Try to imagine yourself at seventeen, madly in love with a boy not much older than you, but knowing that because he is Jewish, and you the daughter of a not wealthy but nevertheless haughty, authoritarian father, you will never be able to openly date or marry your boy. The time is 1925, the place South Africa, and the young woman with the rather odd name of Bill is poised to grasp her freedom and elope. This is the setting for Sheila Kohler’s lovely but sad novel Love Child.
The reader is first introduced to Bill thirty years later when she is a very rich widow, living alone with her trusted servant and looking back over her life. The novel then jumps back and forth between Bill’s life in 1925, 1935, and the present, 1956. The elopement with her young man Isaac ends sadly and abruptly. She has made the mistake of seeking temporary shelter and a witness to their marriage by driving with Isaac to Johannesburg where her three much loved aunts live. Certain that the aunts will understand her deep love for Isaac and help the young couple in whatever ways they can, she discovers instead that their first allegiance is to Bill’s father, their brother; without Bill’s knowledge, her parents are summoned, and when they arrive, they quickly scare off the young man with threats of calling in the law. The marriage is annulled, and Bill is quite literally left prisoner with the three aunts. The one night consummation of their marriage leaves Bill not only an unwilling prisoner but also pregnant. The three aunts have been left the house in which they live and a very modest inheritance on the condition that they never marry, and now the aunts find themselves the unwilling captors of their renegade niece.
She gathered she was a source of embarrassment, a perpetual reminder of what they had forgone. She only added a burden to their already strained circumstances, not only the risk of scandal and shame but also, quite simply, another mouth to feed. The aunts came to regard her, she understood, as a daily affront to all they considered sacred: honor, dignity, and pride, to their upright and cloistered way of life. She was nothing but trouble, trouble brought on them by her thoughtlessness, her lack of control, a weakness of will, her moral deficiency.Bill is held prisoner until she has her girl-child, and then without her realizing quite what is happening, the infant is whisked away the very night she is born and sold to a woman who runs an illegal adoption service. But Bill learns the details of this transaction thirty years later, and only then begins a search for her baby, her love-child.
Kohler is such a skillful storyteller that most readers will, I think, be captivated by the story and only slowly come to see that this is really a book about the subordination of women. Over time, Bill comes to see that her now hated aunts are as much victims of male ownership as Bill and her sisters are, and ten years later, when Bill takes the job of companion to a rich woman who is rather mysteriously ill and incapacitated, she comes to understand that it is not only poor women who are owned and controlled by men. Helen, the woman whom she is hired to look after, is the beautiful wife of a jealous and controlling husband. It takes Bill months to come to realize that Helen sees Bill not as a needed companion, but as a jailer and spy. The husband calls Bill to his study and entrusts her with the keys to house, the larder, the liquor cabinet, not because his wife is too frail to oversee her house and servants, but because he needs to control her in every way. Helen, despondent to the point of being suicidal, must not be allowed to drink alcohol, must not venture out on her own. What Bill first sees as protective love for his fragile wife, she learns soon enough to see as suffocating control.
“What’s the point of it all?” Helen asked at last. She said her whole body ached as if she had the flu. “If you knew what it was like to wake each morning and find yourself there with the same dull ache,” she said despairingly. She went on talking of the absurdity of her life, the pointlessness of her existence, with all these servants, who did everything for her. She said nothing appealed to her. What purpose would it serve: It all seemed senseless.Bill comes to hate her role as jailer, and decides as far as possible to give Helen her freedom. But she understands all too well that she must be discreet in her granting of freedom, that she will simply be replaced by a new keeper if the husband is made aware of the conspiracy of the women in his house. Not only Bill, but her sisters, her brother, her entire family have become dependent on the money that Bill brings in from her job as companion.
As she comes to trust Bill more and more, Helen reveals how she was wooed and won by her rich husband, Mark. Helen has a son from a previous marriage; her husband died suddenly leaving her with a small boy “and a mountain of debt.” Although she had been a musical prodigy as a child, she was not talented enough to be a concert pianist. She had written some, even published, but is not even skilled enough as a typist to get a secretarial job. Mark rescues her, takes care of her son (though insisting that the son be sent off to boarding school), but the price is high.
He insisted on her being present whenever he needed her. She was never free to live her own life. She had to attend all his business dinners, his endless trips, to go to bed and to rise when he did…He insisted on sex at odd moments and in odd places…He would rip at her clothes, and thrust himself into her from behind like a wild beast…Afterward, she would get into the bath and scrub at her skin until it was pink, to get rid of his smell, his lingering presence, her shame.Over time, Mark draws Bill into a kind of ménage a trois; she stays both because she and her family have become dependent on her income, and because she understands that she can help Helen only if she remains in her position. Eventually, as Mark comes to desire Bill more and more, demanding more and more liberties with her, they work out an odd and distorted agreement. Bill’s brother has counseled her to use Mark’s need and lust as leverage, to give him what he wants only in return for a stiff price. Although Helen remains in the house, she and her son still provided for, she grants Mark a divorce so that he can marry Bill and legitimize their relationship.
Bill also gives Mark what Helen could not—two sons who will carry on his name. When he, too, dies rather young and unexpectedly, Bill is left a very rich woman. Loveless but wealthy, her two sons away at school and distant from her both in interests and temperament, Bill is consumed by memories of that early and hopeless love for Isaac and of the love-child who was snatched from her.
Bill thinks again with sorrow of the important role of all the women in her life: the three maiden aunts, Gladys, her sisters, her mother, and Helen, of the secrets they have hidden, the silences they have kept, the lies they have told.If you want to discover how she finally takes her revenge on her husband, her father, all the power-hungry men in her life, you’ll have to read the book.