“What had just happened filled her with a kind of awe. She had not known how easy and simple is the passage from life to death.”
Life has been full of difficulties for Ivy Lexton. Luckily, there are always gentlemen willing to help her over the rough spots. After her father died penniless, Jervis Lexton was happy to step in. But his fortune, which seemed so large when they married, quickly melted away. To keep herself in champagne and Paris frocks, Ivy must maintain a complicated network of benefactors and would-be lovers.
When fate presents Ivy with the chance to escape this makeshift existence, she knows exactly how to seize the opportunity, all thanks to a little jar of white powder…
The Story of Ivy is an interesting, if sometimes uneasy, mixture of roaring twenties inverted mystery and old-fashioned melodrama. Ivy is not exactly a standard femme fatale, which lends a freshness to the story. It’s always fun to watch Ivy hustle and impossible to predict what she’ll do next, since she so rarely knows it herself. Like an animal, she operates entirely by instinct. The book loses momentum when Ivy’s machinations are sidelined in favor of an utterly predictable courtroom drama, only reviving when Ivy is returned to her rightful place at the center of the action.
While Ivy herself is a modern creature, most at home in nightclubs, she is aware that her greatest advantage is the lingering sexism of the recent Edwardian period, which insists women cannot function without the protection of men. Her gentleman friends are attracted by her streamlined exterior, but it’s her sweetly helpless air that keeps them hooked. That’s how a poor orphan married the wealthy Jervis Lexton and helped squander his inheritance. And that’s how Ivy has managed to line up other benefactors now that her husband is broke and “she was condemned—she sincerely believed through no fault of her own—to lead an existence full of sordid shifts, and of expedients so ignoble that even she sometimes shrank from them, while always on her slender shoulders lay the dead weight of her husband, a completely idle, extravagant, and yes, well she knew it, very stupid young man.” It’s initially unclear how much Jervis is aware of her scheming, and how he might react if he did know.
Ivy pays a price for her little luxuries, which require a great deal of emotional labor to extract. As The Story of Ivy opens, she is down to her last pound after alienating one wealthy friend and unexpectedly losing another to marriage. These are only female friends, not so important. Ivy is more worried that her only remaining male asset is Roger Gretorex, a devoted but poorly-paid physician. It’s true that Roger can always be counted on for a “loan,” as long as it’s a small one, but his real value to Ivy is that he alone of her lovers makes no demands on her.
When everything was going well with Ivy Lexton, she felt bored, often even irritated, with Roger Gretorex and his great love for her. But the moment she was under the weather and worried, as she was again beginning to be, then she found it a comfort to be with a man who not only worshipped her, but who never wanted her to make any effort to amuse or flatter him, as did all the other men with whom she was now once more thrown in contact.
Women are of limited use to Ivy because they always see through her—most of them instantly, but all of them eventually. There’s nothing subtle about her ploys; in the opening scene, an acquaintance notes that Ivy rudely snubbed her until she learned of the woman’s recent inheritance. Then Ivy was all flattery. “When I was in America last year, they’d invented a name for that sort of young woman. She’s out, all the time, for what she can get. ‘A gold-digger’—that’s the slang American term for that kind of young person, Mary,” she warns. “If I were you I should give pretty Mrs. Lexton a very wide berth.” Ivy’s relationships with women are few. Most women she meets are not blinded by her physical attractions as men are. Her act only succeeds with lonely women who, like the men, enjoy being seen with a beautiful friend and adore being “pressed into her service, by that alluring quality which means so much more than beauty,” so they can be flattered and cajoled by Ivy in return.
Just when Ivy is most exhausted by it all, she meets Miles. He is that rarest of specimens, a morally incorruptible millionaire, and he puts Ivy on a pedestal. If he discovers her true nature, the consequences will be severe. Seeing a golden future in the distance, visible yet impossible to grasp, she is annoyed by both her husband’s benign neglect and Roger’s naïve sentimentality.
“I dreamt that you were free, and that we were married, you and I——”
She made no answer to that remark, only shook her head, a little pettishly. For one thing, she always felt a trifle cross, as well as bored, when Gretorex talked in what she called to herself a sloppy, sentimental way. Could he seriously suppose that, if she had the good fortune to be what he called “free,” she would marry a poverty-stricken doctor who was forced to live and work in a slum? He evidently did suppose that; and the fact that he did so made her feel uncomfortable.
Ironically, it is Roger himself who will provide Ivy with the answer she seeks, pointing out the bottle of arsenic in his dispensary. Ivy is transfixed: “How strange and exciting to know that Death was in that jar—prisoned, but ready to escape and become the servant of any quick-witted, determined human being.” It seems inevitable that Ivy’s happiness will be obtained at the cost of a human life. The question is, whose?
As a writer whose career began at the turn of the century, Marie Belloc Lowndes was well placed to tell this kind of story. Lowndes recognizes that the outer trappings of society change much more quickly than individual attitudes do. This what allows Ivy to be so successful—she is wrapping a very old ideal in a modern package. Men, even young ones, may find flappers and free love titillating, but they don’t really want the social order to change. Ivy’s clinging-vine act allows them to pretend it doesn’t have to.
Lowndes’ prose style is sometimes overwrought, and she makes it perfectly clear that Ivy is bad while everyone else is good. As individuals, however, the characters are far from black and white. The “good” characters all have moments of selfishness, rigidity, and especially stupidity. Ivy is certainly amoral, but she is also intelligent and appealing. Her impulses are just as likely to be good as bad (though admittedly there is a large gulf between impulsively buying someone a gift and impulsively trying to poison them). Though she has no real conscience, Ivy is highly emotional and often feels a kind of remorse for the consequences of her actions. It’s just that her tears dry quickly in the light of day.
The Story of Ivy is the story of a woman who is terribly disturbed and also an awful lot of fun. The “selfish, feather-headed, and extravagant; but good-natured and easy-going” Ivy is a delight to follow as she schemes her way up the ladder, certainly much more enjoyable than the stodgy legal proceedings that so rudely interrupt her adventures. One can’t help wishing that The Story of Ivy had been able to remain as wonderfully demented as its heroine all the way through.
The Story of Ivy is in the public domain in Canada, with free ebook versions available at Project Gutenberg Canada and Faded Page.
It was filmed as Ivy in 1947. The film version takes place during the Edwardian era and stars Joan Fontaine as the title character.