A Woman of Singular Occupation (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
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...
(The entire section is 1533 words.)
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