Typically, Penelope Gilliatt writes about sophisticated, upper-class characters whose comments on their activities and those of others are cast in elegant, witty
prose. The Cutting Edge (1978), for example, deals with two brothers, a political writer and a composer, whose involvement with the same woman results eventually in their reconciliation with each other. Mortal Matters (1983) re-creates the colorful past of Lady Averil Corfe, the daughter of a shipbuilder and a suffragette, with a wide circle of eccentric relatives and acquaintances. Unlike such earlier works, whose appeal was solely intellectual, Gilliatt’s A Woman of Singular Occupation, though witty, appeals to the heart as much as to the mind, primarily because the protagonist of the work, Catherine de Rochefauld, chooses to place her country above her personal safety and above her relationships with two men whom she loves deeply.
In the first chapter of the novel, which takes place on the Orient Express, crowded with refugees fleeing to Turkey just before the Nazi invasion of France, Gilliatt mentions the masks which people find it necessary to wear in wartime. Aware of the fact that they may be spied upon, Catherine and her closest friend, the American Ann Wismer, keep up their superficial chatter, pretending to be the kind of wives who leave politics to their husbands. The truth is that both women are deeply committed to the Allied cause. The “singular occupation” of Catherine de Rochefauld is obtaining funds for the opponents of Fascism; her singular weapon is musical genius, which enables her to transmit messages as compositions. Ann’s part in Catherine’s effort is to conceal a short-wave radio at her home—and to conceal whatever she knows about Catherine’s activities.
Ann’s trustworthiness is particularly important to Catherine because there are very few people in Istanbul who can be trusted. At the diplomatic receptions and garden parties to which Catherine is invited, everyone is observing everyone else and drawing conclusions. At such functions, there are some comic scenes which are reminiscent of Gilliatt’s earlier works. For example, at one reception, when diplomatic wives exchange recipes, spies busily memorize them, suspecting that they may conceal a coded message. There is also a comic-opera quality about the duck hunt organized by the German ambassador, who himself becomes the target of shots that he insists have been fired by the American and the Russian ambassadors.
Although there are flashes of humor throughout, the real action in this novel is deadly serious. In fact, Catherine’s high-stakes game is even more difficult and dangerous because it must be played under the pretense of normality. Both her friends and her enemies involved in diplomacy and in espionage understand the rules. For example, at a diplomatic reception, a British aide-de-camp saves Catherine’s life by pushing her down when he sees someone about to fire a shot at her, but then he and she both pretend that she is retrieving something from the floor. The ADC pockets the bullet, and the social game goes on. Catherine finds a way to thank him in a kind of verbal code.
The sinister atmosphere of the novel is maintained by Catherine’s awareness that she is constantly followed and watched. At one point, she is kidnapped by Nazi agents, who turn out to include two people whom she knows: her husband’s driver Mehmed and an acquaintance from the diplomatic parties called Hilda. They are willing to torture her if necessary. Fortunately, Catherine knows how to appeal to Mehmed’s vanity, and she manages to have him support her statements, thus suggesting that she may be innocent and should be released. Again,...
(The entire section is 1533 words.)