Pico Iyer Journeys

Chandler's Women

The classic British public-school grooms its inmates perfectly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the other sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding-schools are still all-male), and even as they are taught just how to give or take orders, and how to bring their curious blend of stoicism and fellowship to Afghanistan or the Empty Quarter, they receive no instruction in what to do with that alien force that awaits them every night at home. Much of 20th century English literature comes, not surprisingly, from products of these half-military, half-monastic institutions (not least because self-discipline and getting things done are part of what they impart), and the result is a grand corpus of books written by men who seem at once fascinated and unsettled by that mysterious Other known as woman.

The archetype of this tradition might be said to be Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, about a crippled (quite literally) young medical student and sometime artist who is so determined to act in the chivalric mode, and so unused to dealing with real women in all their complication, that he alights upon a waitress who clearly has little time for him, and sets about trying to rescue her, even if the consequences are disastrous for everyone concerned (in The Razor’s Edge even the pure-hearted saint Larry Darrell turns his sights on a fallen woman whom he is sure he can save–and again her demons turn out to be much stronger than his good intentions). Throughout the works of Philip Roth, a similar tangle between weak, too trusting man and manipulative woman is constantly on display, but the tone is strikingly different from that in Maugham if only because Roth’s men want merely to be good boys, not parfit gentil knights. They are just regular, somewhat bookish, largely bewildered young men, in love with their parents, and not with their schools and a code of Tennysonian valor.

Or look at Wilson–to take an almost random example from Graham Greene–in The Heart of the Matter, composing love-poems for his old school magazine and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s met just once; his room-mate in Africa, from the same public-school, confesses, “To tell the truth, women scare me.” It is in fact the very heart of Greene’s creed of paradoxes that it is the impulse to help or save others that always condemns us, and that “Innocence must die young,” as he puts it in the same novel, “if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.” In works like The Quiet American the action turns upon the dialogue between an older man who barricades himself behind a pretense of not caring and a much younger man whose chivalry the older man mocks because he feels its vestiges so strongly in himself. John le Carre, the clear heir to this tradition, did not have to write a book invoking Schiller’s terms of The Naive and Sentimental Lover for readers, especially female readers, to come away with the unquiet feeling that he seemed to know about all the esoteric conspiracies and hidden currents of the political world, on every continent, and yet to be moony and even helpless when it came to women. His character George Smiley can solve any problem of espionage, but the wound and secret flaw he cannot conceal is that he does not know what to do with his misbehaving wife.

For those intrigued by this distinctly British type, played in the movies these days by Ralph Fiennes or, for Wodehousian moments, by Hugh Grant, Raymond Chandler offers a casebook of evidence. Though born to an American father and an Irish mother, in Chicago, Chandler was brought up in England in his formative years and sent by a rich uncle to the 17th century public-school of Dulwich, from which Wodehouse (who seemed to live in the cloudless, protected world of school into his nineties) graduated the year of Chandler’s arrival, and the iconic explorer Ernest Shackleton had passed on only a few years earlier. Though he moved to California at the age of 24, in 1913, and lived there until his death at 70, Chandler held onto his Englishness as if it were all that could protect him amidst the rapacious and unstructured vacuum of Los Angeles in its early years; much of the poignancy and intensity of his depiction of the crooked world around him come from his sense of himself, wearing tweeds that smelled of mothballs, and shopping for antiques with his wife, bringing the courtly code of Rupert Brooke to a hungry young society that had no European past and was determined to set up its own hierarchy based on money, ruthlessness and greed.

In every Philip Marlowe novel the action seems driven by a woman, usually an easy, alluring woman by whom Marlowe is at once attracted and unnerved; the first page of the first novel, The Big Sleep, finds him looking up at a “knight in dark armor” on a stained-glass panel who is trying to rescue a naked lady, and thinking that the knight himself could do with some help. Marlowe’s heroism comes from the fact that he is tilting single-handedly against the official corruptions of Los Angeles and usually trying to rescue a damsel in distress from the squalor and compromises all around; his interest comes from the fact that it is the woman who is usually playing him, and who is at least as corrupt as the society around her. In six of the seven Marlowe novels a murder is committed by a woman; and in none of the great books till the last, The Long Goodbye, does Marlowe even spend the night with a lover. When once a woman is shown in the nude, three references to “shame” appear in two sentences.

It is the inspired idea of the novelist Judith Freeman, played out in her atmospheric and unusual The Long Embrace, to try to tease out something of Chandler’s nature by looking at his relations with women, and particularly with his wife of thirty years, Cissy. The book, Freeman stresses at the outset, will not be a biography (at least two solid Chandler biographies, by Frank MacShane and by the young English journalist Tom Hiney, already exist); nor does she pick apart the novels for clues as many of his admirers, who include W.H. Auden, Albert Camus and Edith Sitwell, might do. Hers is, at heart, a more personal and curious mission: she confesses that she is obsessed by Cissy and the man she habitually refers to as “Ray,” and drawn to them for reasons she can’t explain. The book becomes, therefore, a series of desultory, brooding, solitary meditations in which she drives around contemporary Los Angeles, looking, often in vain, for the places where Cissy and Chandler lived, and seeing what little she can dig up of a relationship that has always been mysterious.

Cissy Chandler was born Pearl Eugenia Hurlburt, in Perry, Ohio, though from an early age she seems to have had a rich sense of the theatrical. Even when she first got married at 27, Freeman discovers, she was already taking four years off her age, having by then rechristened herself with a name (“Cecilia” and then “Cissy”) that sounded more up-to-date and coquettish than Pearl Eugenia. She was on her second marriage by the time she met Chandler, among a group of cultured Bohemians in L.A. who called themselves The Optimists, and had studied piano in Harlem and posed, sometimes nude, for painters and photographers.

Scroll to top