On Suburban Souls


Richard Manton

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 102 in 1999.

Suburban Souls is a novel of sex and jealousy, obsessive in its way as the self-consuming passion of the Narrator for Albertine in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. A decade before the first volume of Proust's great novel, Suburban Souls dwells on the true nature of erotic jealousy. In its final stages the jealous emotion is not Othello's torment of tragic grandeur. Rather, it is necessary to the victim and, in its way, gratifying as the stimulation of sexual enjoyment.

Suburban Souls is the fictional autobiography of Jacky S., a middle-aged broker on the Paris bourse. In the last years of the nineteenth century he makes the acquaintance of Eric Arvel, a writer for the financial press who lives in the outer Paris suburbs at Sonis-sur-Marne. Arvel's house-hold consists of his mistress and the woman's adolescent daughter, Lilian, with whom the narrator falls in love. Though its sexual descriptions are more explicit, the novel has far more in common with the naturalism of Zola or Maupassant than with the pipe dreams of Edwardian erotica. The Parisian world of the 1890s, its cafes and railway stations, its metropolitan avenues and the semi-rural suburbs of brokers and entrepreneurs, are evoked by a suggestive impressionism appropriate to the age. The novel is more French than English. As so often with Carrington's publications it has the style of a book written in another language and then translated literally. There are such verbal oddities as the references to the Eastern Station in Paris, when even an Englishman would be more likely to recognize it as the Gare de l'Est.

Yet the strange and growing involvement of Jacky S. with young Lilian Arvel is meticulously and yet vividly observed by the victim himself. For Lilian is not the innocent Little Nell or Little Em'ly of Victorian family reading. She is eager to be morally corrupted, her passion woken with a perverseness which unnerves her middle-aged seducer. Suburban Souls sees this girl-child by the new light of Freudian theory, rather than in the comforting glow of Dickensian sentiment.

Jacky himself is set on enjoying her. Yet, he adds, "I wanted her to find a worthy husband and go to him a virgin. I told her so. I made her understand that on the day of her marriage I would retire from her life." This confusion of passion and guilt augurs ill for the developing relationship.

In no time at all the hero and his adolescent mistress are meeting secretly in an apartment on the Rue de Leipzig. Though Lilian's virginity is preserved, she is an eager partner in bed, sucking her lover's erection, guiding it to the entrance of her vagina, though restraining its penetration, and squeezing it to orgasm between her bare thighs.

The girl, as much as the man, seems anxious to preserve her virgin status. Unlike the heroines of pornography she fears the ordeal of being deflowered, pushing the narrator away with cries of "You hurt me!" Though she sucks him until he comes in her mouth, she finds no evident pleasure in this experience at first.

The course of true love is far from smooth in Suburban Souls. Indeed there are moments when the intercourse of the man and the girl becomes confused to the point where even the participants are not quite sure of what is going on. Pushed away from Lilian's vagina, Jacky seeks consolation by placing his "bursting" erection between her buttocks. Pushing and thrusting, he is convinced that in the final moments he has penetrated her behind. Lilian assures him that nothing of the sort happened. As so often in the book, even the antics of the bedroom are principally an account of the state of the hero's mind and the impressions he receives.

As the story unfolds the book becomes far more the account of the mental state of Jacky S. than a study of Lilian and her depravity. One of the most exciting incidents, in its effect on the narrator, is one in which he has no direct part. Lilian describes a young law student's vigorous attempt to rape her. Jacky is neither jealous nor outraged. To hear of the young man's assault on the girl he himself loves acts as a powerful aphrodisiac - to use his own term - and he makes her repeat it to him often.

At this time the hero's emotions of jealousy begin their pathological development. He presents Lilian with a copy of Sade's Justine, urging her to pay particular attention to Saint Fond's account of the pleasure to be derived by seeing one's mistress in the arms of another man. In a little while Jacky even encourages Lilian to try and excite her step-father, Eric Arvel, the very source of the jealousy, which is to torment him later in the book.

"You should rub against him whenever you call," says Jacky to the girl, "and let your cheek and hair touch his face while type-writing together, etc., and then look at his trousers and see if he is in erection."

Whether or not Lilian becomes, in the end, the instigator of depravity she is certainly a willing pupil for all that Jacky, has to teach her. On the occasion when he gives her several strokes across her bottom with a cane she "hardly winces" at the cuts. "I am certain she likes the chastisement of the male," he concludes, though we have only his word for it.

Their shared fantasies become more extreme. He devises a scene in which Lilian must sit naked on the toilet while he cleans his teeth. When rinsing his mouth, he is to spit the water over her. LiIian's role is to be "the living chamber utensil of her master." Her only reproach against him in this matter is that he talks about such ideas but does not put them into practice. "I saw that she really enjoyed these filthy projects," he wrote afterwards.

The relationship between Jacky and Lilian changes from that of an older lover - her Papa, as she calls him - and an adolescent girl into the contract of a whore and her pay-master.

He calls her his whore for the first time while they make love and later on makes her masturbate him by the street railings as a common prostitute would. "Oh, yes. I am your little whore!" she whispers as she does so. "And would you do anything for me?" he asks, "Anything, no matter how dirty or disgusting?" Her answer is false but it is the one he wants to hear. "Anything, as long as it is you!"

Inevitably, his reward for reducing her to the level of a prostitute in their fantasies is that she begins to act like one in reality. In his account of their relationship, Jacky complains increasingly of the mercenary motives which seem to drive Lilian towards him. His heart grows full of the "uneasy feeling of repulsion that her broad, mercenary hints were beginning to cause in me." His first revenge is in the cruelty of language which he uses towards her both in their meetings and in his letters. But this style is entirely apt in their new relationship. "The more cynically and brutally I wrote, the better she liked it."

For Lilian to be mercenary was not the worst which might happen. There were, after all, plenty of kept women in the Paris of the 1890s who lived on easy terms with their keepers. Soon, however, Jacky guesses that she is a confirmed liar in the area of sexual relations. Her expertise in bed, so engaging at first, merely serves to convince him, "that other hands and other male organs had been in contact with Lilian Arvel's body."

Suburban Souls is never more purely the story of Jacky's own obsessions than in his analysis of Lilian the moral delinquent. Convinced that he has caught her out in lies about letters which she claims to have written but then lost, he gets out the packet of her correspondence to him. By means of this he subjects her, in absentia, to a psychiatric examination in the terms of the day. Like Proust's Narrator, it is the man rather than the girl who makes the better subject for this. However, he concludes: "She suffers from anaemia or chlorosis. There is evidently psychopathic deterioration and she is a neurotic subject.... Masturbation and unnatural practices before the age of puberty have produced neurasthenia with its attendant symptoms. It is a clear case of hysteria."

Such passages serve to remind us that whether or not 1901 was the publication year of Suburban Souls, it saw the appearance of a far more famous work: Sigmund Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

By a natural progression, the hero's abhorrence of Lilian's greed for money and his conviction of her falsehoods ripen at last into an all-consuming sexual jealousy. "She inspired disgust and excited desire," he confesses toward the end of the novel. "In a word she troubled the brain of whoever took an Interest in her." Their relationship had begun with Lilian addressing him as "Beloved Master." Before the end she is calling him "My Own Slave." The links of the chain binding them are forged from a self-tormenting jealousy which consumes him like a wasting sickness.

Like Proust's Narrator who abhors Albertine's lesbian love for Andrée while remaining hungry for details of it, Jacky S. sees the same unnatural affection between Lilian and her friend Charlotte. Above all he is convinced that she shares the bed of her own stepfather, Eric Arvel.

As in all such cases, the victim is torn between the hope of his mistress being proved innocent and the satisfaction of finding her guilty. When the Arvel family goes to Belgium, Jacky asks a lawyer of his acquaintance to investigate the sleeping arrangements at the hotel. He even has a plan of the rooms drawn up. The gossip of the servants, the state of the beds, a dozen such details convince him that incestuous love has been consummated.

The behaviour of the victim in his helpless envy follows a predictable passion. Upon such evidence he rages at the girl for her betrayal and whoredom. Then, with the first sign of affection, he begs to be forgiven and to be allowed to love her again.

Paradoxically, perhaps, there is a strong vein of puritanism in Suburban Souls. For all his seductions of Lilian, the narrator is easily repelled by the grossness of their conduct together. He talks of masturbation or unnatural vice, the wiles of women and the corruption of society with all the vehemence of a popular Victorian moralist.

If there is one passage, however, in which the gaslit Paris of the fin de siècle, the easy-going sexual accommodations of café and boulevard, and the ambiguous passion of Jacky and Lilian is best summed up, it is surely that evening when the matter of her virginity was at last put to the test. The incident occurred on a Sunday, 23 April 1899. That morning Jacky had received a telegram from the girl asking him to meet her at 9 P.M. in the American Bar, near the most fashionable of all Parisian thoroughfares, the Avenue de l'Opéra. The sequel to this invitation is graphically described in one of the most evocative passages of the entire book. Had the great novelists of the later nineteenth century permitted themselves the range of such subject matter, this might well have been the sort of chapter which resulted. At the very least it puts Suburban Souls high among the achievements of writing about sexual relations in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Excerpt from Suburban Souls: The Erotic Psychology of a Man With a Maid by Anonymous

I went and found my charmer in a new flaming dress, made entirely of vivid red cloth. She had white kid gloves, with a nice hat, and looked very well, being very red in the face too. She had with her the Lesbian Lolotte, ex-mistress and ex-betrothed of her brother Raoul. They were both very jolly. I had never seen Lolotte before, but she knew me by name from Lily. I chaff them about their sexless kisses when alone together, and want to know who is the man of the two. It is the stereotyped stuff that is always poured out to a tribadic couple. Lolotte is a pretty, plump blonde. She was very free and charming; about Lily's age, 22 or thereabouts. We are soon very comfortable together in the back saloon of the bar, where it seems to me, Lily is well-known. It was near the Café de la Guerre, and she went there with her brother on Shrove Tuesday.

Directly I saw Lilian, I exclaimed: "Hullo, all up for our luncheon to-morrow!"

"How do you mean?"

"Why, you fetching me out in Paris to-night proves it is all off."

"But that would not prevent us lunching tomorrow, although I can't come for the following reasons. How strange you should have guessed it! I had to take some hats to a customer in Paris on Monday, so I profited by that to get to you. This morning comes a postcard, which Mother sees, to say that the lady prefers to come down to the country. So I can't get out to Paris. The excuse is destroyed. If it had been a letter, I could have suppressed it, and seen the lady today, so as to stop her coming down. Thus our lunch is knocked on the head!"

"Lies!" I thought, but I said nothing. I should have liked to have seen that postcard.

"I have finished Césarée," said Lily. "It is beautiful. You have marked it well, and scored the best bits, but you are all wrong in one instance."

"About the bedrooms at the Swiss hotel, I suppose?"

"Yes. You know you are quite mistaken in your ideas about me!' She said this slowly and dreamily, not looking straight at me.

"I am absolutely convinced of the truth of my conjectures and stick to even, word I have ever said or written on the subject!" I say this firmly, loudly, and impressively.

Charlotte was listening to the conversation, and Lily spoke quite openly, showing that her fair friend knew the secrets of Sonis. I told her that Lily, was a liar, and had an awful temper. She knew it, and replied that all women were liars, out of necessity.

Lily's friend talked about London and declared that she would like to go there during the season. I offered, jokingly, to take her. She replied with emphasis, that it would be very nice, and people would take her for a daughter travelling with her Papa!

And she looked fixedly and archly at me. I had enough presence of mind to pay no apparent heed to her bold words, but I felt I had scored again. She knew.

I said I was impotent. Lily cried out: "No, he isn't!"

Lolotte said she was sentimental, and Lily was not. Nevertheless, the blonde confessed that she liked something stiff and rather long. I could see by the way she spoke that Lily was now like herself; a common, ordinary, middle-class, half-and-half kind of whore, always on the look-out for a man with money, and had I told her the story of her friend's virginity, she would have been quite surprised. It was a great pity that I knew Lily's stepfather-lover and all his connections and history so well. Under ordinary circumstances, they would never have thought of hatching these intricate and silly plots against me.

I spoke of Raoul, but both the girls begged me never to tell him of the meeting of the two beauties in Paris at night.

Lily told us the story of her day:

"I got up at nine, had a bath, lunched; then went on my bicycle, came home, dressed again; came to Paris, fetched Charlotte, and we both went to Narkola's to dine, us two girls alone (!!). We had lots of nice things - bisque soup and fine wine."

"In a cabinet particulier, both alone together?"

"Oh no, in the public room!"

All lies, but I say nothing.

"How dry you must both be now!"

They roar with laughter, and whisper together, and giggle; and again our conversation about the sexes becomes lewd and stupid. They have two American drinks each. I have a soda and Scotch whisky. Lily amuses herself dropping her saliva in my half-emptied glass, making me drink her spittle mixed with my beverage. She tells me that Gaston taught her that clean manner of showing affection. Lolotte gets on well with me and wants me to take her to London more than ever.

To lull Lily into security I thank her for having sent for me, and she alludes to how I said she sickened me, when she sent me a sudden summons by wire last September. She also spoke of my birthday, and remembered the day well. I merely quote these two facts to show that her brain was clear on technical points, and although she was artful enough to give no sign, all I had ever written to her, all I had ever said, had always gone right home to the mark, and remained in her memory. No doubt she read my letters over and over again. Poor, miserable Lily!

The girls kiss and say good night. We put Charlotte in a cab, and off she goes to her home, somewhere beyond the Bastile. Lily has a little, jealous scene about my freedom with her friend, as Lolotte had taken off her glove and held my hand and tickled it. We go for a ride to the Eastern station, to catch the 10:30 to Sonis. I am not to get out of the cab at the station, so as not to be seen by the neighbours who might be taking this train, or anybody, or somebody.

"When shall we meet again?" I ask.

"I don't know. You are aware how difficult it is for me to get to Paris."

"It used to be difficult. It ought not to be difficult now."

No answer.

I tell her I shall masturbate her in the cab. We get in. We exchange hot and luscious kisses, as we have been doing all the evening, more or less. After a lot of resistance, with cries of: "People will see us! Oh! They are looking, etc.," I get my hand up her clothes. I pull down the blinds. She puts them up. At last, I overcome her feigned resistance and begin to excite her with my finger.

She has on her best drawers, and to my surprise, her cleft, generally smelling strong of the wonderful odour peculiar to the sex, is quite inodorous. It has evidently been freshly washed after dinner. My fingers afterwards were entirely without any feminine perfume. I knew also that a virgin's vulva is always more fragrant than that of a woman used to coition. I remembered that when her people were at Nice at January she had a dinner at Narkola's, with Madame Rosenblatt and her male relations, who had purposely sent a false telegram to her Granny.

Of course that was a cock and a bull story. Here is Narkola's again! Had I chosen, I could have gone there the next day, and inquired about an imaginary earring dropped by the young lady in the red dress, but I really was now quite indifferent, and would not have walked twenty yards to find out anything about her. I had spied upon her in Brussels - that was enough.

Suddenly, while gently caressing her clitoris, I turned half round, so as to get almost facing her, and placing my right forearm under her chin, on her throat, I drive her backwards into her corner of the cab, and while she is thus pressed there, unable to move, I thrust the middle finger of my left hand as far up her vagina as I can, until it is stopped by the knuckles.

I measure my finger next day, finding 2 ½ inches, and my hand is small.

The 2 ½ inches of medius go up easily. I move my finger about inside, with a slight corkscrew motion. Within all is soft and damp, but not wet from randiness, only from the drink. She has not left me to void her urine since 9 P.M. She shrieks loudly and says:

"You hurt me You hurt me!"

She struggles, but I have her tightly jammed in the corner. I find that her grotto is strangely altered. The outer lips were always very fleshy, but inside all was small, and the skin tightly drawn together, as on a thin hand. Now it is very fat, mellow, and as I said, not wet, as she was not feeling "naughty." My finger went in as in butter, and she has now evidently what I should call a large, fat gap, which has been properly stroked, doubtless by big, manly tools. But then, having been used that evening, it might be a little puffed up, as women's parts are after connection.

I cried out: "You are no longer a virgin! No longer a maid! Now I shall be able to have complete intercourse with you!"

I took my finger out and released her. She made a wry face, as she put down her clothes, saying:

"Oh, you did hurt me! But I'm still a virgin. Your finger went in because it was not in the right place. You were between the two!"

Possibly meaning just under the clitoris and above the hymen. I need not stop to point out the absurdity of this anatomical statement.

"You are a virgin? Bosh!"

"I swear I am! On my mother's life, I swear I am still intact!"

I was so delighted at having attained my object, that I did not realise the contemptible horror of the situation. It was only afterwards, when I was alone, that I gauged the depths of Lilian's baseness. At the moment, curiously enough, I thought of how I should describe the scene in my book. I saw it all in print, and it seemed comic and unreal, as if it was happening to someone else, and I was but the spectator of my own disgusted self. But there was a glorious warmth of triumph thrilling through my veins. I felt like a detective, who after many months has run his man down, and at last got the handcuffs on a criminal. I do believe that if I had found she really was a virgin, I should have been disappointed to find a maidenhead. It would have seemed like a monstrosity. Never did a surgeon operating on some special case of hidden cancer, feel more awful, intense joy than I did at that critical juncture.

"Come," said I, laughing, "and I'll finish you gently."

She was now quiet and subdued, and expected likely enough a storm of reproaches. She kissed me and let me put my hand up her clothes without any show of revolt. I began again to manipulate her rosebud, but naturally enough, she had no enjoyment. Then I got very stiff, but not too much, as I had been indulging that afternoon, and I got it out and put her hand on it.

She caressed and agitated it a little. Seeing we were getting near the station and having a sudden desire for her hot mouth, which I knew would make me ejaculate in a jiffey, better than her awkward pulling at me with her gloved hand, I said:

"Give me your mouth, Lily!"

She shook her head, and kept on with the movements of her fingers. I take her hand away and say:

"I must have your lips and tongue, Lily!"

She sulks and turns her back to me, looking out of the window.

"Well, I'll masturbate myself!"

"Oh no, don't do that!"

"I will! I'll spend alone! And you can go to the man with no finger nails!"

At this rude remark, which called up the vision of the hands of her mother's lover, to my astonishment she turns round and kisses me. She was so pleased to find I showed jealousy of the wrong person. She was waiting for a scene about the people she had dined with. Out comes her hand again. I push it away, and rub my member a little, like a schoolboy. She turns her head away again, and to give her a chance, I say:

"I suppose your stays prevent you stooping down?"

She, the fool, cannot take my handsome hint, but has turned her back once more entirely towards me, and does not answer.

So I, in despair, cover myself up and button my pants. At this moment, we are just nearing the station.

Seeing this, she is evidently delighted that all is over for the evening, and turning, draws me towards her, gently patting my check with her hand, her arm testing on my shoulder, as I had often seen her with her Papa. At this Judas-like caress, I confess that I felt myself boiling over with rage.

She has disdainfully me her lips, without a word of excuse, although I have not spent with her since the 1st of March, and have not had her mouth since the 1st of October.

If she had said: "I am tired. How can I suck you in my tight stays, new dress, jacket and hat?" I would willingly have excused her, especially as I was not very lustful just then. But she had not even taken off a glove. Her stroke on my check meant: "Now that it is too late to suck him, I'll make it up with the idiot."

My blood boiled at this thought, and I repulsed her, pushing her from me by the shoulder. She was on my right hand. I felt like a brute and behaved like one. I dashed our my right arm and caught her a fearful backhander on the lower part of the left check and jaw.

She gasped for breath, and said slowly and quietly in a low tone:

"How brutal!"

"I am mad," I replied, "go and spend when you get home."

This was foolish, as she had freely emitted in Paris, and was not ready for me after her dinner, frolic, and two American champagne mixtures. She had had her enjoyment, and was not yet whore enough to play the proper part with another man at two hours' interval. Besides, her temper would not allow her to do so.

She was on the proper side to leave the cab, as it was now stopped. so she stopped out without a word, and I saw her go slowly and shakily along the station frontage, not boldly entering the first door in front of her, as she ought to have done, but sneaking along slowly, evidently thinking I was doing to come after her, or perhaps tipsy, or crying, or mad with rage at being outwitted. Or going to the ladies' W.C. at the end of the building.

I slowly paid the cabman, watching her the while. I dared not follow her, for I knew that if I did - God help me! - l should have struck her again. So I turned away, and walked home. How I got along and what streets I took - I do not know. I am surprised I was not run over. I found myself in front of my door, that is all I can. It was about 11:30 or 11:45. I got into bed and smoked until 2 A.M. I could not settle to read. I could only smoke and state at nothing. I was very much upset, although I had known the truth all along by intuition.

Then I found that the knuckles of the second and third fingers of my night hand were torn and bleeding. I did not think I could have burst the skin with the force of the blow on her face. I do not suppose I hurt her much, as I had no room to swing my arm in the cab, and she did not put her hand up to her face after the blow. I hoped that I had torn my knuckles on her brooch, or neckpins, or earrings, or garters, or something of the same kind, while struggling with her, and these slight abrasions were only coincidences.

Strange to say, but it is the truth, I had no regret for having struck her and feel none now. When I wrote her that insulting letter about the Belgian trip, and sent the analysis of her own letters, I felt strangely delighted, and was surprised when she was silly enough to answer.

It was the first time in my life that I had ever lifted my hand to a woman in anger.

The next day I was quite calm again, and hugely pleased to find how well I had succeeded.

I had quite deceived the infamous Trinity at Sonis and I had proved to Lily that I knew she was no longer a virgin.

I had set myself a threefold task: to prove that Lily was Papa's mistress, by exposing the lies from Lily; that her maidenhead was gone, despite her assertions to the contrary; and that they were all in league to conspire against me.

All I had to do now was to bide my time to taunt her with her complicity, and then I could go away.