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One Year’s Time by Angela Milne

Girls have always been told that their duty is to ‘get a man’, and to do so they must please him by putting him first in everything. The main character in One Year’s Time is Liza Brett, a single young woman, living in London in the 1930s, and not interested in acquiring a husband. She meets and falls in love with Walter. As their relationship progresses, they plan to spend the summer together and Liza reassures Walter:

‘… it would be rather nice to be a fallen woman. I think sin is lovely.’ (45)

The reader is presented with the development of their relationship over twelve months. We see her giving way to him in small and large matters, her growing wish for marriage and their ultimate unhappiness.

One Year’s Time

Time dominates this novel, as the title suggests. But this is not referring to the time in which they are living, for although there is a fleeting reference to a coming war, the geopolitical context does not feature. Rather it’s about how the main character spends her time in trivial and unimportant activities: at first in an office for a company whose function is never revealed; then during a rural retreat she spends her days in domestic pursuits, playing at being a wife and a housewife; the days of her summer holiday are counted down until she can return to Walter and London; this pattern intensifies through their year together. 

When Walter says he will go abroad without her, she spends the remainder of the summer with her aunt’s family. On his return he takes up a live-in job at a prep school to earn more money to finish his training, and she hardly sees him. The relationship ends in her flat (which she has reclaimed) a year after it started. He wants his freedom. She had wanted him to propose marriage.

Walter’s selfishness is gradually revealed. He calls her ‘ducky’, which even accounting for changing idioms over time, sounds disrespectful. He has a habit of flicking her neck. When they rent a cottage in the countryside they find there are two beds.

She turned over and saw the back of Walter’s head in the next bed, which was a few inches higher than hers, and a good deal softer. Walter had said ‘I’ll have the camp-bed, ducky. I can sleep on floors, and it wouldn’t be much harder.’
Liza had said, ‘No darling, I’ll have it. You’re bigger and you kick more.’ And now, whenever she saw the beds, she thought, Walter’s got the best bed. Yes, that sort of unselfishness was only cowardice, and selfishness, in equal proportions, no, cowardice and selfishness were two words for the same thing. (92) 

It is not entirely clear from this passage whether Liza sees her generosity to Walter as cowardice and a form of selfishness. Walter’s selfishness is not in doubt. The dysfunctionality of their relationship is beginning to be revealed.

Walter’s selfishness becomes more and more evident as he persuades Liza that it would be best if he left her to her own devices for the rest of the summer while he went abroad, and ultimately that he will not marry her because it would cramp his freedom. 

At last, the reader thinks, when she tells him some truths in their final quarrel. It begins when she says that she wanted ‘something beautiful’ from their relationship. Walter replies,

‘And what do you think I wanted?’
‘The same as I did.’ She was swept with a wave of anger. ‘And someone to cook your dinners, and iron your suits. Yes, I know that’s a lie. I know all about unselfishness being selfish. Everything I say comes back on me. It always does.’ (260)

Up to now she has met his anger with fear and backs down, and even now she nearly caves in again, but recovers enough to assert herself. 

‘Some people are wise and don’t mind growing up. You’re not wise. You’re – you’re nothing but an escapist.’ And she was very frightened indeed. She had said something he didn’t want to know about himself.
Walter moved. She heard him stand up, and waited with a sinking misery, for his voice. It came.
‘All right. Now we are throwing the china.’
‘Oh, darling.’ She turned round for the first time. ‘I didn’t mean it. I don’t want you to be anything you aren’t. Only I can’t bear this any longer. Say yes or no, and we’ll get married, or we’ll never see each other again.’ (262)

Finally, thinks the reader, finally you have stood up for yourself, finally you have said what you will and won’t put up with. It is painful for them both, for despite the abusiveness of the relationship, to which she contributed by giving in all the time, they loved each other.

One Year’s Time is not about whether it is wrong to ‘live in sin’, or undesirable to be described as a ‘Batchelor Girl’. It is about forming grown-up relationships. While Walter has neglected her, Liza has met David, and it is obvious that he is a better match for her, although he has gone to America to work for a couple of months. 

Although the reader hears a great deal of Liza’s inner voice, as these extracts indicate, this novel is narrated in the third person, but the point of view never leaves Liza. We read about her excitement at the start of the relationship, and the dilemmas of having to pretend to be married when ‘living in sin’ is a public statement. We see her rationalising the need to endure absence, and the counting down of days and even hours until she might see Walter again. 

Angela Milne had flair in her writing. I noticed as I typed out the quotations featuring the couple’s interactions, how skilfully she creates gaps in their exchanges, beats in the scene. Angela Milne only wrote one novel, using her literary talent for shorter pieces in Punch and reviews in the ObserverOne Year’s Time was published in 1942, during the Second World War. Angela Milne undertook war work in the Women’s Land Army and the Ministry of Information. Later she married and had two children. She lived until 1990.

I read this novel after reading about it on JacquiWine’s Journal. She welcomed this new addition to the British Library Women Writers’ series in January 2024. 

One Year’s Time by Angela Milne, first published in 1942. Re-issued in the British Library Women Writers in 2023. 275pp

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