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Mrs S
by K Patrick

Publisher:
Fourth Estate
304pp
Cosy Violence

The 22 year old Australian narrator of K Patrick’s sensuous, subversive debut novel is a long way from home. A matron at an unnamed boarding school in the remote English countryside, they regularly encounter the headmaster’s beautiful, self-assured wife. Mrs S breezes in and out of the girls’ lives, admired for her enigmatic glamour more than the pastoral care she is supposedly providing. The environs of the boarding houses, the adjoining church and lone village pub are much-photographed for their quaintness. Relics of another age, they are beset by ‘endless rumours of ghosts and disappearances. The imagined brutalities are always silent, always already happened’. A famous author, seemingly modelled on Charlotte Brontë, attended the school and hated it, living through a tuberculosis outbreak. She based several uncomplimentary novels on her time there, before the school managed to transform this association into positive branding and preserved the places where the author had been most unhappy for posterity.

 

As spring tips over into a baking hot summer, the narrator becomes consumed by obsessive lust for Mrs S, believing at first their ardour is not returned. The very air seems thick with yearning: ‘the weather has not changed. There is a lethargy. Movement reduced, laughter dissolved into sighs.’ As the frisson between the two blooms into a clandestine affair, Patrick’s present-tense telling makes time deliciously slow, the hot heaviness of the summer adding to the illusion that it could, perhaps, last forever, that the consequences will never arrive. At first, the school girls seem mere   distractions, to be tended to during term and then sent home for the summer, their naivete a backdrop to the narrator’s full-throated adult desire. But it becomes ever clearer that the setting is not just window dressing for an erotic fantasy of transgression, and is instead keenly relevant to the lovers’ very different understandings of their dalliance.

 

A sequence of events concerning the girls gradually reveals the school’s ethos (and that of Mrs S) to be fundamentally at odds with the narrator’s own moral code. When a girl’s violent rebuff of a schoolboy’s groping leads more to punishment than sympathy, and others are sanctioned for a drug-fuelled seance, it becomes clear where the school’s priorities lie. It takes the narrator, someone from half a world away, to understand that the girls are not just indulging in wayward, unladylike behaviour. Instead, they are defending themselves from assault, and reaching out to dead pupils from the novelist’s time, whose graves still stand in the churchyard and whose short, lonely lives are far from unimaginable to them.

 

The pivotal moment in the novel comes not when Mrs S refuses to leave her husband for the narrator, an outcome the narrator has suspected all along. (‘I’ve learned to like our privacy. Maybe I relied on it. The safety of it, untested.’) Instead there is another, subtler but more devastating betrayal. Assuming that Mrs S, as a fellow queer,will find it amusing, the narrator recounts their glimpse of two pupils kissing passionately in the Library. Mrs S instead asks for the girls’ names and insists that they must be reprimanded, because ‘it would be difficult, to have romance amongst The Girls, the idea is they can focus here, in a same-sex environment, they can become the best version of themselves’. The School is no Lesbos, no sacred space where passions between women, or those assigned female at birth, can flourish outside the rapacious grasp of the patriarchy. Instead it is a factory for the production of a certain kind of middle-to-upper class polite womanhood, which, if not entirely heterosexual, can still be pressed into the service of a heterosexuality which the narrator describes as ‘cosy violence’. Despite claiming to love the narrator, Mrs S still intends to honour her role as one of the factory’s overseers.

 

Throughout the novel, the narrator has been struggling to convey their understanding of their own gender to Mrs S, and their discomfort with being perceived as a woman. Quietly, they note masculine flourishes to ‘steal’ for their own at some future time when they will be more confident, freer to fashion themself authentically. During their first erotic encounter with Mrs S they hide their binder from her searching hands, and later fend off questions about whether they flatten their chest to be ‘more like a man’. The school admits no such nuances, nor does it permit the girls to explore sexuality on their own terms. Such an idea upends the entire system and makes cloistering them near-pointless. The girls are to be protected from the outside world, except when they are being exposed to it in measured doses, such as the dance at which the schoolboy takes his ill-fated liberty.

 

As secrecy makes honest conversation scarce, objects take on talismanic powers, with several significant gifts suggesting who the characters really are to one another. When a rock is thrown through a window of the chapel, shattering the stained glass depiction of Adam and Eve, the narrator steals a section. Although the Serpent is male in the original story, the glass fragment depicts ‘the temptation, the snake’s head a woman’s, reaching out to Eve from the apple tree, an apple already in Eve’s hand.’ The Serpent is a potent symbol for the role thrust upon the narrator, as they try and fail to carve out an existence within a stiflingly traditional system within which people like them were never intended to flourish. Their markedly different androgynous appearance proclaims a forbidden knowledge, another way of being in the world. They may have slunk into the garden but cannot safely remain there without causing disruption.

 

Mrs S makes a gift to the narrator, as well: her husband’s shirt, ostensibly given out of gratitude for helping her to tend the roses. ‘These things of his I like to suit, his knife, his shirt. She needs me to care where she cares, this I can do, this is second nature.’ Later, they accept a heavy silver chain from their only friend at the school, an older butch Housemistress who was given it by her grandfather, ‘a regular bastard’. The Housemistress’s speech patterns imply she is more likely to be of working class origins than Mrs S, and she insists that the narrator makes the chain ‘a new legacy, you can pass it on to the next impressionable young dyke’. While the shirt asks the narrator to ape the figure of the upper-middle class white man, to whose needs Mrs S remains implicitly loyal, the Housemistress’s gift gestures at newer, more expansive possibilities, beyond the binary confines of the school.

 

K Patrick has said of Mrs S that ‘I just had this impulse to write a horny lesbian novel’. They have absolutely succeeded at that aim – the granular, finely-worked detailing of longing, fantasising and consummation is wonderfully lascivious. We might think of lust as clouding our judgement, but the force of desire often reveals us to ourselves in startling ways. In depicting the narrator’s pursuit of pleasure, camaraderie and beauty, Mrs S also exposes how the commitment to lead a visibly queer life disrupts the assumptions of the traditional British class system. The old ideal of marriage to someone of equal or higher status is subverted when partnership doesn’t confer class in the same way, given that the system remains covertly based on feudal mores of bloodline and legitimacy. All the narrator has to offer is themself, not a patina of respectability or the legible role of headmaster’s wife, and Mrs S must make her choice on that alone. Patrick’s decision to make the narrator someone from Australia, who has not been brought up with exactly the same expectations promulgated by the school, throws this contrast between freedom and tradition into even sharper relief.

 

The means of the narrator’s departure from the school, accepting blame for things they did not do in order to spare the Housemistress and the girls from further discipline, shows a nobility of spirit far beyond the restrictive gentility the school has been expected to inculcate in its charges. To the powers that be, this seems like leaving in ignominy, but the reader has come far enough with the narrator to know it is a triumph. In their final parting from her, they kiss the hand of Mrs S, adorned with a wedding ring, and resolve that ‘I will have a different life’.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and editor based in Berlin. She has written for the TLS, the Literary ReviewAnother Gaze and the London Magazine among others. Her queer gothic short story collection Parallel Hells is published by Sceptre Books and she is currently working on her first novel The Decadence.

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