Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
It's easy to see why this master craftsman was awarded the Roger's Writer's Trust Prize for Fiction in 2018. Giller-nominated British-Canadian author, Kathy Page, British-born and living in Salt Spring B.C., has written a masterful yet accessible novel. Through two very different well-developed characters, Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill, Page examines love over time from the blush of first romance, through raising children and into middle and old age. Page demonstrates how love and people change over time, crisis and familiarity. This is a brilliant look at modern marriage.
The story begins with Harry’s birth in working-class London. When nineteen-year-old Harry by chance meets Evelyn outside Battersea Library, he’s smitten with her beauty and self-possession. “There was a certain drama to the way she expressed herself . . . it was very attractive . . . she brimmed over with life.” That drama was to cause conflict later in their lives.
When Harry is shipped overseas to North Africa in 1942 shortly after their wedding, his love grows stronger with separation and longing. He pours his heart out in long letters, “you are the sweetest wife and most adorable mistress . . . I shall love you however far or long I am away.” In the early happy part of their marriage we glimpse inside his heart, “he liked being married, and not just the bed part of it. There was something surprising about the dailiness of life together, the way you came to understand each other better in all ways, to see the more hidden parts of a personality.”
Love letters written by Page’s own father to her mother during WWII sparked her curiosity and inspired this novel. Some are included here intact; others she has written in his style as the character. They are reminiscent of letters my father serving in the R.C.A.F. sent home to my mother – a rare glimpse for a child of those heady early days of passion. My father closed his letters ‘love always and always’. Page’s father loved poetry so she made Harry a lover of poetry having him win a scholarship to further his studies and have him long to write, to create a poem. There are several allusions to poets and poems throughout the narrative and an extensive list recorded in the acknowledgement.
As Page’s own father grew older and communication became more difficult she’d phone him in England, read him a poem thus bridging the physical and emotional distance. Page’s poetic language and sense of rhythm underscore’s the novel and heightens our empathy.
At the fourteen-year point in their marriage, Harry is studying (three evening classes a week for three years) his competence with numbers offering him a white collar profession and jump to the middle class but instead of this tedious work, he’d rather be outdoors reading Auden’s new collection. He longs for the unsettled life – to read, hike, and travel – but submerges the dreamer to please Evelyn, becoming the provider in a regular life. At the close of this chapter and after a row, Evelyn plugs in the iron and Page reminds us Evelyn has sacrificed a career for domesticity and security. In this reality, we sympathize with both characters.
When D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover makes the front page, Evelyn can’t resist reading it, questioning her own passion. “Harry was a conscientious lover. He took his time and wanted her to enjoy sex, and mostly she did but there was no jungle, no being a consenting thing.”
We gain further insight into Harry and perhaps married life in general, who in reading the memoir of his favourite poet, Edward Thomas, written by the poet’s wife Helen identifies with both parties. Given this glimpse into another couple’s intimate life, he sees the inequality.
“A man by turns depressed, desperate, brilliant and also a picture of an unequal marriage: how each of them struggled . . . he wished he could warn Helen that she would never get back the measure of what she gave . . . He identified with both players in the Thomas marriage but especially Helen because she was forever having to fit herself around someone driven and intransigent.”
As the marriage becomes strained and his daughters urge him to stand up for himself, he chooses to be understanding and hold things together, “He didn’t see it as giving in. It was doing what he could to make things work. He could bend, she could not.”
As they age, life becomes increasingly more challenging and their diverse nature’s class. No one can be tolerant any more especially with Harry’s ailing health and physical dependence. This is the most upsetting and perhaps realistic portion of the book.
In the final letter, the one that Evelyn writes to Harry from France, the author brings us full circle as Evelyn goes from describing the holiday with her daughter to reminiscing about their time in Paris – poignant perfect prose.
I wondered why the title is Dear Evelyn when it could just a well been Love Harry for he stands out so clearly, perhaps because he reminds me of my father but also because Page has drawn him so well. Harry is the more sympathetic character. Then it dawned on me. It is because Evelyn is so dear to him. His love remains unconditional. His poetic soul sees her beauty to the end.
Dear Evelyn is published by Biblioasis.