Date of publication
To Francis Iles, from his obliged and affectionate friend, The Author
Armstrong, Anne. ‘New Novels: Gay Life’. Saturday Review, Oct. 1933, p. 396.; ‘Books of the Day: New Novels-Gay Life’. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959), 27 Oct. 1933, p. 5; Hartley, L. P. ‘The Literary Lounger: On With The Motley!’ The Sketch, 1 Nov. 1933, p. 42; ‘Notes for the Novel Reader: Fiction of the Month’. The Illustrated London News, vol. 183, no. 4936, 25 Nov. 1933, p. 854; Thirkell, Angela. ‘Gay Life’. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 1654, 12 Oct. 1933, p. 688.
At the Hotel d'Azur in the South of France, a disparate group of visitors are assembled, some for a holiday, some to work. Hilary and Angie Moon, a young married couple in their twenties, are bored of each other and short of money; Angie is stunningly beautiful and has an eye out for her next lover. Misanthropic Mr Bolham, is an older, scholarly man, rich enough to hire a secretary to come with him on holiday. Coral Romayne, in her forties and losing her charm, which in her view is her only asset in life; she is separated from her husband, who makes her a generous allowance. Travelling with Coral are her son Patrick, sixteen years old and perpetually unhappy-looking, and his holiday tutor, Buckland. Coral is strongly attracted to Buckland and he plays up to this. They are wealthy enough to afford their own car. Mr Muller, an American businessman, is at the hotel alone, waiting for his family to join him. Mary and Captain Mervyn Morgan, who have a farm in Wales, are at the hotel having the holiday of a lifetime, Mary having inherited some money. Their three children are Olwen (about 16), David (about 12) and Gwennie (about 8), all attractive and well-behaved; Gwennie is the pet of the hotel staff. Denis Waller, Mr Bolham's secretary, is a young man in his late twenties, very self-conscious and anxious about what others think of him. Dulcie Courtenay, also sixteen, is a hotel child, the daughter of widowed Mr Courtenay who works at the hotel as a kind of entertainments manager for the guests. Nearby, at the villa called Les Mimosas, author Chrissie Challoner is staying, with Mrs Wolverton-Gush (Gushie) in tow as her secretary-cum-housekeeper. Gushie is a friend of both Coral and Buckland, and has obtained the job for him, at a commission. Mr Bolham is friendly with Mary Morgan, and makes waspish remarks about the other guests to her. Mary is not keen on most of them, but is more tolerant. Coral takes Buckland, Patrick, the Morgan children, Denis and Dulcie by car to swim from nearby rocks. Denis dislikes Coral but thinks she might be a useful social contact and has grandiose aspirations of being a good influence over women. Denis and Dulcie chat on the beach; Denis, a physical coward, is afraid of swimming and diving. Patrick and Olwen talk, and Patrick explains that his parents are separated, and talks of his great hatred for Buckland, who he sees as a sponge; his views of his mother are rose-coloured. The Morgans swim out to join their father on a rock. Mervyn is a very conventional man, fond of his children but not interested in them, and unconvinced about his wife's approach to childrearing, although he rarely criticises her. Buckland and Coral flirt in the water, and Patrick swims away, disgusted. The Moons discover that Chrissie is staying at the villa, and that Coral knows Gushie. They plan to visit Chrissie. Angie and Buckland are attracted to one another. Mr Bolham finds it difficult to get on with Denis, who is prone to lies and exaggeration in order to fit in, and is appalled if anyone takes a personal interest in his background. The Moons, Coral, Buckland and Denis all go to Les Mimosas. Chrissie and Denis strike up an immediate intimacy, and he tells her something of his background; they have each been lonely in some ways. They arrange to meet again after an intense conversation. Back at the hotel, Denis offers up rapturous, thankful prayers for Chrissie coming into his life. Buckland sees Coral to her room, and there is a flirtatious tussle on the landing before she goes into her room alone. Patrick, next door, sees her shut the door and Buckland leaving. The next day, Patrick has breakfast with Dulcie, who is waiting for her father to come back after a trip away. An expedition is planned to a nearby hotel which serves bouillabaisse. The postman comes; Denis receives, as he often does, a letter in a woman's hand from a suburban postcode. The Moons argue, as Hilary wants to move on to another town, and Angie refuses to go. Mr Bolham finds that his dislike of Denis is causing him to treat his secretary with excessive generosity, and agrees that Denis should join the bouillabaisse party. Denis is agonised as he had agreed to meet Chrissie, and after much soul-searching he leaves a message for her. Chrissie receives her message, and contemplates her strange, sudden enthusiasm for Denis. After some hanging about, the lunch party sets off, going part of the way by boat. Gwennie Morgan inadvertantly exposes a lie Denis has told to Dulcie. Mary Morgan feels vaguely sorry for Denis, and considers how her own romantic nature has never really been fulfilled. Denis is further humiliated by some horseplay from Buckland at lunch. Patrick spends lunch thinking of his dislike of Buckland and how difficult it is to be sixteen, not quite grown up and no longer a child. He is cheered by spending time with the Morgans but then discouraged again by a long dull discourse from Denis about his interest in psychology. Denis thinks he could help Patrick, and offers to, saying he can see how much he dislikes Buckland. Patrick brushes him off, saying he is having a marvellous holiday. Back at the hotel, Denis has a note from Chrissie arranging to meet that evening. Chrissie tells him the story of her life; she ran away from home at seventeen, and then her father died suddenly and she and her sister inherited much more money than they expected. She has lived a rather Bohemian life and tells him about her past lovers. Denis is rather shocked by her moral standards and tells her he tries to follow the moral teachings of Christ. But then he backtracks and thanks her for her frankness; he thinks he can help her. He tells her a version of his own life-story and they part affectionately. Earlier that day, Hilary and Angie go to Cannes and Hilary buys a motor-boat and a car. Back at the hotel, Buckland flirts with Angie but they are interrupted by the return of Mr Courtenay and then Coral. Coral and Buckland argue about a planned trip to see Chrissie that evening. Patrick offers to drive, but Coral refuses to allow it, forcing Buckland to come with them. Coral is distraught that Buckland prefers Angie to her, and complains about this to Gushie. Chrissie is very vague towards her guests and wanders off after dinner, to meet Denis. Gushie and Coral gossip about her attachment to Denis. Buckland considers his position, and realises he would be foolish to give up his job in order to chase Angie Moon. Returning to the hotel, Denis meets Mr Courtenay and realises with horror that he recognises him. Courtenay's London address is over the road from Denis's wife Phyllis. They were secretly married when Denis was 23 - she is a little older than him - and lived together briefly, but Denis's fastidious nature was distressed by the sordid proximity of their life in rooms. He rents a tiny flat for her, but has taken residential jobs or lived in boarding-houses rather than with his wife since then. Denis has a low sex drive and although he has had sentimental involvements with other women, he has been physically faithful. But he is now terrified that his marriage will come to light and that Chrissie will find out. The Moons, Buckland, Denis, Courtenay and Dulcie go out for a trip in the Moons' motor-boat. After a short distance, she hits a rock and is holed below the waterline. The party have to swim to a rock, some distance away. Dulcie is a poor swimmer but is helped by Hilary Moon and her father. Denis gets into difficulties and panics; Buckland swims out to him, hits him on the jaw and tows the stunned Denis to the rock. Dulcie is the only person to treat him sympathetically. Buckland swims back to the mainland and summons help. Later that evening, Denis meets Chrissie again and tries to sound out what she already knows, before giving his own, more flattering account of the events. Chrissie tells him firmly to stop dramatising himself and that they must be honest with each other. Hilary Moon receives his hotel bill unexpectedly early, but has no money to pay it. A trip to Monte Carlo is planned and Buckland persuades Angie to come, before kissing her for the first time. We learn Hilary Moon's back-story: his mother, a war widow, was chronically short of money and alcoholic, and his childhood was nomadic and disruptive. By chance, he makes friends with the son of a rich man and is taken in by them and treated as one of the family until Atkinson irritates him; Hilary is unkind to him and asked to leave. Since then he has been drifting around London, cadging and borrowing. He is tired of his relationship with Angie, and wonders whether an affair with wealthy Chrissie would be the solution. He bumps into Denis, and is very rude to him, but Denis unexpectedly defends himself. This is because Dulcie has come into the hotel lobby and Denis wishes to impress her. Hilary offers to drive Coral, Patrick and Dulcie to the local beach. Patrick reflects on how nobody seems to notice how beautiful the area is, and on how impressed he is with Mervyn Morgan, who has taught his son to identify birds. At the beach, Chrissie and Gushie are already there, much to the discomfort of overweight Gushie, who compares herself unfavourably to Chrissie. The hotel party arrive. Patrick, Hilary and Chrissie - who has confided to Gushie that Hilary bores her - swim out to a raft. Coral tells Gushie she is sick of the area and complains about her loss of attractiveness. Gushie is unworried about this herself, but puts on a display of sympathy as Coral complains about Buckland's pursuit of Angie; both arrive together at the beach. Gushie promises to have a word with Buckland, and warns him that he is being a fool to risk losing an easy and agreeable job. A trip to Monte Carlo is planned, and Gwennie is disappointed that she cannot go too. Mary is not going either, and Mr Muller invites her and her two younger children to come with him for a drive instead. We learn Mary's back-story; she is the daughter of a south Wales squire, and has had a quiet, old-fashioned upbringing. Mervyn attended her coming-out dance but she was nurturing the idea of a romantic lover. During the War, her oldest brother died and her other brother was taken prisoner; Mary worked on the land. After the War, Mervyn proposed, and it was partly his association with her childhood way of life that had persuaded her to accept him. Their relationship is affectionate but not passionate; Mary has suppressed her desire for romance, but it emerges when Mr Muller pays her attention. Her day out with him is a great success. In the evening, they watch local fireworks, Mr Muller contemplating how attractive he finds Mary, and how easy it would be to awaken her to this, but decides that he should do nothing about it. Going to bed, Mary realises how easily he could have kissed her, and part of her wishes he has. After much delay, the Monte Carlo party leaves. It comprises Coral, Patrick and Buckland; Mervyn and Olwen Morgan; Denis; both the Moons; and Courtenay, who is organising the whole thing, and Dulcie. They collect Chrissie and Gushie on the way. Denis attempts to impress by talking about his interest in psychology and his understanding of Patrick. At Monte Carlo, the main party goes for lunch, while Denis and Chrissie lunch alone. They discuss their relationship and Chrissie tries to make Denis understand that she only wants the truth from him. Denis thinks of telling her about his wife, but cannot bring himself to do it, and prevaricates when Chrissie asks if he is in love with her. When he says he could not afford to marry, Chrissie tells him she has no interest in marriage. Denis, rather drunk, tells her he thinks her feelings towards him have changed. Chrissie thinks to herself that this is true, and leaves him alone at the entrance to the Casino, going to join the Morgans, Patrick and Dulcie instead. Mervyn is surprised to find her an agreeable companion. Denis joins them, having lost 400 francs. They go to the swimming-baths and Denis confronts Chrissie, suggesting that she wants to end their friendship. She does not deny it. At the Casino. Buckland wins heavily with money borrowed from Coral. The Moons have lost money. Angie's back-story is told; she is the only daughter of a promiscuous woman. Amoral rather than immoral, Angie discovered her attractiveness at a young age and was thrown out by her aunt, after being found with her older cousin. She got a job in a hairdresser before becoming the mistress of an older Jewish man, and moved from him to a job in a clothes shop. She mixed in bohemian circles where she met Hilary, and agreed to marry him. They have lived on credit and occasional jobs since; Angie never worries about money or the future, but she and Hilary quarrel over his loss of money and her extravagance. A celebratory dinner takes place, with Buckland spending some of his winnings on champagne. Hilary wonders whether he can borrow from Buckland, and tries to interest him in buying the Moon car, but Buckland refuses, rudely. At dinner, Dulcie pays attention to Denis, about whom she has some innocent, romantic fantasies. They drive home together, and Dulcie offers friendship to a depressed Denis; he does not care for her much, but feels greatly in need of her admiration. He has one last conversation with Chrissie at Les Mimosas, having dropped Gushie at home; Chrissie tells him she does not believe her feelings for him to have been real. At the Hotel, Hilary is confronted by Madame, the owner, in pursuit of her bill. The friend who sold him the car has rung up, chasing his payment. Madame makes Hilary ring him to explain, and then tells him she expects to receive her payment tomorrow. In the lounge, he finds Buck having a drink and joins him, suggesting again that Buck should buy the car. Buck asks him why he is still married, and tells him Angie is sick of their way of life; he suggests that Hilary should leave. He offers Hilary fifty pounds to settle his bill, and a hundred for the car. When Hilary demurs, saying the car is worth more, Buckland tells him he can keep the car, implying that the money is so Buck can take Angie. Hilary takes the money. Patrick thanks Mervyn for what has been the best day of his holiday. He and Olwen chat, and she suggests he might come to stay in the holidays. He decides to go for a late-night swim, feeling much more positive about the future. Walking back, he sees his mother's car and overhears Buckland and Angie planning to leave tomorrow. Patrick is relieved to think he will be leaving. At the hotel, he goes to say goodnight to his mother, but she sends him to bed rather than letting him sit with her while she does her hair and face. Coral studies her appearance anxiously while we read her back-story. The daughter of a country vicar, she has always been attractive to men and had been engaged three times before marrying Gordon Romayne, much her senior and rich. They lived at first in India which she enjoyed; Gordon ignored the affairs she was having until there was a scandal, after which he resigned and they returned to live in Scotland. She hated that so much that they separated, and he made her a generous allowance, but refused to divorce her. As Coral still sought social and sexual success, this meant she could be exploited for her money. She still suffered from violent attractions, as in her current one for Buckland. He comes to her room and she admits him. Patrick, looking from his door, sees Buckland go in and the door closing behind him. Olwen Morgan wakes up from a nightmare feeling terror and overwhelming unhappiness. The next day, Mr Bolham, annoyed with himself for letting Denis go to Monte Carlo, loads him with work. Denis goes down to swim in the evening, and Dulcie comes with him; he tells her of his disappointment over Chrissie, and that he thinks Chrissie is spoilt. Dulcie is very sympathetic; Denis tries to be kind to her but is not really drawn to her. He has dinner with her and her father, and afterwards sits holding Dulcie's hand. Denis thinks little of it, but it is far more meaningful to Dulcie. He begins to recast the story of him and Chrissie in a pleasantly melancholy light. Hilary Moon leaves the hotel that evening. Dulcie, sent to bed, day-dreams romantically about Denis. Meeting him on the way to the bathroom, she dashes into his room and they look out the window together; she draws his arm around her. Dulcie says that Olwen says her prayers every day, and suggests this is old-fashioned; Denis is shocked at her attitude and to find she has no religion. When she reminds him she has no mother, he is touched and kisses her lightly on the cheek. Courtenay comes in and, furious, threatens to tell Chrissie about Denis's wife. Denis apologises, but Courtenay says only that he will see that Denis behaves himself, and won't elaborate on how he will do this. Denis, angry, tries to hit him but hits the door instead. Chrissie, at Les Mimosas, tells Gushie that her feelings for Denis have evaporated, and that she would like to move on to Italy in a couple of days. The Morgans leave the hotel. Denis notices that Patrick, while seeing them off, looks very unhappy. Chrissie arrives, partly to see them off, partly to see Denis. Denis attempts to confront her about her behaviour, telling her about his difficult life, but she is angry with him for being so self-dramatising and tells him his only chance in life is to stop lying to himself and become a real person. Denis tells her he has something important to tell her, but she guesses he is trying to get his confession in first, before someone else tells her. Courtenay comes up and lets slip that he knows Denis's wife. Chrissie leaves, saying she is sorry she has hurt him, and he panics, wondering how to deal with Mr Bolham. He plans to tell him he must resign, but Mr Bolham dismisses him first, giving him two months' pay in lieu of notice, and refusing to hear any of Denis's explanations. Angie and Buckland leave the hotel on the train to Italy. Patrick takes his mother's car and drives along the coast road to a dangerous bend, where he steers the car off the road and over a cliff onto rocks. Back at the hotel, Coral discovers that Buck has left with Angie, and is furious. Two policemen arrive to break the news about Patrick. In the final chapter, a whole new group of people are gathered at the hotel.
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