(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Mary Wesley’s social comedies have been compared to the novels of other English writers, notably E. M. Forster, Barbara Pym, and John Mortimer, and even to some of the wittier productions seen on British television, they have a quality all their own. They are farcical and fey, romantic but not sentimental, optimistic without ignoring either the malevolent impulses in human nature or the potentialities for disaster that seem to be a part of everyday life. Perhaps when, at seventy-one, she began publishing novels for adults, Wesley had herself discovered the secret of survival. In the ninth of these books, An Imaginative Experience, Wesley again demonstrates that not only do decency, consideration, and good humor make the world more pleasant for everyone but in the long run people who practice these virtues also have the best chance of finding happiness.

Wesley’s characteristic happy endings do not come easily. When An Imaginative Experiencebegins, the two protagonists have both had bitter experiences with love. Sylvester Sykes has been abandoned by his calculating wife, Celia; she has gone back to a previous husband, who surprised her by suddenly becoming very rich. As Sylvester sits unnoticed in his taxi, watching Celia carry her possessions, and some of his, out of the house they shared, he cannot help feeling some regret that what had begun as a grand passion only six years before so soon dwindled into indifference. Yet he is relieved to be freed from Celia’s contempt, which, among other things, made it impossible for him to write. At this point, all Sylvester wants is to get rid of everything that reminds him of his marriage, including the cloying scent of Celia’s perfume. He has no thought of venturing into another relationship.

Julia Piper has had an even bitterer experience with love. After going home to her Devonshire village to nurse her demanding mother, Clodagh May, who had always despised her daughter but was perfectly willing to put her to use, Julia was brutally raped by Clodagh’s live-in lover, Giles Piper. When Julia was found to be pregnant, Giles married her, but even during their honeymoon in France, he made no secret of his distaste for his wife. Eventually, Julia left her unfeeling, unfaithful husband to Clodagh, who adored him, and moved to London, taking her little son, Christy, with her. While he was visiting in Devonshire, however, Christy was killed in an automobile accident, along with Giles, who as usual was driving after downing a few too many drinks.

Sylvester first catches sight of Julia through the window of a train. While en route to London on the Intercity from Devonshire, Sylvester notices a sheep on its back in a nearby field. Suddenly the train grinds to a halt, and a young woman races into the field and hauls the sheep to its feet before returning to face the fury of the train crew. Though Sylvester is struck by the incident, he does not expect ever to see the woman again.

Julia has also aroused the interest of another passenger, the obnoxious Maurice Benson. Although he introduces himself to Sylvester as a full-time “twitcher,” or bird-watcher, Benson has another hobby—a far more destructive one. He is a kind of peeping Tom, fond of peering into the lives of human beings simply to satisfy his own curiosity. Indifferent alike to the feelings of his subjects and to the possibility that he might do them irreparable harm, he shadows them and talks to their friends and acquaintances. In Julia’s case, after he finds out about the death of her son, he makes telephone calls accusing her of murder, just to find out how she will react.

Although for some time there is no inkling that Sylvester and Julia will embark on the sort of love affair that Wesley refers to as an “imaginative experience,” it is evident almost immediately that this novel involves a struggle between good and evil. The characters are clearly divided into two categories: those who feel for others and those who care only for themselves. Thus Julia is first shown performing an act of compassion, an act that Sylvester understands but Maurice does not. Julia’s neighbors are either kind, such as Mr. and Mrs. Patel, who feed and nurse her through her first agonies of grief, or totally unfeeling, such as the brittle Eddisons, who remember Christy only as a nuisance and treat his mother’s tragic loss as a subject for witty conversation. This dichotomy is also illustrated in Julia’s two encounters with representatives of the Christian church. A Catholic priest, who might well be upset at finding a woman eating a sandwich in the confessional, instead listens attentively to Julia, then takes her to his housekeeper for a cup...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)