Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2013

A Spy in the House of Love (1954), by Anais Nin

A Spy in the House of LoveI had never read anything by Anaïs Nin but have known of her writing for a long time, perhaps from my reading during my discovery of feminism phase in the 1970s and 1980s.  I read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (and they changed my life); The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Difficult Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, three or four novels by Marilyn French, and almost everything by Nina Bawden, Elizabeth Jolley, Alison Lurie, Faye Weldon and Mary Wesley who were my favourite authors for a long time.   Indeed, as attested by my paperback shelves, during this period most of what I read was by feminist authors.   I had left university and was floundering a bit, not sure what to read or how to discover new authors, and I was rather Blytonesque in my reading.  But for some reason I never got round to reading Anaïs Nin…

A Spy in the House of Love is only a very short novella of 124 pages but Sabina is a fascinating character and she must have startled the respectable readers of 1954 when A Spy in the House of Love was first published.  John Cleland’s Fanny Hill was not legally available in the US till 1963, and anyway Sabina is a different character altogether from Fanny and her carefree attitude to sexual pleasure.  Sabina is no Madame Bovary either, she is deliberately behaving like a man, organising her life and managing her marriage so that she can take pleasure when and how she wants it.  She is driven simply by sensual desire and rejects the sentimentality of love.

We say of adolescent love that boys play at love to get sex and girls play at sex to get love, but Sabina isn’t interested in love.  She has designed an elaborate persona as an actor so that she can absent herself from her loving husband Alan. (Such a prosaic name! We can just imagine his beige cardigans, eh?)  When the story opens with a late night phone call that she makes to a random number in hope of a pick-up, the man who answers is named by the narrator as The Lie Detector, and he traces her to a bar where she is not behaving like a respectable married woman at all.  The identity of this man, the Lie Detector is not revealed until the end of the story.


She has had her latest fling,  so she returns to Alan with stories of her performance in the play.  The irony is that Sabina the fake actor is actually a superb actor, apparently convincing Alan of all she has to say, even though the very first thing she must always do is to have a shower…

Because she wants to be able to have sex without any romantic attachments, she is actually pleased when she learns that the future wife of Philip – the opera singer who picked her up on the beach when she was sunbathing naked – is not beautiful.  This means that she is the ‘steadfastly loved one’ and so Sabina can continue to be ‘the whim, the caprice, the drug, the fever’. (p. 37)

Each man is associated with music: Philip strides over the sand dunes singing the theme from Tristan and Isolde, its use of harmonic suspension often associated with frustrated desire.

The song ascended, swelled, gathered together all the turmoil of the sea, the rutilant [1]  gold carnival of the sun, rivalled the wind and flung its highest notes into space like the bridge span of a flamboyant rainbow.  And then the incantation broke. 
He had seen Sabina. (p. 27)

Debussy’s Ile Joyeuse is associated with her intense restlessness:

The image of the ship’s cracking, restless bones arrived on the waves of Debussy’s Ile Joyeuse which wove around her all the mists and dissolutions of remote islands.  The model notes arrived charged like a caravan of spices, gold mitres, ciboriums and chalices bearing messages of delight setting the honey flowing between the thighs, erecting sensual minarets on men’s bodies as they lay on the sand.  Debris of stained glass wafted up by the seas, splintered by the radium shafts of the sun and the waves and tides of sensuality covered their bodies, desires folding in every lapping wave like an accordion of aurora boralis [sic] in the blood.  She saw an unreachable dance, at which men and women were dressed in rutilant colours, she saw their gaiety, their relations to each other as unparalleled in splendour. (p. 40-41)

Minarets, eh?  I wonder how the censors missed that?

Clair de Lune makes Sabina want to be in Paris, but it’s the  African drums that convey a transgression that would have shocked America before the Civil Rights movement.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1987) was a controversial film yet to be made and interracial marriage (and presumably anything else) was still illegal even as late as then. Sabine’s relationship with Mambo is across the colour bar – yet also not.  This is because – as Nin is careful to explain – although he is African, his skin is white due to a grandmother from France or Spain.

Each note was the brush of his mouth upon her.  His singing grew exalted and the drumming deeper and sharper and it showered upon her heart and her body.  Drum – drum – drum – drum – drum – upon her heart, she was the drum, her skin was taut under his hands, and the drumming vibrated through the rest of her body.  Wherever he rested his eyes, she felt the drumming of his fingers upon her stomach, her breasts, her hips.  His eyes rested on her naked feet in sandals and they beat an answering rhythm. (p. 51)

He tells her it cannot be, but before long she is coming out of his house at dawn, anxious about the Lie Detector keeping watch on her movements.

The title refers to Sabine’s habits being like the habits of a spy, ready always for a quick getaway, leaving no traces of her presence anywhere.  Her ingenuity enables her to

‘defeat life’s limitations’ but ‘the morass of dangers’ and ‘the smothering swamps of guilt’ await ‘her hour of punishment after living like a spy in the house of many loves, for avoiding exposure, for defeating the sentinels watching definite boundaries, for passing without passports and permits from one love to another. And she knows that ‘every spy’s life ended in ignominious death’. (p.64)

It is John, the grounded aviator still grieving for mates lost in the war who – in telling her that she is not a bad woman – disarms her entirely and ‘injected into her own body his own venomous guilt for living and desiring’ (p.77).  With Donald she meets his need for a Stravinsky firebird and a mother.  But it is Jay, an artist whose paintings are fragmented to symbolise the splitting of the atom, who made me realise that Sabina is a woman of many fragmented selves.

With her one female friend Djuna she finds an outlet for her guilt, because guilt is the one burden human beings cannot bear alone’ (p.114) and so we see that in some ways this is a very conventional novel.  Djuna tells her that she should not feel guilty for seeking wholeness, and that none of the men she slept with were ‘whole’.   She has been seeking crusaders and judges, and she has been acting like a child, trying to love, but loving only illusions.  (Philip for example, had to be Siegfried, always singing in tune).   Sabrina protests that only Alan’s love is  ‘infinite, tireless, all-forgiving’ but, says Djuna, that’s not a man’s love, that’s an idealised fantasy father figure invented by a needy child.

The Lie Detector tells her that it was she who invited him to follow her and to judge her, ‘a flirtation with justice’. Her distrust of love meant that she has not considered the other aspects Alan might offer.

‘You haven’t loved yet, ‘ he said. ‘You’ve only been trying to love, beginning to love.  Trust alone is not love, desire alone is not love.  All these paths [were] leading out of yourself, it is true, and so you thought they led to another, but you never reached the other.  You were only on the way.  Could you go out now and find the other faces of Alan, which you never struggled to see, or accept? ‘ (p. 121)

One of Beethoven’s Quartets drowns out the sound of Mambo’s drumming as Sabina sinks to the floor, ‘her wide skirt floating for one instant like an expiring parachute; and then deflated completely and died in the dust. (p.123)

PS (19/5/13) I am curious about when this book became available in Australia and whether it can be said to have had any influence on Australian women’s writing then or later.  If anyone knows anything about that, please share what you know in comments, thanks.

[1] rutilant – glowing or glittering with ruddy or golden light

©Lisa Hill

Author: Anaïs Nin
Title: A Spy in the House of Love
Publisher: Pink Popular Penguins, 2013, supporting Breast Cancer Awareness*, see below.  First published 1954.
ISBN: 9780734306913
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia


Fishpond: A Spy in the House of Love (Pink Popular Penguin)
Or direct from Penguin Australia

* From the Penguin Australia website:

Co-founded by Jane and Glenn McGrath, the McGrath Foundation raises money to place McGrath Breast Care Nurses in communities right across Australia and to increase breast awareness in young women.

The McGrath Foundation believes 150 of these specially trained nurses are needed to ensure that every family experiencing breast cancer has access to a breast care nurse, no matter where they live or their financial situation.  McGrath Breast Care Nurses offer a unique service to families who can self-refer to this free support.

Penguin is proud to donate $1 from the original sale of each Pink Popular Penguin to help the McGrath Foundation realise their goal.  To find out how you can make a difference visit


  1. But Lisa…. did you like it?! I read and re-read your review and it’s excellent as usual, but I’m having trouble judging what you thought of it – and in particular how you judged Sabina, especially given your feminist roots. How do you think you would have received this book had you read it all those years ago, versus now?


  2. eep… how dare I say “all those years ago..!!” delete delete.. ;)


    • *chuckle* Even I would have been a bit young to read it in the 1950s!
      I thought it was a brilliant book, both in its theme and the way it was executed – those musical motifs, very clever.
      But I was a bit disappointed in the ending, though I’m not entirely confident that I’ve interpreted it correctly.
      As I see it, Djuna and The Lie Detector make her see that her fractured self has through her behaviour been avoiding a full and complex relationship with her husband. Her lovers have been fragments which have appealed to different needs she has. So ultimately, the traditional monogamous relationship is held up as the norm, (which of course it was, in the 1950s) and she capitulates.
      But I think it would have been a braver book if she had not been ‘psychoanalysed’ out of her aberrant behaviour and the idea of an ‘open’ marriage had been explored.


      • ahh, that’s so interesting….! Your assessment (spot on) is exactly the reason why I haven’t been able to formulate a review of A Spy in The House of Love myself. I wondered how to say something as bold as “maybe the idea of an open marriage could have been explored” without seeming to expose myself and my own personal views on the subject of monogamy…. Which is an interesting thing in itself. Even “all these years later” (there’s that phrase again!!) as a society I feel as though we are still as deeply committed to the traditional model of marriage as we ever were.


        • Oh Nadine, you are so perceptive! I did struggle to find a way to make that comment!


          • But you did! And I’m glad for it too… I’m still not sure I’ll be able to post my own review, but I feel like I should out of respect for Nin herself. It’s wonderful that her work is as relevant now as it ever was in this regard. We like to think we’re more liberal now but we can still be challenged can’t we…


            • Well, I felt that Nin was trying to make a valid point about the irrational attitudes that people had (and in many cultures still have) about women’s fidelity and men’s. Men expected women to be ‘pure’ on their wedding day and rejected ‘second-hand goods, but would joke about young men sowing their wild oats. ‘Gay bachelor’ used to mean an unmarried (straight) man who enjoyed relationships with many women, but unmarried women were pitied as spinsters and had to keep quiet about any relationships they might have had. (And not get pregnant!) Within marriage women’s fidelity was taken for granted, and were expected to forgive their husbands for ‘straying’. Not only that, both The Other Woman and the betrayed wife were blamed for the husband’s infidelity.
              So here is Nin’s novel, which inverts the gender of the straying partner, with a character who rejects all of this and seems to have a good time except for the guilt and the secrecy. But at the end she makes Sabrina cave in to the notion that one man can and should meet all her needs.
              I’m confused by this ending. Is the gender inversion there to expose the hypocrisy of society’s expectations for men and women within marriage, or is Sabrina an experiment to show readers that marriage could be something different to what was then the norm?
              Either way, Sabrina’s capitulation mutes the proposition.


              • Thanks for this analysis Lisa, I really feel as though this postscript rounds out your review perfectly. I’m curious about your final question too. I don’t know enough about Nin to know what her underlying statement might have been – I’m certainly curious. I would like to think she would have been brave enough to suggest an open relationship…. but if that’s difficult now, how would it have gone down then? Then again, along came the 70s… Either way, she was a woman before her times, surely.


                • I’m certainly going to keep my eye out for anything that clarifies the book’s place in the history of feminism!


  3. How do you write such long articles without actually spoiling the book? I feel I know enough about this book but there is still more I could only glean through reading it. Brilliant article and I love the piano music


    • *chuckle* I don’t know, Tom, I just ramble on!


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: