Tag Archives: UK

A Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, A Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym – or at least one of her best and most memorable novels.

Central to the narrative are four colleagues – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in a London office, performing clerical duties of some sort (the exact name of the business or institution is never made clear). All four are in their sixties and fairly close to retirement. Letty and Marcia will leave first, the retirement age for women being lower than for men, with Edwin and Norman to follow in the fullness of time.

Letty – the most self-aware member of the group – is particularly conscious of how odd or antiquated they must seem to other people, especially the younger, more energetic office employees. While they don’t see or socialise with one another outside of work, each co-worker has their own individual habits and routines to fall back on. Letty enjoys reading and shopping, always making an effort with her clothes to maintain a neat appearance, even though she is a spinster. Edwin – a widower – has various church activities to keep him occupied, helping Father G. with his parish near Clapham Common. Norman – unmarried and living in a bedsit – seems fixated on getting angry with various things: the youth of today, people who drop litter, semi-nudity in public places, and cars, especially badly parked ones.

Finally, Marcia – the most troubled of the quartet – spends much of her time buying tinned food which she never seems to eat; collecting empty milk bottles, which she stores in the garden shed, ready for some unspecified emergency; and avoiding Janice Brabner, a rather persistent volunteer from Social Services. Marcia, who is still under the care of the local hospital following a mastectomy, resents Janice’s interference in her life and wishes she could be left alone. But instead, Janice persists in trying to encourage Marcia to get out more, preferably dropping in at the local Centre, much to the latter’s annoyance. Also of concern to Janice is her charge’s diet, which she considers lacking in fresh food, especially given Marcia’s reliance on tinned goods, cups of tea and biscuits. It’s an ongoing source of tension that builds steadily during the book.

As the novel unfolds, we learn a little more about these four individuals through various glimpses of their lives, especially away from work. With her middle-class upbringing and training in secretarial duties, Letty had expected to marry in her youth; but instead, she was left behind, trailing in the wake of her best friend, Marjorie, who proved more popular with men. Now Letty lives in a bedsit, owned by an elderly lady, who may also be on the cusp of retirement herself. Nevertheless, while Letty regrets not having married, she still believes that her life has value to it, albeit in a somewhat different, less complicated way than her peers.

Yet, she sometimes wondered, might not the experience of ‘not having’ be regarded as something with its own validity? (p. 21)

At one point in the past, Marcia had entertained vague thoughts of Norman as someone she might become attached to, but now she seems more interested in Mr Strong, the surgeon who performed her mastectomy. Naturally, Mr Strong is blissfully unaware of this, but it doesn’t stop Marcia from looking forward to her appointments with him.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have taken place in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

Change is also the cause of some distress to Letty, who finds life uncomfortable with her new landlord, a Nigerian man named Mr Olatunde. With their enthusiastic hymn-singing and penchant for spicy food, the Olatunde family prove too much for Letty to cope with, given her preference for peace and quiet. Once again, Letty reflects on her position as an unassuming spinster, left on the shelf having missed out on marriage – something that chimes with Pym’s portrayals of other self-effacing heroines, such as Mildred from Excellent Women and Belinda from Some Tame Gazelle.

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. (p. 56)

There are elements of Pym herself in the character of Letty – and possibly a dash in Marcia too with her slide into neglectfulness.  Perhaps Pym is showing us how things might have worked out for her too, had she not been rescued from obscurity by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil?

This feeling of obsolescence is also present in other aspects of the novel – for example, how quickly we can be made to feel forgotten or superfluous to requirements when we retire or times move on. Letty feels it when she visits Edwin and Norman at the office, noticing how things have changed since her retirement.

‘I see you’ve spread yourselves out a bit,’ she said, noticing that the men now seemed to occupy all the space but had once accommodated the four of them. Again she experienced the feeling of nothingness, when it was borne in on her so forcibly that she and Marcia had been phased out in this way, as if they had never existed. (p. 110)

While Quartet is a somewhat melancholy novel – certainly compared to Pym’s earlier work – there are some lovely moments of gentle humour to balance the darkness. In this scene, Letty is visiting her friend Marjorie – now engaged to David Lydell, a middle-aged vicar who seems to have caught the eye of more than one lady in Marjorie’s village.

‘This is one of Father Lydell’s favourite dishes,’ said Beth, bringing a covered casserole to the table.  ‘Poulet niçoise – I hope you like it.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Letty murmured, remembering the times she had eaten poulet niçoise at Marjorie’s house. Had David Lydell gone all round the village sampling the cooking of the unattached women before deciding which one to settle with? Certainly the dish they were eating this evening was well up to standard. (p. 130)

As is often the case with Pym, it’s the small things that prove to be the most revealing, hinting at trouble brewing or secrets yet to be revealed. As the novel draws to a close, the group come together in a time of crisis, reaching out to one another in ways they have not managed to do before. For two of the quartet at least, there are decisions about their futures to be made, showing us that life still holds choices and new possibilities in the autumn of our years. This is a beautiful, perceptive, bittersweet novel, reminiscent of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (and possibly Memento Mori) in subject matter and style.

On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…

So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.

As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.

In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been killed many years earlier in the Second World War. “May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.”

May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.

The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)

As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.

It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.

…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)

And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…

And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)

This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.

By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)

Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.

He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)

Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!

So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

These Names Make Clues by E. C. R. Lorac

The British author Edith Caroline Rivett – who wrote under the pseudonyms E. C. R. Lorac, Carol Carnac and Mary Le Bourne – is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of Golden Age mysteries. The British Library have reissued several of her novels in their Crime Classics series, and while These Names Make Clues (1937) isn’t quite as strong as some of the others I’ve read, there’s certainly a very intriguing puzzle for readers to enjoy.

The novel opens with an invitation to a treasure hunt party, which is to be hosted by the London-based publisher Graham Coombe and his sister, Susan. The Coombes have invited Chief Inspector Macdonald to attend the gathering, urging the detective to test his wits against the thriller writers and other assorted luminaries attending the event. At first, Macdonald is somewhat reluctant to accept, fearing that he might look a bit foolish if trumped by an amateur sleuth. Nevertheless, he ends up taking the bait, albeit on a whim.

The action swiftly moves to the party itself at Caroline House, a rather well-to-do property in London’s Marylebone, in the spring of 1936. Macdonald is one of ten or so guests at the gathering, each of whom is assigned a literary pseudonym to adopt for the night.

At first, the treasure hunt proceeds according to plan, with each guest working on their individual clues while also wondering about the other players’ identities. (To the best of the Coombes’ knowledge, the guests haven’t met before, so their true identities also remain something of a mystery – to one another at least.)

Just as the party is in full swing, the game is rudely interrupted by a blackout, seemingly due to a blown fuse. Candles are lit as a temporary measure, but when the guests reassemble to take stock of the situation, one member of the party is missing. Before long, the body of ‘Samuel Pepys’, aka the crime writer Andrew Gardien, is discovered by Macdonald at the back of the house. 

So Samuel Pepys was Andrew Gardien, author of a dozen detective stories. The “Master Mechanic” the reviewers called him, owing to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions. “Heath Robinson murders,” another reviewer had styled them, involving bits of cord and wire and counterpoises, all nicely calculated to tidy themselves up when their work was done. Springs and levers and pulleys had been used with wonderful effect by the quick brain which had once animated that still body. (p. 44)

Heart failure appears to be the most likely cause of Gardien’s death, but naturally Macdonald is suspicious. There are scorch marks on the dead man’s hands, possibly indicating an electric shock of some sort, although quite how that might have happened is not immediately apparent. The sighting of a mysterious grey-haired man is another puzzling factor, with two of the guests claiming to have seen this man before the blackout happened. The identity of the grey-haired man is unknown. However, there is a suggestion that he bore a vague resemblance to Gardien’s literary agent, Mardon-Elliott, who was not on the official guest list for the party, as far as we can tell.

The picture is further complicated when Mardon-Elliott himself is found dead in his office the following morning. Once again, the circumstances are suspicious, with various clues pointing to Gardien as the potential perpetrator – a theoretical possibility, especially given the degree of uncertainty around the time of Elliott’s death. As Macdonald subsequently muses, the two crimes appear to be linked, with Gardien’s murder pointing to Elliott as the perpetrator, and Elliot’s to Gardien – a puzzling situation indeed, possibly designed to throw detectives off the scent.

“Yet here we have the murder of Elliott – signed Gardien – so to speak, and the murder of Gardien with an indication of Elliott. The probability is that the same person killed both and arranged indications that they killed one another, doing it in such a way as to suggest a thriller writer is the perpetrator – on account of the funny business involved – from which suggestion it seems reasonable to argue by contraries that a thriller writer had nothing to do with it.” (p. 136)

By now, Macdonald is well and truly in his element, interviewing the various attendees to figure out their movements on the night of the party. As ever, this likeable detective is a pleasure to shadow as he goes about his business, ruminating on various details that other investigators might miss.

Towards the end of the story, the action shifts from London to the Berkshire countryside with Macdonald’s friend, the enthusiastic journalist Peter Vernon also getting embroiled in the case.

While These Names… is a little short on the immersive sense of place Lorac employs so well in several of her other mysteries – a missed opportunity given her skills in capturing rural landscapes (as in Fell Murder) and wartime London settings (as in Checkmate to Murder) – it does feature some very interesting characters, not least the razor-sharp historian Valerie Woodstock.

The girl’s shrewd eyes met Macdonald’s full. Her appearance might indicate the society miss, interested only in clothes and a good time, but her expression showed a very different personality. Valerie Woodstock had recently leapt into fame for an erudite piece of historical research, and Macdonald knew that a first-class brain was hidden behind that frivolous exterior. (p. 51)

Readers would do well to pay close attention to the characters’ names in this intriguing mystery – a point that is easier said than done given the liberal use of pseudonyms running through the book. Nevertheless, fans of cryptic crosswords and anagrams will likely enjoy this one, especially given the relevance of the novel’s title, These Names Make Clues.

As ever, the novel comes with an excellent introduction from the writer and series consultant Martin Edwards, who explains a little more about Lorac/Rivett and her election to the Detection Club. It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print after a long period in the wilderness. My thanks to The British Library for kindly providing a review copy. (If it’s of interest, you can buy the book here via this link to Bookshop.org.)

Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945 by Becky Brown  

In this fascinating book, the anthologist, editor and literary agent Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation study during the Second World War. Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life. The initiative aimed ‘to tell a truer, fuller version’ of life in Britain than was available in the newspapers or recorded in history books. As part of the project, a volunteer group of 500 people across the UK – from factory workers to shop assistants, from writers to teachers, from housewives to office clerks – submitted their personal diaries on a monthly basis from August 1939 onwards. It’s a remarkable resource, full of striking insights into the diarists’ day-to-day lives during this extraordinary time.

The diary extracts are presented chronologically, offering readers the opportunity to follow the war as it unfolds from the end of August 1939 to August 1945. Each chapter covers a period of six months and is prefaced by a brief summary of the key developments – both historical and emotional, using the diary entries as a ‘temperature gauge’ or touchstone resource.

Interestingly, the book does much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. As the diary entries clearly demonstrate, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Moreover, Brown has clearly taken a lot of care to select a wide variety of extracts, offering us entries that range from the mundane and virtuous (e.g. digging up the garden to grow vegetables, as in the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign) to the dramatic and terrifying (e.g. scrambling to hide in a cupboard during an unexpected bombing raid).

While many of the entries are sobering and poignant, there are some lighter moments too, especially in the early stages before the actual conflict begins.

To Rectory afternoon for bandaging practice. The Rector’s wife amuses me rather. She speaks as if the village were going to be strewn with casualties in the near future. (p. 22, Oct. 1939)

Another diarist notes the popularity of war-like flourishes in women’s fashions, with long military-style coats and jackets featuring brass buttons and shoulder straps appearing in the local town. Others, however, are more unsettled by the sense of uncertainty, their emotions changing from one week to the next as the situation in Europe worsens…

The war was, for a few days, terrible and exciting. Then it was only fitfully so. Now, after being merely a bore for a while, it grows more fearsome. It becomes personal and menacing. (p. 37, Jan 1940)

One of the most striking things about these diaries is just how much they resonate with the way many of us were feeling (and behaving) during the first year of the recent pandemic. Pre-emptive stockpiling in the early stages of the war drives a degree of panic buying, just as we saw with flour, dried pasta and loo rolls at the start of COVID. By December 1939, shop assistants are already bearing the brunt of customers’ anger at shortages in the shops, frequently resulting in outbursts as they try to deal with the situation.

Women have so insulted shop assistants that the rule – that assistance may not be rude to customers or ‘answer back’ – has been relaxed, by the manager of a big store here. The girls are often in tears, & the men greatly upset, by selfish customers who blame assistants when they can’t get what butter or sugar they think they want. (p. 30, Dec. 1939)

Some diarists quote examples of neighbours or acquaintances who flout the rules, obtaining food or petrol illegally on the black market or indulging in unnecessary travel when they should be keeping journeys to a minimum. Others report shopkeepers (or those in positions of authority) profiting from the shortages, hiking up prices to benefit from the increased demand. If anything, class divisions exacerbate the situation, undermining the sense of everyone being equal or ‘in it together’.

Interestingly, anti-maskers are not simply a 21st-century phenomenon, as this 1941 entry from a Belfast-based diarist neatly demonstrates!

All the propaganda recently about gas & gas masks doesn’t seem to have had much effect. I was down-town for an hour this morning, & during that time saw one woman carrying a mask; & she was obviously English. Schoolchildren carry them when going to school, (because compulsory) but not at other times. (p. 100, Apr. 1941)

Naturally, there are also touching acts of kindness, examples of friends and neighbours looking out for one another, sharing essentials and provisions or ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort – e.g. taking in evacuees, knitting garments for soldiers or driving ambulances during the Blitz.

Frustration with the government’s handling of the situation is detectable in several of the dairies – people want to hear the truth, not some jingoistic propaganda being peddled by the media. They also want to be treated as grown-ups – trusted partners in the war effort, not subordinates who must simply do as they’re told with no explanations. 

Even at quite an early stage in the war, people are becoming desensitised to the constant stream of bad news, as one tragedy follows another with little pause for thought about the impact of lives lost. In some respects, this chimes with the current situation in the UK where our negligent government seems to regard the loss of 1,000+ lives per week to COVID as an ‘acceptable’ cost of the pandemic.

This war feels more and more like a continuation of the last one. I think we felt more grief then at the loss of life. The modern world does not seem to care about lives being lost (3000 lost on the roads in two months). (p. 24, Nov. 1939)

It’s astonishing too how one takes the most astounding piece of news in one’s stride now, as it were, as much that would in normal times have supplied us with a year’s sensations, we swallow in a week without great comment. I suppose our minds have reached saturation point. All we hear and read now has little further effect. (p. 78, Oct. 1940)

As the war rumbles on, the later years usher in increasingly high levels of fatigue, scepticism, flagging morale and uncertainty about the future, even when the prospect of victory seems to be in sight. While the war has thrown up new opportunities for some – particularly women who have been able to work in new areas – others are less positive about their prospects. Meanwhile, some appear to expect an immediate return to ‘normal’ life, possibly with certain advances, while in reality any changes are likely to be gradual. As one diarist reflects:

It will not be something definite and spectacular like Lights Up, Bananas for all, unlimited fully fashioned real silk stockings at 2/6d a pair and everyone with a job they like and able to afford their own plot and bungalow. (p. 272, Oct. 1944)

The detrimental impact of the war on children is uppermost in some diarists’ minds, with the loss of normal childhood experiences being a particular concern – another issue that will resonate with many of us as we emerge from COVID restrictions.

What a reflection on our present mode of life it is that children have hardly known what it is to be able to spend their few pennies on ices and sweets. They can only remember queues and crowds, sirens and shelters, and have never eaten a toffee-apple! These children have lost five years of their life, and we must try to make it up to them. (p. 264, Aug. 1944)

In summary, then, Blitz Spirit is a fascinating insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. There is real stoicism and resilience here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic. I found it a thoroughly illuminating read, an excellent addition to the accounts of Home Front life during WW2.

Blitz Spirit is published by Hodder & Stoughton; personal copy.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy    

Part morality tale, part family saga/social comedy, Margaret Kennedy’s delightful novel, The Feast, has recently been reissued by Faber in a beautiful new edition – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. This very cleverly constructed story – which features a large cast of memorable, idiosyncratic characters – unfolds over the course of a week, culminating in the titular ‘feast’, an event that proves to be momentous in more ways than one!

The novel – which is set in Cornwall in the summer of 1947 – opens with a short prologue, in which Reverend Bott of St. Sody’s is deliberating over a funeral sermon he has to write. The previous month, a local cliffside hotel, The Pendizack, collapsed into the sea, killing all those who were inside the building at the time. Those who perished in the tragedy remain buried under the rocks and rubble, with no possibility of recovery – hence the need for a ceremony as an act of remembrance. Luckily, however, several of the hotel guests and members of staff escaped with their lives, having been out on a picnic – the titular feast – at the time of the cliffside collapse. Their stories, and the events of the week leading up to the disaster, are revealed in the remainder of the book. Tantalisingly, Kennedy only reveals the name of one of the seven dead at this point – Dick Siddal, whose wife Barbara managed the hotel – leaving the reader in the dark about the identity of the other six victims until the very end…

At this point, Kennedy takes us back to the Saturday before the tragedy, introducing us to the main players in the story: the staff and various guests. The hotel, it seems, is home to the Siddal family, who have turned the property over to paying guests for financial reasons. Dick Siddal, a former lawyer, lives in the boot-room behind the kitchen, only to emerge now and again to pass commentary on the state of the world. Mr Siddal has a sharp, perceptive mind, but offers nothing in the way of practical help in running the hotel. That operation is left to his wife, Barbara, who has settled into the role of a martyr, helped considerably by her eldest son, Gerry, whose heroic efforts to assist with all manner of jobs go largely unnoticed. The Siddals’ other sons, Robin and Duff, are the apples of their mother’s eye, with the money to finance their education being a major priority.

Also living at the hotel is the housekeeper, Dorothy Ellis, a lazy, spiteful woman who cannot resist poking her nose into everyone else’s business. One gets the sense that her loyalty to Mrs Siddal is pretty thin, especially given her opinion of The Pendizack (as revealed in a letter she writes to a friend).

Well this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding house—all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years and only one bathroom. They have lost all their money, so she got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools just the same—but she does not know the first thing about running a hotel and can’t cater for toffee. (pp. 15–16)

Of more practical use to Mrs Siddal is the housemaid, Nancibel, a sprightly, intelligent girl who worked in the ATS during WW2. Nancibal – who has the full measure of Dorothy Ellis – is nursing a broken heart, determined to move on after class differences scuppered her chances with former sweetheart, Brian. 

Much of the novel’s engaging humour is provided by the hotel guests, particularly through the clashes in social class and attitudes to life this environment throws up. Lady Gifford writes ahead to Mrs Siddal, laying out her extensive list of dietary requirements, despite the difficulties posed by rationing. 

I see I’ve said nothing about fish. I’m allowed everything except kippers, but I don’t think plaice agrees with me very well, nor haddock, unless cooked with plenty of butter. Crab and lobsters are not verboten which is very convenient, as I expect you get plenty of them and so many people can’t eat them. (p. 13)

There is definitely a whiff of scandal surrounding the Giffords’ financial affairs, especially given Lady G’s desire to move to Guernsey for tax purposes. As Kennedy’s omniscient narrator observes, the Giffords are ‘the kind of people who feed in the Black Market,’ and ‘who wear smuggled nylons…’. The Giffords’ four children – three of whom are adopted – are led by Hebe, a rather bossy, selfish child who proves to be a dangerous influence over other youngsters in the Pendizack’s orbit. More specifically, the three Cove girls, whose desperately mean mother confiscates their sweet rations and other ‘valuables’ to sell on to the highest bidder. Mrs Cove, a seemingly impoverished widow, ultimately reveals herself to be a nasty piece of work – so much so that one cannot help but hope she perishes in the hotel’s collapse. 

Also staying at the Pendizack are Paleys, a middle-aged married couple who tragically lost their daughter in heartbreaking circumstances. Consequently, an air of profound sadness surrounds this couple, particularly Mr Paley whose sense of pride clouds any decisions.

The Paleys always gave off this suggestion of a violence momentarily suspended. They would eat their breakfast every morning in a sombre, concentrated silence, as though bracing themselves for some enormous effort to be sustained during the day. (p. 24)

Further amusement is provided by Anna Lechene – a capricious writer – and her chauffer-secretary, Bruce, who also aspires to write. Last but not least, we have the formidable Canon Wraxton and his timid daughter, Evangeline. As Mrs Siddal reveals to her son, Gerry, the Wraxtons have already left another hotel in the area due to dissatisfaction on the part of the Canon.

‘They’re all right as regards money. They paid for a week in advance, though they only stayed two nights. But she says he has the most awful temper; he quarrelled with everybody and objected to cards and dancing in the lounges. And he was very rude to the staff.’

‘Oh Mother…don’t let’s have them.’ (p. 42)

Poor long-suffering Evangeline is reduced to grinding up glass in her room, storing it in pill box, possibly with the intention of slipping it into her father’s food. Only then can she hope to be free of his tyrannical influence.

What Kennedy does so well here is to weave an immersive story around the perils of the seven deadly sins, skilfully illustrated through the loathsome behaviours of her characters. In the week leading up to the feast, we see examples of pride, wrath, envy, greed, gluttony and sloth on display -possibly lust or wantonness too, although that’s perhaps a little more tenuous than the other sins. Interestingly, each individual seems to be nursing a disappointment or difficulty of some sort, which Kennedy reveals as the narrative unfolds.

In terms of action, there are plenty of developments to entertain the reader including various romances, the theft of a potentially valuable object, an outburst in church and a dramatic coastal rescue. The novel’s finale is a fancy-dress party of sorts, an evening picnic feast to give the impoverished Cove girls a holiday to remember.

In summary, The Feast is a wonderfully clever, engaging novel with some serious messages at its heart. At certain points, Kennedy encourages the reader to consider how strengths can sometimes become weaknesses when pursued to the extremes. Mr Paley is great example of this, a man whose self-respect has tipped into a crippling sense of pride. Similarly, for Evangeline, a heroic degree of patience with the domineering Canon Wraxton has inevitably given way to submission. There is much to contemplate here as the reader races towards the denouement where the survivors’ identities will be revealed.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

This is a wonderfully nuanced novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character. My first experience of Hadley’s fiction, but hopefully not my last…

The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. In short, the time may have finally come for them to sell before the upkeep on the house becomes too much.

Harriet (the eldest I think), is the most restrained of the Cranes. Despite her worthwhile job and interest in activism, Harriet feels that other, more emotional aspects of life have passed her by – a realisation that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses. Alice, a romantic, expressive individual at heart, has brought along her ex-boyfriend’s son, nineteen-year-old Kasim, seemingly on a bit of a whim.

Fran is the most grounded and well-organised of the siblings. A schoolteacher by profession, she is accompanied by her two children, the curious and watchful Ivy (aged nine) and the suggestible Arthur (aged six). Both of these characters are brilliantly realised, fleshed out in ways that remind me of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Penelope Fitzgerald’s fictional children. Fran’s husband, Jeff, has cried off at the last minute – clearly a source of frustration for Fran, who is left wondering whether her marriage is worth salvaging. Finally, Roland arrives with his third wife, Pilar, a highly-strung Argentinian lawyer, and Molly, his sixteen-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage.

Although very little happens in terms of plot, there is a discernible undercurrent of unease running through the narrative, which adds a degree of tension to this beautifully constructed book.

Not long after their arrival, Alice crosses a boundary with Roland, and her desire to reflect nostalgically on the past prompts an eruption from Pilar, who is still very much a newcomer to the group.

They were all affected by Pilar’s new presence among them – it had the effect of making their talk at the table seem false, as if they were performing their family life for her scrutiny. Alice and Fran were noisy, showing off; Fran exaggerated the drama of Jeff’s selfishness, his dereliction. Ivy spilled her drink, Arthur picked out all the cheese from his sandwich, then left the crusts; Kasim when he appeared wouldn’t sit down for lunch – he said he wasn’t hungry and then carved himself huge hunks of bread, ate them sitting on the grass at the bottom of the garden. Pilar didn’t contribute much to the conversation, the conversation, her remarks were rapid and forceful like her concentrated, liquid glances, as if she closed the discussion instead of opening it up. (p. 41)

Family, it seems, is not always a source of comfort, especially to someone like Pilar, who was raised during Argentina’s Dirty War and the era of the ‘disappeared’. Pilar begins to bond with Harriet during the holiday, viewing her as a potential confidante for her personal history and concerns. It’s another relationship where boundaries are ultimately overstepped, forcing a sequence of events that threaten to derail the holiday.

Elsewhere, the self-confident Kasim has designs on Molly, hatching a plan to seduce her in a nearby derelict cottage – a place that also holds a fascination for Ivy and Arthur, mostly as a secret hideaway where they can escape from the adults.

In a nod to Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris (which I’ve yet to read), Hadley divides her novel into three sections, The Present, The Past and The Present. It’s a structure that enables her to show how earlier events can seep into the here and now, albeit in subtle and surprising ways. The middle section focuses on the siblings’ mother, Jill, who in 1968 is back with her parents in Kington, wondering what to do with her life following a break-up with her philandering husband, Tom. A brief dalliance between Jill and a local man at the abandoned cottage hints at a potential secret in the Crane family, something that may or may not come out in The Present. It’s to Hadley’s credit that she never pushes this and other connections too far, favouring nuance and subtlety over thrills and shocking revelations – a degree of control she maintains throughout.

In summary, The Past is a very absorbing novel, full of subtle, understated observations. The inner lives of these characters are richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to another throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. The abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of subtle, character-driven fiction – it reminded me a little of Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, a novel I very much enjoyed last year.

The Past (first published in 2015) is published by Vintage; personal copy.

Recent Reads – That Old County Music by Kevin Barry and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household   

In an effort to catch up with my review backlog, here are some brief notes on two fairly recent reads – both very highly recommended!

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (2020)

A vivid collection of eleven short stories, many of which feature loners, outsiders or those who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. As with most collections, some pieces will inevitably resonate more strongly than others, but there are five standout stories here, worthy of the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with The Coast of Leitrim (previously published in The New Yorker), in which Seamus, a lonely, sensitive, thirty-five-year-old man, falls for Katherine, a young Polish woman who works in a local café. This is a gentle, meditative story, shot through with a yearning for love and the fear of its loss in the future.

What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. (pp. 19–20)

In Roma Kid, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a nine-year-old girl runs away from the asylum park where her family is being housed. When she sprains her ankle in the woods, the girl is taken in by another outsider – a single man living off-the-grid in a trailer, fending for himself in the wilds of the countrywide. As the weeks and months go by, a tender friendship develops between these two individuals, highlighting the kindness of human nature. This is a beautiful, compassionate story that doesn’t play out as the reader might fear.

There is a wonderful seam of dark humour to be found in some of the best stories here, pieces such as Toronto and the State of Grace, which combines striking social comedy with an element of poignancy. In Toronto, a jaded publican is forced to listen to the tales of an eccentric elderly woman and her extrovert son as they drink their way through the nine spirits on display in the bar. If truth be told, the owner is dying to lock up, but his attempts to curtail their drinking are repeatedly ignored!

Who’s-Dead McCarthy is another darkly comic gem in which the death-obsessed Con McCarthy likes nothing more than a bit of gossip about a passing in the family.

Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death. He was its most knowing expert, its deftest elaborator. There was no death too insignificant for his delectation. A 96-year-old poor dear in Thormondgate with the lungs papery as moths’ wings and the maplines of the years cracking her lips as she whispered her feeble last in the night – Con would have word of it by the breakfast, and he would be up and down the street, his sad recital perfecting as he went. (pp. 109-110)

This is a brilliantly observed story with a very fitting end, another piece that demonstrates the author’s skills with character and dialogue.

Finally, the title story is also worthy of a mention, not least for its memorable central character – Hannah, a pregnant seventeen-year-old waiting in a Transit van while her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend robs the nearby petrol station. Like many individuals we see here, Hannah’s life is in flux, caught between uncertainty and a gradual dawning of reality. Once again, it’s an excellent story, beautifully conveyed in Barry’s uncomplicated yet poetic prose. Definitely recommended!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I’m going to keep this relatively brief, mostly because the less you know about the second half of this book before reading it the better. It’s a man-on-the-run thriller of the highest order – taut, gripping and pacy with an existential dimension to boot.

The unnamed ‘rogue male’ of the novel’s title is a trained killer who decides to launch an assassination attempt on a highly dangerous dictator. (While the leader and his country remain anonymous, the time period and European setting clearly point towards Hitler.) Just as the narrator is about to pull the trigger on the dictator, he is captured by the leader’s security team, tortured and then dispatched down a cliff to make his death seem accidental. Somehow the job is bungled and our narrator manages to survive, escaping with his life in the most challenging of circumstances.  

Drawing on his wits and extensive survival skills, the narrator makes it back to England where he finds himself being pursued by the dictator’s henchmen – clearly the matter of international borders poses little barrier to the tyrant’s intentions! Unfortunately, the narrator is unable to call on the British Government for protection as this would be tantamount to requesting an endorsement of his actions – something he knows the authorities will never do. (Interestingly, the true reasons behind our protagonist’s assassination attempt only become fully apparent as the story unfolds.) Moreover, the situation is further complicated when the man kills one of his pursuers to evade being captured, thereby involving the British police in the hunt.

The rest of the novel details the rogue male’s attempts to hide out in the midst of Dorset, a cat-and-mouse game between our protagonist and his main tracker, the brilliantly named Major Quive-Smith.

Household’s novel – which is rightly considered a classic of the genre – is presented as a first-person account, and the following passage, taken from the narrator’s initial escape, provides a good indication of the style.

I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier. (pp. 16–17)

Other readers have compared this book to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, both of which are very valid comparisons. However, the writer I am most reminded of is Jean-Patrick Manchette – particularly his excellent man-on-the-run noir, Three to Kill (1976), which Max has written about here. Either way, Rogue Male is a terrific book, fully deserving of its status as a classic. It’s also quite philosophical at times – more so perhaps than I’ve been able to convey in these brief notes.

That Old Country Music is published by Canongate, Rogue Male by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance for a copy of the Barry.

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

As some of you may know, this week is all about the #1976Club, Karen and Simon’s celebration of books first published in 1976. For my first read, I’ve chosen Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, written when the author knew she was dying of cancer. There is a particular poignancy to it, a consequence perhaps of Taylor’s impending mortality. It is, nevertheless, an excellent novel, a characteristically perceptive story of blame, guilt and selfishness – more specifically, what we do when our selfishness catches up with us and how we sometimes try to shift the blame for our failings onto others.

The novel revolves around Amy Henderson, whom we first encounter in the middle of a holiday with her husband, Nick. The Hendersons are typical Taylor protagonists, drawn from the middle-class world that she knew so intimately. Well into middle age, the couple have a comfortable lifestyle, a married son, James, and two granddaughters, Dora and Isobel.

To aid his recovery from an operation, Nick has embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with Amy – a trip that is proving rather trying for various reasons. While Nick is determined to make the most of various sightseeing opportunities, Amy would much rather stay on the ship, passing the time by reading and relaxing. As a result, there is an unmistakable note of tension in the air as Amy tries to control her frustration with Nick and a packed timetable of outings to various Turkish mosques.

And so it had been in some ways a trying holiday – she fussing over him with the patience of a saint, but inwardly quick to be bored, or irritated by such prolonged sight-seeing; and he determined to miss nothing, as if it were his last chance. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Nick passes away in his sleep while onboard the ship, leaving Amy in shock and with no family nearby for support. The one person to hand is Martha, a young American novelist who has already attached herself to the Hendersons as the only other English-speaking passengers on board. (In truth, Amy has already spent a little time with Martha, before Nick’s death, albeit out of politeness rather than any desire to be friends.)

Martha gallantly steps in, abandoning her plans for the remainder of the cruise to accompany Amy back to London, where both women happen to live. On their arrival in London, Martha delivers Amy into the hands of James, who together with a family friend, the gentle widower, Gareth Lloyd, will take care of Amy and the funeral arrangements for Nick.

Back in London, Amy is reluctant to maintain any kind of friendship with Martha, despite the latter’s kindness in supporting her on the journey home. James, in particular, sees the selfishness in his mother’s behaviour, irrespective of her grief.

[James:] “I will write to thank her [Martha]. It was a great act of friendship to cut short her holiday like that – and all the extra expense.”

“I paid that, and she really only missed Ephesus,” Amy said ungraciously. “But, oh yes, she was very kind.”

Mourning seemed to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness, he thought, fearing more of the same thing to come. (p. 36)

At first, Amy neglects to return Martha’s calls, pretending she has mislaid the number, fully aware of her shameful behaviour in the face of this woman’s kindness. Finally, however, Martha writes to Amy, virtually inviting herself to come and visit – a trip that eventually takes place. Once inside Amy’s house, Martha is careful to observe everything, mentally noting specific phrases that Amy uses in conversation, together with all the attendant details of English life. We quickly get the sense that Martha is using Amy to a certain extent, possibly gathering information that might prove useful for a novel.

As the story plays out, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women, although we’re never quite sure of either character’s true feelings towards the other. There comes a point when the tables are turned, when Martha finds herself in need of help from Amy, offering the latter an opportunity to return the favour. Amy, to her shame, puts her own feelings first at this point, virtually abandoning Martha in her hour of need. It’s a failing that will come to haunt Amy in the months that follow, compounding the sense of guilt she feels while also trying to absolve herself of blame.

When viewed overall, Blaming is rather poignant in tone. Nevertheless, there are some wonderfully amusing moments for readers to enjoy, especially those involving Amy’s male housekeeper, the brilliantly named Ernie Pounce. A bit of an old woman at heart, Ernie persists in measuring himself against Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper, who is clearly not averse to cutting corners in the kitchen, much to Ernie’s horror. In this scene, Amy and her son’s family are just about to be served their Christmas dinner, which Ernie has lovingly prepared.  

It was the meal of the year at which Ernie was always present as part of the family, wearing the black corduroy jazz-club jacket and a pink bow tie. Having brought in the turkey and set it before James, he whipped off a fancy apron and stood by to pass plates and vegetables. The sausages were in one long string and draped about the bird like a coronet. James, whose father had always done the carving, was annoyed by all this cluttering up of his job. He tried to lift the sausages away, but with a knife blade-side up, so that they lay scattered all over the carpet. Dora laughed quietly, with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together. Isobel was furious. (pp. 120-121)

James’ daughters, Dora and Isobel, are terrific value too, perfectly capturing the kinds of behaviours one might observe from a mature, intelligent seven-year-old (Dora) and her insufferable younger sister (Isobel). Children often ask the funniest or most awkward questions in challenging situations, and Taylor captures this brilliantly when the girls are told that their grandfather, Nick, has died. All too soon, the children are musing on who (or what) has the right to go to heaven. After all, people must go somewhere when they die, otherwise we’d run out of room for everyone on earth!

Ultimately though, this is Amy’s story, a thoughtful exploration of selfishness, blame and guilt. Once again, Taylor shows her innate ability to catch her characters off guard, observing them in their most private of moments, laying bare their inherent flaws and failings for the reader to see.

Mycopy of Blaming was published by Chatto & Windus, but it’s currently in print with Virago Press.

A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living narrow, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. That probably makes the novels sound rather dull; however, in reality, they are anything but. I find them very appealing – both for their exquisite prose and for their astute insights into character, particularly as Brookner’s women feel very relatable to me. 

First published in 1986, A Misalliance is very much in this vein, focusing as it does on Blanche Vernon, a respectable middle-aged woman who now lives alone in her central London apartment. Blanche’s husband of twenty years, Bertie, has left her for ‘Mousie’ – a much younger, frivolous woman who has succeeded in capturing Bertie’s imagination and protective instincts. Consequently, Blanche endeavours to fill her days with charitable work at one of the London hospitals and trips to the National Gallery where she studies the nymphs, reflecting on their romantic allure – a vision that presents a sharp contrast to the drabness of her life. Money is not an issue for Blanche – she has a small private income – and with no job or children to occupy her time, we quickly get the sense that facing the day ahead often presents something of a challenge. The expensive food and wine she buys give her little pleasure, heightening her longing for the night and a release into sleep.

Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay. In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations. […]

Leaving her house – in reality a tall brick building containing several mysterious high ceilinged apartments – was the event of the day, after which she felt she could breathe more freely, having launched herself yet again on the world without meeting any resistance. (p. 5)

With her ‘tweed suit and polished shoes’, Blanche is considered somewhat eccentric and unapproachable by her neighbours and acquaintances. She remains friendly with Barbara, Bertie’s sister, and the two women talk to one another on the phone every night.

Bertie, for his part, has also not completely severed all ties with Blanche, occasionally dropping in on her for an evening drink and a slice of apple tart. In truth, Blanche secretly hopes that Bertie might tire of Mousie and her little-girl-lost act at some point, prompting him to return to the fold even though the Vernons are officially divorced. Mostly though, Blanche is left wondering why some women – like the emotional Mousie and the mocking nymphs in the National Gallery – seem to attract men like magnets, while other, more sensible individuals, such as herself, do not. Moreover, when Blanche meets Sally Beamish, a woman who shares something of Mousie’s alluring qualities, these thoughts are accentuated, throwing the emptiness of her life into sharp relief.

She [Blanche] even thought, and not for the first time, that it was her timorous decency, disguised as brusqueness, that had caused her to lose Bertie, and she compared herself with the distantly musing Sally entirely to her own disadvantage. For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honourable, and to be excluded. (p. 79)

Blanche meets Sally and her three-year-old mute stepdaughter, Elinor, while dispensing tea in the hospital outpatients’ department. Almost immediately, Blanche sees something of herself in Elinor with her serious demeanour and quiet determination, prompting a desire to know more about the child and the family’s circumstances. It’s an interest that Sally quickly intuits and seeks to take advantage of, casually leveraging Blanche’s attachment to Elinor for her own personal gain. In short, Sally has grown used to a glamorous lifestyle but no longer has the means to sustain it, especially as her husband, Paul, is currently working overseas. Before long, Blanche is leaving £10 notes under the teapot in Sally’s flat to ‘tide her over’ and looking after Elinor while Sally amuses herself with a friend.

The situation intensifies when Sally pressurises Blanche to intervene in personal matters involving her husband, Paul, and his employers, a wealthy American couple, the Demuths. It’s a request that Blanche initially resists, knowing nothing of Paul and his rather mysterious financial arrangements. As this scenario plays out – I won’t go into it here – we see another man falling for the charms of a younger, attention-seeking woman who is fully aware of her appeal to the opposite sex. Once again, Blanche is left to reflect on the vagaries of romantic attraction – why do vulnerable or manipulative women seem so attractive to men, while their more refined or restrained counterparts are frequently ignored?

While I loved the first half of this novel for its compelling set-up, I found the second half just a little looser and less convincing. Still, there is plenty for fans of Brookner to enjoy here. As ever with this author, the characterisation is excellent, particularly Blanche, who appears to be a classic Brookner heroine reflecting on the unfairness of life. The secondary characters are great value too, especially Miss Elphinstone, Blanche’s talkative charwoman, a figure who could have easily stepped out of an Elizabeth Taylor novel – A Wreath of Roses and At Mrs Lippincote’s both spring to mind. However, unlike Blanche, Miss Elphinstone – who also appears to live alone – has fashioned a perfectly acceptable strategy for occupying her time, throwing herself into church activities with steeliness and gusto. 

Miss Elphinstone seemed to enjoy a lively and dramatic existence lived in the shadow of some excitable church whose activities absorbed most of her time and whose members abounded in competitive acts of selflessness. Thus was ensured an avalanche of information that took up most of the morning. Severely hatted, and wearing an overall under Blanche’s last season‘s black coat, Miss Elphinstone carried an equally severe black leather hold-all which contained a pair of rubber gloves, a change of shoes, and a religious magazine to read on the bus… (p. 22)

We also meet the dentist’s wife, Mrs Duff, a kindly woman who takes care of Blanche after a particularly trying meeting with Paul’s employers. In Mrs Duff, Brookner shows us another type of life – a woman seemingly content with a lack of excitement, having settled into the rhythms and routines of a longstanding marriage.

In summary, then, A Misalliance is an exquisitely written exploration of loneliness and the complexities of emotional entanglements, especially for a woman in Blanche’s position. There are some astute observations on womanhood, manipulation and loneliness here. Highly recommended for fans of Brookner and quiet, character-driven fiction with a focus on women’s lives.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

This is a lovely novel, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times. Its author, the English writer R. C. Sherriff – best known for the play Journey’s Endhad the idea for The Fortnight in September during a seaside holiday at Bognor:

I watched that endless stream of people and began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing. (From Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady)

Consequently, Sherriff felt inspired to develop a story centred on one of these families by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual holiday at the seaside resort. On the surface, the premise seems simple, yet the apparent simplicity is part of the novel’s magic. It is a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life.

The novel is focused on the Stevens family, who we first see in their Dulwich home on the eve of the holiday. As we join the story, which takes place in the early 1930s, preparations are underway for the Stevens’ annual trip to the Seaview boarding house in Bognor, where the family has holidayed for the past twenty years. While Mr Stevens is looking forward to a fortnight away from the office, Mrs Stevens is secretly apprehensive about the trip, harbouring various worries about the journey and the holiday itself. In truth, Mrs Stevens finds it difficult to enjoy herself while away, preferring instead those quiet moments when she can be alone. Nevertheless, she realises the importance of the break for the rest of the family and is careful not to let her own reservations spoil everyone else’s fun.

Also anticipating the holiday are the Stevens’ children: nineteen-year-old Mary, a seamstress; seventeen-year-old, Dick, who has just started work as a clerk; and ten-year-old Ernie, an excitable boy who will not be separated from his toy yacht.

Interestingly, Sherriff devotes the first 100 pages of the novel to the family’s holiday preparations and train journey to Bognor; and while this might sound a little tedious in principle, these activities prove remarkably revealing, especially in terms of character. Mr Stevens is very well-organised, listing and allocating various tasks to individual family members, thereby maximising the chances of everything running smoothly. That said, there are moments of tension too, especially for Mrs Stevens, whose anxieties at the change of trains at the dreaded Clapham Junction prove quietly gripping.

“Plenty of time,” he said. “They’ve got to get the trunk out.”

Yes, thought Mrs. Stevens—but supposing they don’t get it out!

Mr. Stevens could see that his wife was agitated, and although far from being a selfish man, he could not help a little secret satisfaction. His own coolness would have been thrown away and wasted if she also had been cool. He saw the unspoken questions in her pale face : he saw her hands trembling, and he gave her a smile of encouragement and understanding. (p. 67)

On their arrival at Bognor, the Stevens make their way to their usual boarding house, ‘Seaview‘, which the recently widowed Mrs Huggett manages. In truth, Seaview is struggling to compete with the newer, more glamorous residential hotels with their fairy lights and entertainments. Nevertheless, to Mr and Mrs Stevens, this somewhat shabby boarding house is a home from home, familiar and comforting, despite its tawdry appearance and lack of excitement. Now the holiday can really begin in all its freedom and liberation!        

The early morning and yesterday evening, exciting though they had been, were shaded by those ominous little clouds that inevitably hang over the beginning of a holiday. The anxiety of leaving home : the burden of the luggage : the bogeys of Clapham Junction and the worries about seats—they were things of the past now : things to joke about—and ahead lay the holiday—basking under a clear, untroubled sky—stretching away to the far distant horizon of Sunday fortnight—so far away that you could scarcely measure its distance in terms of tightly packed minutes of sunlit days and starlit nights. (p. 99)

In one sense, very little happens during the fortnight away – the family bathe, play cricket on the beach, attend concerts etc. – and yet, on another level, there are fundamental developments and reflections taking place. For instance, a long walk on the Downs gives Mr Stevens time to contemplate his career, putting to bed earlier disappointments and setting himself straight for the year ahead. Dick, too, experiences a moment of clarity about his future when he finally identifies the cause of his unhappiness at work. On realising that his talents lie elsewhere, Dick vows to train as an architect, a role that he hopes will offer more fulfilment and satisfaction.

For Mary, the holiday brings a fleeting romance in the shape of Pat, a dashing actor in a touring theatrical group. It’s a welcome opportunity for Mary to spread her wings a little, to experience something of the adult world and the sense of anticipation such uncertainties can bring. Even Mrs Stevens finds a greater degree of contentment this year, a quiet hour every evening when she can be alone with her memories.

Her thoughts, when they came, could scarcely be termed thoughts in the strictest meaning of the word : they were memories really, mingled with the pleasant happenings of each passing day, flecked sometimes with stray chinks of light that crept in from the future. (p. 293)

While this is a gentle novel about the small things in life, there are moments of genuine tension or apprehension amid the undoubted quietness. Somehow Sherriff manages to make the most everyday occurrences seem quite suspenseful; for instance, the securing of a coveted beach hut with a balcony – something that could make or break the Stevens’ holiday – is invested with a degree of anxiety usually reserved for mysteries. And yet, somehow it works!

Alongside everything else, this is also a novel about the passing of time, the need to adapt as we grow and develop. For Dick and Mary, this might be the last time they holiday with the family as they find their own ways in the adult world. There may even come a time when for Mr and Mrs Stevens, the downsides of staying at Seaview outweigh their loyalty to Mrs Huggett, whose financial struggles are all too apparent.

In focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can invest in the characters’ inner lives. A gem of a book – very highly recommended, especially for lovers of quiet, contemplative fiction.

The Fortnight in September is published by Persephone Books; personal copy.