Author: Edith Olivier
Publication: The Richards Press, hardcover, 1927
Setting: 20th century EnglandDescription: Lonely after her mother dies, Agatha recognizes she wasn’t much happier when her mother was alive and thinks back, remembering the childhood fun she had with an imaginary friend, Clarissa, until her governess shamed her out of harmless fancies. Deliberately, she luxuriates in those memories to escape from her bleak present and Clarissa becomes real to her again, first as a shadow, then as an elfin girl of about 11 who likes raspberries but is invisible to all but Agatha. Worried that people will think she is talking to herself, she goes to Brighton with Clarissa and once she buys the child clothes others can see her – first, the hotel staff, where she becomes a favorite, and then Agatha’s own servants at home, who are relieved she has found an interest. Nothing could be more delightful than Agatha and Clarissa’s carefree existence but as Clarissa grows up her interests expand, as Agatha’s never did, to include the outside world. Agatha’s fear that she will lose Clarissa (perhaps with reason) makes her jealous and her increasing desperation results in tragedy.
My Impression: I am glad the British Library Women Writers reissue caused me to read this whimsical story that pulls the reader in from its forlorn beginning:
And as the old memory came back, it seemed to Agatha that in losing Clarissa, she had not only lost a real playmate, but she had also lost the only being who had ever awoken her own personality, and made it responsive – she had lost something without which she had grown as futile as a racquet striking the air, against no ball.At first, the story reminded me of Miss Hargreaves where two somewhat foolish young men, joking around, conjure up a person who is all too real and completely disrupts their lives. However, after I thought about it, I decided it was more like Tom’s Midnight Garden, a classic that won the Carnegie Medal, in which a lonely boy spending time outside somehow has a meeting of the minds with a girl who inhabited the garden long ago. He doesn’t know it but she is lonely too and they are real to each other when playing in the garden. Clarissa starts out as just a shadow and the more Agatha treats her as being real, the more she exists to other people. In a different sort of book, the advent of a new person would draw Agatha out of her shell (she may seem middle-aged but she is just 32 when the book begins) and help her become a part of her community but that is not what happens – in fact, quite the opposite. But somehow, although slight and disturbing, it is an unpredictable and appealing book.
Cover art from my copy
Source: Library. This edition has an Introduction by Lord David Cecil and Decorations by Rex Whistler.