Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

First published in 1956, Tea at Four O’Clock is a brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. It is the first of Janet McNeill’s novels that I have read, but on the strength of this I will definitely be seeking out more of her work – particularly her final novel, The Small Widow, which is still in print.

Tea at Four O’Clock centres on Laura, the youngest daughter and middle child of the Percival family. We first meet Laura – now a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over the Percival residence, Marathon, in spite of her recent death.

Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone. (p. 8)

Over the course of many years, any sense of joy or liberty had been systematically sucked out of Laura’s life, first by her puritanical father – long since deceased – and latterly by the tyrannical Mildred whose exacting standards governed the daily routine at Marathon. (The book’s title refers to Mildred’s insistence that afternoon tea should be served by Laura at precisely four o’clock – no sooner, and certainly no later.) Having nursed Mildred through the long illness that led to her death, Laura is now somewhat shell-shocked at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. She has known virtually no other life, the demands of Marathon and Mildred having dominated her day-to-day existence for so many years.

Laura’s current situation is further complicated by the presence of three seemingly well-meaning individuals, each one armed with their own particular motives for wanting to get close to her as the new owner of Marathon and sole beneficiary of Mildred’s will.

First, there is the pushy Miss Parks, Mildred’s old schoolteacher and recently rediscovered ‘friend’. For some years, Miss Parks had enjoyed the prestige of keeping house for her bachelor brother, a local clergyman, only to be dislodged from this position on her brother’s marriage to a usurper. In search of a new cause to champion, Miss Parks was only too willing to push herself forward at the time of Mildred’s illness. By doing so, she saw an opportunity to further her own position, worming her way back into Mildred’s affections and the Percival family home to boot. While her stay at Marathon was initially intended to be a temporary measure, to help support Mildred in the final weeks of her illness, Miss Parks is showing no signs of leaving now that her charge has passed away. If anything, this formidable woman is striving even harder to make herself indispensable to the household, taking charge of day-to-day matters whenever the opportunity arises. It will suit her proposes very well if Laura remains fragile and in need of careful management and direction, for who would be better placed to provide such a service than Miss Parks herself?

Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so. (p. 68)

Then there is George, Laura and Mildred’s younger brother, banished from the family home by his father some twenty years earlier, who reappears at Marathon on the afternoon of Mildred’s funeral. Following his dismissal from the Percivals’ linen business for being reckless with his father’s money, George managed to carve out a modest life for himself with his working-class, socially conscious wife, Amy, and their teenage daughter, Kathie. They live in a cramped, rundown house on the other side of the city where money is very tight. George still resents the fact that he has been excluded from the Percival family home for several years, first by his unforgiving father, and then by the domineering Mildred who made him feel small and inadequate when he called on her for some money at the time of Amy’s pregnancy. Now he has designs on Marathon itself. By getting close to Laura again, George hopes to be able to move back to the Percival residence, this time with Amy and Kathie in tow. However, to achieve this, he must get the better of the calculating Miss Parks in the battle for Laura’s trust and affection.

Even the Percival family’s longstanding lawyer and close confidant, Mr McAlister, seems to have his eye on Laura. At first, it would appear that he is out to protect his charge, primarily from the detrimental influences of the bossy Miss Parks and the equally unscrupulous George; but it soon becomes clear that McAlister has a motive of his own, a more personal reason for trying to distance Laura from these predatory influences.

To have any hope of moving forward, Laura finds that she must delve back into her past. Over the course of this short novel, she is forced to come to terms with a period of her life she has long since buried: a series of circumstances that had led to her stay at Marathon at a time when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within her reach. Slowly but surely, McNeill reveals through a series of flashbacks the tragedy of Laura’s past, the incidents and circumstances that have blighted her life, making her the anxious, downtrodden woman she is today. There was a time when Laura was happy, the two years she spent at art college where she fell in love with Tom, a fellow student and friend of George’s. In this scene, Laura is watching Tom as he sketches the landscape during a day trip to the lakeside.

Laura did not take out her sketching book. She lay on one elbow, contented in the sufficiency of the moment, in the luxury of knowing that just by turning her head she could see Tom beside her, feeling the sun warm on her skin, hearing the waves., Here was richness. She hoarded every moment as it went by, each chaffinch’s flourish, each small lazy wave. It would have to last her a long time. (p. 111)

Laura’s memories of Tom are reignited when his son, also an artist, comes to the city to show his paintings, an exhibition which Laura attends.

Tea at Four O’Clock is a powerful, character-driven novel where the focus is on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous they might be. In this respect, it shares something with the work of other women writers of the mid-late 20th century, particularly Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. The mood is intense, claustrophobic and ominous – deliberately so, I think. The weight of guilt is ever present in the story from Mr Percival’s regret over the death of his wife when she gave birth to George, the son and potential heir he so desperately desired, to Laura’s guilt over past events, the nature of which is unravelled over the course of the narrative. Without wishing to say too much about the ending, there is a secret at the heart of the novel, one which reveals the true extent of Mildred’s hold over Laura for the past twenty years. It is the reason I described the book as desperately sad in the opening paragraph of this post.

McNeill also finds time to make reference to the changing nature of Northern Ireland in the fifties: the proliferation of new housing estates encroaching on the grounds surrounding the Percival mansion; the slim pickings available at home for ordinary men like George; the swathes of people emigrating to America, the land of hope and opportunity.

At the end of the day though, this is Laura’s story. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to typify her state of mind.

The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side. (p. 176)

My sincere thanks to Mary at Goodreads who recommended this book to me.

Tea at Four O’Clock is published by Virago; personal copy.

37 thoughts on “Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

  1. heavenali

    I loved this novel, Laura is a character I really warmed to, McNeill shows us how her life has come to what it is. Miss Parks is a brilliant monstrous creation. I went on to read three more Janet McNeill novels all re-issued by turnpike books. The small Widow was the definitely the best of them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really felt for Laura as well, especially given the devastating nature of her backstory (which is difficult to discuss in more detail without revealing any spoilers). And I’m totally with you on Miss Parks too. She’s so brilliantly observed, right down to her mannerisms and manoeuvres – she could have come straight out of an Elizabeth Taylor novel.

      I’m delighted to hear that you went on to read a few more of McNeill’s novels, that’s very reassuring. The Small Widow sounds like the best one to go for, so I’ll definitely be looking out for it.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    This sounds really intense Jacqui, and an awful lot captured in a short space. I’m really enjoying novellas at the minute – done well, the limited space seems to distill the story down to its most powerful. I’ll certainly look out for this!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Intense is a great word for this one. It’s pretty powerful stuff, especially once the reader discovers the true nature of Mildred’s hold over Laura. This is a life ruined by the poisonous actions of a sibling. It’s all very well observed though – definitely recommended as long as you’re in the right mood for dysfunctional families!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Wow, you’re quite a fan then! I’m delighted to hear that there’s more to look forward to. As Ali mentioned above, a few of her novels have now been re-issued by Turnpike Books, so I’ll be checking them out next. That said, I do love these old green Virago editions, they’re so beautiful – the cover was part of the attraction with this one.

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    This sounds excellent. It made me think of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Maybe because of the setting and the tone. She’s not an author I’m familiar. I’ll see if I can find anything.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, interesting. I have a copy of Judith Hearne – hopefully I’ll be able to get to it next year. It’s on my list for the Classic Club, so that’s another reason to read it. I don’t think this author is terribly well known any more. I only discovered her through the recommendation from Mary.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    This story sounds so very sad. It seems that in real life too, some people get a few years where they almost find a path to freedom and happiness and then get sucked into bad things.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s frightening to think how influential family ties and obligations can be – and not always in a positive way as was the case here. Laura’s life could have been very different had she been able to break away from her father and sister when she fell in love with Tom. There’s a sense of a life blighted by the burden of responsibility and guilt – to say any more might spoil things, but it’s terribly sad.

      Reply
  5. Café Society

    I shall have to read this if only to find out if all the obnoxious ones got their comeuppance. I am also particularly interested in fiction coming out of Northern Ireland and while I’ve concentrated mainly on drama a ‘new-to-me’ novelist is very welcome too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I had better not say anything else about the ending then! On the evidence of this, I’d say McNeill was a very good writer – well worth discovering, especially if you’re interested in fiction set in this area. She was born in Dublin but eventually moved to Northern Ireland when her father (a Presbyterian Minister) got a position there. Much of her adult life was spent in Lisburn, so I guess she knew the territory and its inhabitants very well.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s definitely worthy of consideration. I’m quite keen to try The Small Widow at some point, especially as it comes with Ali’s seal of approval.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh no, that’s a shame. I bought my copy online (via ebay), but that was several months ago and I can’t recall how many other copies were available at the time. Let’s hope it gets re-issued at some point in the future.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. That’s good to hear. It certainly seems the one to go for. I hope you get a chance to read Tea at Four O’Clock. I think you’d like it.

      Reply
  6. Simon T

    I’ve had this for SO many years, but have somehow read two other books by her instead – The Small Widow and I *think* the other one was As Strangers Here. I didn’t quite love either of them, but this one sounds fantastic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m guilty of doing the same thing with other authors! My copies of Muriel’s Spark’s Loitering with Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington keep getting sidelined by more recent acquisitions. (I keep telling myself that I’m saving them for best, like clothes hanging in the wardrobe.)

      I liked this a lot, but it is very intense. Definitely worth reading when the mood takes you – I’d love to hear what you think of it. Maybe it could be a ‘Club’ read if you decide to cover 1956 at some point in the future? :)

      Reply
  7. Elena

    Sounds like a tough reading! I love learning more about Ireland and Irish culture, mainly because the horrors committed against women are so similar to those my grandmother and mother suffered in Spain during the Fascist dictatorship not so long ago. But at the same time it breaks my heart to read about it and think that, had I been born 20 years earlier, I could have suffered similarly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think I know what you mean by that. My mother was born and raised in Ireland, and while she never experienced anything as terrible as Laura, she knew of others who probably did. (It wasn’t easy for young women back then, especially those from small-town communities.) I think she found it very different in the UK when she moved over here to marry my father.

      Anyway – yes, this is an intense read, albeit a rewarding one if you like character studies with a strong focus on the psychological.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I don’t think she’s terribly well known in spite of the relatively recent reissues from Turnpike Books. Definitely worthy of consideration though if this book is anything to go by. I think you’d find it interesting

      Reply
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