How bad can it be, being married to a Conservative MP? Bad enough to enjoy being kidnapped by a gaunt Albanian and relish wandering the desolate countryside with him for several weeks while abandoning three young children at home?
Clearly Perdita Tree thought it was.
Perdita Tree is an unhappy woman convinced that her husband, Nicholas Hodgekin M.P., is having an affair with his secretary. Constantly criticised by him for being sentimental and without a foothold in reality, she starts to wonder if there is not something more to life. Deeply depressed, she plans a holiday to Corfu with a girlfriend but when Alice cancels at the last moment she decides to go anyway.
The year is 1991. Hodgekin is the newly appointed Minister of State at the Foreign Office with special responsibility for aid to Albania. A man who sees himself as a Statesman, not a Politician, bred from old English stock, of which he is most proud. She is disgusted with him for throwing on the floor a dossier on the political future of the country with the words ‘Toss It’ before turning to his wife expecting to make love.
Alone on the Greek-Albanian border, Perdita contemplates suicide. She admits she never really wanted to die. She just wanted to bring back a handful of Albanian soil to sprinkle on her husband’s desk along with a dollop of Albanian dogshit to show him what reality is all about.
But she is taken prisoner before she can find her way back to Greece. Her kidnappers – an assortment of bandits, old witches, priests and ex-political prisoners – only slowly realise the value of the prize they have snatched. None more so than the cruelly tortured, highly educated, Anglophile, Alfred Leka, who sees Perdita as the perfect English woman who can rescue Albanians from their tragic past and lead them to a glorious future.
Hidden by him in an old monastery she is given freshly laundered 1950s Dior polka dot dresses to wear – surreal or what? but is brought down to earth by her need for hair dye to cover her re-growth, long skirts to cover her increasingly bristly legs and sanitary pads – a rare commodity in monasteries.
In roughly alternating chapters Fane contrasts the liberating adventures of Perdita – for whom sex is a gift to be bestowed on the men she feels have been deprived or need nurturing, with the reactions of her husband who is mostly concerned about what his wife’s disappearance will mean to his career, and is so emotionally repressed that in fact he can do little more than give his secretary the occasional kiss.
But, as she gallops across the countryside, Perdita is discovering the proud and painful history of another people – a culture admired by Byron and all but wiped out by the most repressive of Communist dictators, Enver Hoxha. (Hoxha is today buried in the same mixed religion cemetery as Mother Teresa’s mother and sister.) Hodgekin meanwhile is having to deal with the demands of three young children, a mother-in-law, a would-be lover and the PM. He despairs that the opportunity he had to be at the centre of Government has turned into a whirlpool of domestic catastrophe which the tabloids are only too eager to report on. ” I blame <it> on not having a large office in the House which I can call my own,” he whines in a line of supreme Woolfean irony.
When he is finally persuaded that his wife is not simply an adulteress he begrudgingly travels to Albania to bring her back.
Beneath the frothy tone there is a serious message in this delightfully entertaining romping yarn as Fane contemplates the nature of freedom and betrayal, both political and personal. She relishes the uncrushability of the human spirit and reveals her belief in the power of human beings to do something, whether simply Perdita giving meaning to her own life or telling the English Government, the United Nations, the European Parliament and Amnesty about the situation in Albania.
It’s not difficult to see where Fane’s own sympathies lie. But ultimately Perdita settles for what she knows, abandons her hopes for a grand passion and settles to a life of being a good mother. Perhaps in the end the security of life married to a Tory MP, however unimaginative – and Nicholas Hodgekin is deeply unimaginative – may be more satisfying than following the call of the wild with an idealist who cannot control his imagination.