What happens when lovers—a married couple—live a VERY long time, and remain together: not separated by divorce or illness or accident or other forces beyond their ability to control, but rather, two people who fall in love in youth, and still find themselves together six or seven decades later? What is the evolution of such a relationship?
At what cost does longevity come? How do people change? How much of that change is a simple fact of living and aging? And is it also the effect of “the other”—the “couple effect”? How much DO we really change over time?
What draws us to that long term partner? What keeps us close? What chips away at love, intimacy and happiness? What stunts us in a long term relationship? What holds us back? What are the seeds of unhappiness? When and how are they sown? Sometimes, it is relentless adversity that pulls couples apart (I have witnessed this and felt so heartbroken for the two people who were, or had clearly been, deeply in love). But often, it is the very same things that once drew lovers together that eventually pull them apart.
These are some of the questions that Kathy Page examines in Dear Evelyn (2018), her 8th novel. She does this through the lens of a single married couple, Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill, who meet before the outbreak of the Second World War in front of a library, in London, England, and are only parted by death seventy years later, when their three daughters are themselves entering senior citizenship.
Dear Evelyn is a quiet, subtle and thoughtful novel that delves deeply, yet with discretion, and I couldn’t help but feel that Kathy Page found at least some of her inspiration in her own family history: Harry and Evelyn are so credible, so real. This might account for both the novel’s strengths and weaknesses, in the sense that, like most lives, Harry’s and Evelyn’s flow unremarkably most of the time, though they are peppered with dramatic spikes of acrimony, tension, loss and pain.
The notion that lovers are drawn to one another because each fills the other’s gaps has become a bit of a cliché, but there is definitely some truth to it in the case of Harry and Evelyn. In Harry’s calm stability, physical strength and fitness (a legacy of his years as a soldier on the North African front), intelligence, ambition to rise above his working class background, and gentle but intensely passionate devotion to his wife, Evelyn finds the reverse of the alcoholic, tubercular, cirrhotic, weak and dependent man who dragged her mother down to near destitution. Yet happiness still largely eludes Evelyn…
However, much of the novel’s sadness emanates from the fact that Harry does not find a similar sense of completion in his relationship with his wife, and it’s arguable that he never sought such a thing. Harry is simply dazzled—as a young man just months away from traumatic military service—by Evelyn’s beauty, vivacity, opinionatedness, inflexibility, ferocious appetite for life, and social ambition. From the very beginning, there’s no doubt that their bond is a passionate one.
What’s painful to observe in the novel is how much of Harry’s inner life—his thoughts, feelings, hopes and yearnings—are not revealed to Evelyn. How much remains unsaid. Perhaps it is because Evelyn is likely to be unresponsive to such confidences, and Harry understands this. Perhaps it is also because Harry is very much a man of that generation who faced the very worst enemy on the battlefield, and were altered by their experiences in ways that they would always be reluctant to share.
Or perhaps Harry’s tragic mutism is set up from the very first stirrings of his love for Evelyn.
“Evelyn! Evelyn! The sound of the word, the feeling of it in his mouth was almost a kiss. He did not sleep that night, or the next. All the week following he could not think, and made mistakes at work. He tried, during these warm, restless nights, to write her a sonnet. Any kind of verse. A letter even. But despite or because of the intensity of his feelings, it was impossible. He could barely read. It was as if he had lost all access to language.”
As its title suggests, Dear Evelyn is very much the story of a man who–though his private self longed for “an unsettled life” and for his soul’s elevation by the beauty of poetic self-expression–was brought by romantic passion to choose instead a stable, quiet life of dutiful love for his wife and children.
Harry and Evelyn’s love story is at once unique and very familiar.