational skills, including shorthand, and many of the staff are women. Fairfax Fuller, the supervisor, is delighted with his newly recruited superintendent, Miss Marchrose. The plain-speaking, conscientious man describes her as “hard as nails”. (From the context, it appears this is a compliment, although it evokes a different response now!)
Lady Rossiter, who also has a role on the college board by dint of her marriage, is sure she knows the name. She believes Miss Marchrose is the woman who jilted a distant cousin after he was injured, and expected to be disabled for life.
From the very beginning Lady Rossiter is hostile to Miss Marchrose, although it seems the cousin was not close, and he subsequently recovered both his physical health and his broken heart and married someone else. Could Lady Rossiter’s feelings be influenced by the fact that Miss Marchrose has quickly becomes close to Lady Rossiter’s neighbour, Mark Easter?
Mark is Sir Julian’s estate manager and they enjoy a close relationship. Sir Julian finds Mark’s free-range children (hilariously) dreadful but is sympathetic to the reason. Mark married a young woman out of kindness, apparently, because no one else would. However, his gesture was not repaid as might have been hoped (who would want to be married out of pity?). His wife is an alcoholic and is institutionalised with no immediate prospect of release.
So, the children have the run of the Rossiters’ home and Lady Rossiter claims for herself the role of Mark’s confidant – although we never actually see that this is true. Mark’s sister Iris, also provides much of the comedy. She has published a terrible but fashionable novel, and is firmly ensconced in the London bohemian scene. She visits with her fiancé who proudly lauds his Celtic roots at every opportunity.
Lady Rossiter is cleverly portrayed as both a comic character and a disturbing antagonist. Her whole identity is based on self-delusion. She exploits her position to impose terribly on people while claiming for herself the mantra of “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?” So she “invites” the staff of the college to a reception at her home on Sunday, their one day off, knowing they will have to walk several miles to get there.
However, there are hints in their response that deference to rank is no longer assured. Some don’t turn up, others are less than obliging in her attempts to make conversation and inveigle them into her schemes. Perhaps it is also this loss of status that reinforces her need to impose her will and divide the staff against Miss Marchrose.
Sir Julian is charming and affectionate to those he respects, in particular Mark and Miss Marchrose. She confides in him and tells him that she broke off her engagement because she realised she could not love her fiancé, and that this would make the confined lives of invalid and carer intolerable for both of them. She has given up the financial security of marriage and is heavily dependent on her job, but still she feels she made the right choice.
In contrast, Sir Julian is brusque and even rude to his wife. This might be seen as unpleasant or hypocritical, but it could also be an attempt to goad her into an honest and raw reaction. We learn that the only time she was truly open with him was the night he proposed, as she showed her vulnerability and loneliness. His sympathetic response has a parallel in Mark’s to his wife.
Lady Rossiter has never been honest since. She presents a façade of kindness but is actually controlling and false. Even her professed love of nature takes on a sinister edge – not so much change and renewal as the inevitability of a fixed, natural order. (Think also of the clever use of names, Iris, Marchrose, Easter.) She very much plays up to the role of lady of the manor, one she has married into, while Sir Julian is more egalitarian in his dealings, talking easily with Mark and the college staff.
Perhaps it is Lady Rossiter’s own history that is the key factor in her hostility to Miss Marchrose. In her loneliness, she took the hand that was offered and it has led to unhappiness for her and her husband. Miss Marchrose showed the courage to walk away from a man she didn’t love and now appears to have found a true connection with Mark.
Despite her professed commitment to free love, Iris marries the man she adores, but the romantic bohemian with the Celtic hinterland is revealed, after their marriage, to be the son of a Swindon stationer. His father paid him an allowance to experience a London life but it will come to an end on his marriage. Will Iris continue to live in a bubble of romance, or will she too be disappointed?
Lady Rossiter forces a crisis at the college. Through her connivance, the staff are whispering against Miss Marchrose. She wins over the board, despite her defence by Fuller, because most people don’t want to get involved. Miss Marchrose resigns but confides in Sir Julian that she would have lived with Mark, dismissing convention, but he turned her down. Her future is uncertain, with no job, no income and a history that will follow her, but then her staunch defender Fairfax Fuller proposes to her. At the end we learn, via a letter from Sir Julian to her, that she has accepted him and they intend to go abroad to teach.
Sir Julian is apparently a sympathetic character. He is the narrator so we’re already complicit with him. He is ally to both Mark and Miss Marchrose and the one she confides in. But his role is more ambiguous than that. He is aware of his wife’s vendetta, and is appalled, but he doesn’t intervene. It’s as if, having once asserted himself to marry her, and realising his mistake, he decides to remain passive from then on. At the end, when he congratulates Miss Marchrose on the pragmatic plans she and Fairfax Fuller have made, there is a sense of relief that all has been resolved at minimum inconvenience to himself. Fuller, who refuses compromise and shabbiness, stands in stark contrast.
It’s such a clever ending, full of ambiguity. Miss Marchrose, like the seasons, has come full circle. She broke off an engagement because she was not in love, she offered herself to Mark Easter who she did love and was refused, and she is going into another loveless marriage. However, the marriage is based on openness and honesty. She is marrying a man of principle and determination, one who showed courage when others failed (although of course, his principles in her case may have been influenced by his feelings for her, that we don’t know).
Tension is such a clever and subtle book, about power, class, a changing social landscape and the meaning of marriage, all wrapped up in an entertaining and moving story.