The Temptation of Eileen Hughes
A Gift Horse and Other Stories
Eileen Hughes, in Brian Moore’s new novel (his thirteenth), is a Northern Irish shopgirl who is taken up by her employers. If she is also taken in, she has no one but herself to blame. There is something a little willful and perverse in Eileen’s innocence. When the rich McAuleys, Mona and Bernard, owners of the department store where Eileen works, whisk the girl off to London for a holiday, both she and her mother commend their generosity and Eileen’s luck. There is no thought of looking for a flaw in the arrangement. What could be more natural? A childless couple (though the wife is still only thirty), struck by some captivating quality in the young shop assistant. If it pleases them to make a fuss of Eileen, though the girl has nothing special to recommend her, it is surely a harmless and agreeable impulse.
Eileen is happily clueless to begin with, gazing in rapture at Buckingham Palace and imagining some undramatic changes of identity for herself (“Now she was a London girl with a good office job, or maybe a nurse…”); but a clue on page 8 alerts the reader to the true state of affairs. “She was a girl some men might find beautiful….” Of course, we knew something of that kind was coming. Eileen has found favor because of Bernard’s fervor; it is the husband who is captivated, not the wife. This is no squalid infatuation, however, in Bernard’s view; it is a passion which thrives on silence and cunning. It has nothing to do with lust. It is a type of courtly love, Bernard believes, chivalric and unerotic. Truly, there is more of idolatry than idle fancy in his feeling for Eileen. It is also, of course, utterly misplaced.
Things begin to go wrong from the start. The holiday party arrives to find its booking mishandled; Eileen is obliged to put up in a maid’s room (“A maid’s room. And here we were planning to treat you like royalty,” Bernard jokes). Mona, who sees difficulties ahead, is out of temper. Eileen is oppressed by too much of Bernard’s company, while Mona is off somewhere on her own. And foolish Bernard, whose mind is full of grandiose plans and unrealistic expectations, suddenly renounces prudence for the luxury of confession. “You haven’t the slightest idea of what I feel about you, have you?” The knowledge of Bernard’s devotion, in fact, comes to Eileen like a withdrawal of grace. She can do nothing but make preparations to leave.
Brian Moore is a novelist who pushes his characters to extremes; whatever course they are set on, they will savor its effects to the full. This is not, as a rule, because of any extravagance of temperament or idiosyncracy in the characters themselves; on the contrary, it is often their fatal ordinariness or dullness which makes them susceptible to destructive pressures. (We remember Judith Hearne, in Moore’s first novel, a …