Tag Archives: Virago Modern Classics

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.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym began writing Some Tame Gazelle back in 1934 when she was just twenty-one, an impressive feat considering that the novel’s main protagonists – Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet – are both in their fifties. The characters are loosely based on Barbara herself and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, she imagines what their lives might be like in another thirty years, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet little village in the countryside. In this early novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by unassuming gentlewomen, impressionable young curates, slightly fusty academics, and one or two more spiky characters – often women. This is a world where the most pressing concerns are what to serve the Archdeacon and other notable guests at supper and what to wear to the forthcoming church fete. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

The novel’s set-up is fairly straightforward yet rather delightful. Belinda and Harriet Bede are both spinsters in their fifties, living together in a quintessentially English village at some point in the 1930s or ‘40s. Their lives revolve around the day-to-day business of the community, most notably those activities connected with the church.

Belinda has been in love with the Archdeacon Hoccleve for the past thirty years, a man she first met and dated in college where they enjoyed a mutual appreciation of the English poets; but now that the Archdeacon is married to the formidable and efficient Agatha, Belinda must remain content with worshiping him from a safe distance, fantasising over whether he still retains some affection for her after all these years. On the other hand, Belinda’s sister Harriet is more preoccupied with the sequence of curates – all young, pale and undernourished – who pass through the parish on a regular basis. She lavishes her attention on them, inviting them for supper and afternoon tea whenever the opportunity arises – this in spite of the fact that she has received several proposals of marriage from the charming Count Bianco, a somewhat melancholy Italian gentleman who remains faithfully devoted to her in spite of a string of gentle refusals over the years.

In short, both sisters take comfort from having someone to cherish – which brings us to the novel’s title, a quote from a verse by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (p. 11)

On the surface, very little appears to happen plot-wise in the first third of this novel, but as ever with Barbara Pym, the devil is in the detail. The characterisation is spot-on, often deeper and more subtle than it appears at first sight.

Belinda is the main focus here, and in some ways, she is almost a forerunner to Mildred, the central protagonist in Pym’s follow-on novel Excellent Women. Belinda is a hugely sympathetic but slightly meek woman who often puts the needs of others before her own desires. Guided by the social conventions of the day, she is forever conscious of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing, especially when in the company of others. Nevertheless, deep down, Belinda longs for a slightly more fulfilling life, one where she could share a few more moments with the Archdeacon, if only Agatha were not in the way. I love this next quote, one that conveys so much about Belinda as a character – and Pym as a writer, concerned as she is with the little details that reveal so much about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life.

When we grow older we lack the fine courage of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken. Then Agatha might get to hear of it; that was something else to be considered. Her long, thin fingers might pick at it critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some difficultly there. Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, but she would have an unfailing eye for Belinda’s little mistakes. And then the pullover might be too small, or the neck opening too tight, so that he wouldn’t be able to get his heard through it. Belinda went hot and cold, imagining her humiliation. She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s. And yet, in a way, it would be better if Harriet didn’t know about it, she might so easily blurt out something…Obviously the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted… (pp. 78-79)

By contrast, Harriet is much more flamboyant and outgoing than her sister, her personality coming through loud and clear in this next quote on her choice of outfit – Mr Donne, the new curate, has just arrived at the Bede’s for dinner.

Fortunately at this moment, for the conversational going was heavy, a firm step was heard on the stairs and Harriet came into the room, radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body. The background was the green of the jungle, the blossoms were crimson and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in fat a Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to supper. (p. 6)

The Archdeacon too is another delight, a rather pompous man prone to quoting lines from obscure poems and works of literature in his sermons, much to the bemusement of most of his parishioners. A bit of a martyr at heart, the Archdeacon is forever complaining about the amount of work he has to do in his job, despite the assistance of his curate and the little coterie of diligent church helpers. Heaven knows what Belinda actually sees in him, but there must be something there – perhaps it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity, akin to the attachment to a favourite pair of slippers?

Pym is also very astute when it comes to observing the small slights in life, those casual little put-downs that can have an impact on a person’s feelings, especially someone as sensitive as Belinda. In this scene, Belinda is wo-manning the vegetable stall at the church garden party. With only newspapers at her disposal, she has chosen The Times as the most suitable wrapping for Lady Clara’s marrows, a decision which is soon overturned when Agatha Hoccleve appears on the scene.

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh well…’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so. (pp. 29-30)

Belinda dislikes Agatha but feels rather guilty and ashamed of herself for doing so. After all, everyone has their individual flaws and shortcomings, even Belinda herself.

Then, just as we think that nothing of any consequence will happen in this sleepy community, a sequence of events come together to unsettle the lives of the Bede sisters. Firstly, Agatha goes away on her own for as few weeks to enjoy the waters at a European spa, leaving the way clear for Belinda to see a little more of the Archdeacon on his own should she so wish. Then Nicholas Parnell, a University Librarian and old friend of Belinda’s, arrives in the village with his assistant, the dashing Mr Mold – a bit of a ladies’ man by all accounts – a development that puts Harriet in a bit of a spin. And finally, a Bishop from Africa, who turns out to be a former curate of the parish, comes to visit the Archdeacon, a trip that results in surprising developments for more than one lady in the village.

By the end of this charming, beautifully observed novel, a number of marriage proposals will have been issued, but how many (if any at all) will have been accepted? After all, as one of the Bede sisters reflects on her personal situation, ‘who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale urate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?’ Who indeed.

Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, up there with the best of the Ripleys for me. The book was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen have been married for around eight years. They live with their six-year-old daughter, Trixie, in the suburban community of Little Wesley where Vic owns a small publishing business dedicated to the production of high-quality, specialist books. The Van Allens’ marriage has been toxic for some years; there is no real love left in the relationship, only jealousy, sniping and needling as the couple rub up against one another whenever they are at home together. (Vic no longer shares a bedroom with Melinda, choosing instead to spend his nights in a separate room on the other side of the house.)

Right from the start, Highsmith lays the blame for this situation firmly at Melinda’s feet. For the past three or four years, Melinda has been seeing a steady sequence of men, flaunting her conquests in Vic’s face by inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from dancing simply because Melinda enjoys it so much.) These soirees often extend late into the night, prompting Vic to stay up as long as possible to keep an eye on Melinda, spoiling the cosy atmosphere she is aiming to create.

To make matters worse, Melinda usually manages to wangle an invitation for her latest man whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours – a fact that Vic finds particularly infuriating, although he is scrupulous in concealing his true feelings from their mutual friends. In this scene, Joel Nash, Melinda’s current beau, is accompanying Melinda and Vic to a get-together at the Mellers’ house – Horace and Mary Meller are the Van Allens’ closest pals.

Horace had tactfully refrained from mentioning Mr Joel Nash. Hadn’t said Joel was nice, or welcome, or asked anything about him or bothered with any of the banalities. Melinda had manoeuvred Joel’s invitation to the party. Vic had heard her on the telephone with Mary Meller the day before yesterday; ‘…Well, not exactly a guest of ours, but we feel responsible for him because he doesn’t know many people in town…Oh, thanks, Mary! I didn’t think you’d mind having an extra man, and such a handsome one, too…’ As if anyone could pry Melinda away from him with a crowbar. (pp. 4-5)

Every few months or so, Melinda seems to have a new love interest in her life, each one as foolish and ineffectual as the last. Actually, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – well, this and the fact that Melinda makes no secret of her fascination with these men by parading them all over town.

It was not that he objected to Melinda’s having affairs with other men per se, Vic told himself whenever he looked at Ralph Gosden, it was that she picked such idiotic, spineless characters and that she let it leak out all over the town by inviting her lovers to parties at their friends’ houses and by being seen with them at the bar of the Lord Chesterfield, which was really the only bar in town. (p. 17)

Vic himself is a quiet, respectable chap, highly regarded in the town of Little Wesley and well-liked by virtually everyone who knows him. He has time for people, taking care to stop and listen to their preoccupations and concerns – in short, he seems a generous, kind-heartened man, willing to support others wherever possible. His interests are somewhat insular and nerdy, activities such as breeding snails, studying bedbugs, gardening and stargazing; but then again, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this, they’re just innocent hobbies, things he can do without any interference from Melinda. Vic’s real pride and joy is his daughter, Trixie. In fact, he probably spends more time with her than Melinda, playing with the young girl and giving her extra tuition for school – she’s a very bright kid, remarkably well adjusted considering the state of relations between her parents. Melinda, for her part, pays little attention to Trixie, choosing instead to spend her afternoons and evenings in the company of her boyfriends, drinking and dancing and generally making a fool of herself.

As a consequence of all this, the Van Allens’ friends – especially their closest allies, the Mellers and the Cowans – feel very sympathetic towards Vic, but less so towards Melinda. They can see all too clearly what Vic has to endure when he is out with Melinda; in fact, it’s a wonder that Vic puts up with it at all, especially considering how long the whole business has been going on.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation – which was nearly everybody – considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. (p. 18)

Quite near the beginning of the novel, Vic decides that he’s had enough of the likes of Joel Nash and Ralph Gosden for a while, so he decides to invent a story to scare them off. Vic tells both men, albeit on separate occasions, that he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, an advertising exec named Malcolm McRae. (A few months earlier, McRae was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, murdered by an unknown assailant; the perpetrator is yet to be identified.) Both Joel and Ralph are visibly unnerved by Vic’s disclosures, and so they back away from Melinda – but Little Wesley is a small place, and word of Vic’s alleged involvement in the McRae case soon starts to spread. Those who know Vic well don’t believe a word of it. They can see exactly what Vic is doing, trying to frighten his wife’s lovers by hinting that he is not the mild-mannered doormat he appears to be. Nevertheless, there are other residents of Little Wesley who are less familiar with Vic, people like Don Wilson for example – recently arrived in town and a little outside of the Van Allens’ circle of friends – who are more suspicious of him, more willing to believe that he might have killed McRae in cold blood.

He thought that a few people there tonight really believed that he had killed Malcolm McRae – the people who knew him least. That was what Mary had tried to tell him. If Mary hadn’t known him so well, or thought she knew him so well, she might be one of the people who suspected him, he thought. She had as much as said it that night of the party. ‘You’re like somebody waiting very patiently and one day – you’ll do something.’ He remembered the exact words, and how he had smiled at their mildness. Yes, all these years he had played a game of seeming calm and indifferent to whatever Melinda did. He had deliberately hidden everything he felt – and in those months of her first affair he had felt something, even if was only shock, but he had succeeded in concealing it. That was what baffled people, he knew. He had seen it in their faces, even in Horace’s. He didn’t react with the normal jealousy, and something was going to give. (p. 52)

At first, Vic’s actions have the desired effect on Joel and Ralph, and life with Melinda settles down for a bit. The Van Allens even have a fairly pleasant night out together, something that hasn’t happened for years. But then the police catch McRae’s real killer, blowing Vic’s claims out of the water; and before Vic knows it, there’s a new man in Melinda’s life – Charley De Lisle, the piano player at the Chesterfield bar. Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging De Lisle to various social gatherings in front of their friends; and when the Cowans decide to throw a fancy-dress party at their home, with Charley providing the music for the event, things come to a dramatic head.

Deep Water is a truly brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful right to the very end. There is a sense that something dreadful might happen at any moment, just when the reader is least expecting it.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel a great deal sympathy for an affable, downtrodden man who ultimately goes on to commit a terrible crime. The characterisation is uniformly excellent, from Vic and Melinda, right down to the minor players in the story. For years, Vic has been taking it on the chin from Melinda, calmly turning a blind eye to all her embarrassing antics. To their friends, Vic is a saint, is the model of patience, respectability and integrity; and yet inside he is privately seething, the tensions simmering away. For years he has been playing a game, appearing relaxed and indifferent on the outside, but bristling away on the inside. By contrast, we feel very little compassion for Melinda, largely on account of her outrageous behaviour towards Vic and her abject neglect of Trixie; there are times when she appears unhinged and deranged, especially to some of her closest friends.

I’m going to leave it there for fear of revealing anything more about the plot. All I can do is encourage you to read this terrific novel for yourselves – I doubt you’ll regret it.

Deep Water is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been itching to get back to reading Elizabeth Taylor for a while now, an author whose work I adore. First published in 1964, The Soul of Kindness was one of Taylor’s later novels, and I think it shows. There is a sense of precision in both the writing and the characterisation that suggests it is the work of an accomplished writer, one in full control of her material. Much as I loved the last Taylor I read – her first, At Mrs Lippincote’sThe Soul of Kindness seems a more rounded novel, possibly up there with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont as my favourite so far.

taylor

The storyline in The Soul of Kindness revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. She is married to Richard, her loving husband and hard-working businessman, manager of the family-owned factory passed down from his father, Percy. In addition to Richard, Flora has a close circle of friends upon whom she lavishes her own unique brand of kindness: there is the long-suffering Meg, her closest friend from school; Patrick, the writer who looks forward to Flora’s company as a respite from his work; and Kit, Meg’s younger brother, who quite literally worships Flora, looking up to her as a sort of benefactor or mentor.

While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her good intentions often causing more harm than good. Kit, an aspiring actor, has very little real talent, but Flora encourages him terribly, building up his hopes and dreams with the best of intentions even though everyone else can see how futile and potentially damaging this is proving to be. Flora, however, always thinks she knows what’s best for her friends, even if they can’t see this for themselves. Here’s a typical example of Flora in action – in this scene, she is talking to Ba, Percy’s level-headed lady friend and prospective partner in life.

‘Why don’t you have a cat?’ Flora asked.

‘I don’t want a cat.’

‘But it would be lovely for you. Percy likes cats.’

‘Well, Percy’s got a cat,’

Flora, in fact, had given it to him and he had been obliged to take it in. In four years, he had found that Flora was not biddable at all. Although as good as gold, she had inconvenient plans for other people’s pleasure, and ideas differing from her own she was not able to imagine. (p. 18)

Right from the start, Flora’s mother, the well-intentioned Mrs Secretan, encouraged her daughter (an only child) to adopt only the rosiest view of human nature; and none of Flora’s experiences since then have succeeded in altering this mindset. To a certain extent, Flora has been shielded from the harsh realities of life by those around her. First by her mother in those early years, then by Meg who recognised that the protective environment nurtured by Mrs Secretan could not be broken down without consequences. Now the bulk of the responsibility for preserving Flora’s happiness has passed to Richard, a task he clearly acknowledges as presenting difficulties from time to time. In this scene, Richard is wondering why he has not told Flora about a chance encounter with one of his neighbours, the rather lonely Elinor Pringle, a woman with whom he has developed a close friendship. While Elinor is not in love with Richard, she values his companionship, someone to talk to and have a drink with every now and again while her busy politician husband is caught up in his own world.

To have kept quiet about it, had given it the significance of a secret arrangement. Now it was too late, and if Flora came to hear of it, as more than likely she might, a little puzzled frown would come between her brows – the expression she wore when she was bewildered by other standards of behaviour than her own. But we’ve preserved the face pretty well, between us, Richard thought; not fearing ageing lines, but the loss of innocence. So far, and by the skin of his teeth, he felt. The face was his responsibility now and it would surely be his fault if it were altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled. (p. 71-72)

Slowly but surely over the course of the novel, Elizabeth Taylor reveals the true extent of Flora’s lack of self-awareness and her rather blinkered view of the lives of those around her. Flora has very little understanding of the real impact of her acts of ‘kindness’ on her closest friends and family, a point that hits home to Mrs Secretan when she finds this letter from her daughter at the end of the wedding.

Mrs Secretan took the letter and opened it. ‘You have been the most wonderful mother,’ she read. ‘I had a beautiful childhood.’ So it was to be regarded as finished? The words were the kind which might be spoken from a deathbed or to someone lying on one. If only, Mrs Secretan thought yearningly, if only Flora had written ‘You are such a wonderful mother.’ That would have made all the difference, she thought – would have made it seem that there was still a place for me. (p. 13)

[…]

She read the letter through again, telling herself that Flora had meant well, meant very well, poor girl. In fact she had always meant well. That intention had been seen clearly, lying behind some of her biggest mistakes. (p. 15)

Mrs Secretan is a typical Elizabeth Taylor character. There is a sense of despondency about her, knowing as she does that a life of loneliness almost certainly lies ahead now that Flora has flown the nest. There are some priceless scenes between Mrs Secretan and her slightly dotty housekeeper, Miss Folley, a woman whose pride is wounded when she discovers she is the source of some amusement and frustration in the Secretan household.

Flora’s friend, Meg, is another lonely woman; in love with the wrong person – Patrick, the writer, who happens to be gay – she feels the burden of responsibility for supporting Kit, both financially and emotionally, while Flora fills his head with dreams of an acting career. In the face of diminishing funds, Meg is forced to look for a new place to live, somewhere outside of London. Patrick, in his infinite wisdom, suggests Towersey, a little town by the Thames, and he and Meg spend a dispiriting Saturday afternoon looking at one dismal dwelling after another. Eventually, Meg settles on the least-worst option, the best of a bad lot. Once again, Taylor conveys the quiet tragedy of Meg’s life through her wonderful observations, perfectly capturing the sadness and isolation of her circumstances. Moreover, the melancholy mood is reflected in the descriptions of the atmosphere and late afternoon light in dreary Towersey.

Patrick too has problems of his own having fallen for the thoroughly unsuitable Frankie, a somewhat petulant and unreliable young man who seems out for what he can get. Flora, for her part, simply cannot work out why Patrick doesn’t ask Meg to marry him, refusing to believe all the talk of him being gay. As far as Flora is concerned, these fanciful ideas are just gossip.

While I may have made this sound like a sad novel, there are some brilliant flashes of humour here too. Percy, Flora’s blustering father-in-law, is a marvellous creation, a traditional man with rather conventional views about life and women. He is forever meddling in Richard’s business affairs, returning to the factory and poking his nose into things even though he has supposedly retired from work. Percy features in several wonderful passages, but I couldn’t resist including this one. Ba – now Percy’s wife – has gone on a trip to France, leaving Percy to fend for himself for a week. As a consequence, he decides to call on Flora in the hope of being invited to dinner – Alice is Flora and Richard’s baby daughter, Mrs Lodge their housekeeper.

Mrs Lodge opened the door to him. Although it was only half-past five a faint but appetising smell of roasting meat came up the stairs. It must be a very large joint to have been put on so early, he decided. There would be plenty for him, but he hoped there wasn’t going to be a dinner party. Of course, they lived well, he thought vaguely, taking off his overcoat and handing it to Mrs Lodge, who almost staggered under its weight.

Patrick Barlow stood up as the drawing-room door was opened. Always here, thought Percy. He wondered why Richard did not put his put his foot down. Flora sat on the sofa. Alice was on her lap, having her napkins changed.

Good God, thought Percy. […]

In the drawing-room, he thought. In company. (p. 139-140)

The Soul of Kindness is another brilliant novel from Elizabeth Taylor, one that features so many little insights into different aspects of human nature it’s hard to convey them all here. This novel is not just about Flora and her lack of understanding; it’s just as much about the other characters and their troubles too. There are instances of wounded pride, unrequited love, the need for a little warmth and affection, loneliness, worthlessness, bitterness and guilt. In the end though, the story comes back to Flora and the fallout from her misguided actions. Perhaps only one character in the novel – the bohemian painter, Liz Corbett, a friend of Patrick’s and Kit’s – can see Flora for what she truly is: a dangerous and deluded creature. Interestingly, Liz never actual meets Flora in person, she only hears about her through the other characters.

Things come to a head towards the end of the story, but I’ll leave you to discover the denouement for yourselves – it’s well worth doing so.

The Soul of Kindness is published by Virago Modern Classics.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

While reading Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori last year, I was reminded of the delights of Barbara Pym’s novels, two of which I read in 2016: Excellent Women and No Fond Return of Love. They came as a set of three from The Book People, the third being Crampton Hodnet, which was published posthumously in 1985. In spite of its late publication date, Crampton was actually written in the late 1930s, just after the outbreak of WW2, an event which resulted in Pym’s attention being directed towards her work in the WRNS. When she returned to the novel in the mid-1940s, it seemed to her to be too dated to be publishable at the time, so it sat among her papers until her death in 1980. Viewed from a 21st-century perspective, Crampton doesn’t seem too dated at all. There is a timeless quality to many of the emotions and behaviours on display here, and they remain just as relevant today as they were back in Pym’s heyday.

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Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s, a familiar Pym world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, romantic students and gossipy women. At the centre of this close community are the redoubtable Miss Doggett and her paid companion, the much younger Miss Morrow, ‘a thin, used-up-looking woman in her middle thirties’ who seems old before her time. In spite of being considered as somewhat ‘unworldly’, Miss Morrow is in fact rather more perceptive than other people realise. She is kind, level-headed and tolerant, especially when it comes to dealing with her demanding employer. Here is a wonderful introduction to the meddling Miss Doggett – some male undergraduates are about to arrive for afternoon tea.

‘Well, hurry up! The young men will be arriving soon,’ said Miss Doggett. She was a large, formidable woman of seventy with thick grey hair. She wore a purple woollen dress and many golden chains round her neck. Her chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself. She pushed past Miss Morrow, who was hovering in the doorway, and entered the drawing-room. (pp. 4-5)

Into this community comes a handsome new curate, the charming Stephen Latimer, who soon finds himself moving into Leamington Lodge, the home of Miss Doggett and her companion. One of the most interesting elements of this novel is the relationship that develops between Mr Latimer and Miss Morrow, an easy friendship at least in the first instance.

But Mr Latimer was glad when, by some movement of the crowd, he found himself next to Miss Morrow. If he had analysed his feelings he would have realised that he turned to her with relief, as one does to a person with whom one need not make conversation. But there was no personal quality in his feeling for her. He regarded her simply as a man might regard a comfortable chair by the fire, where he can sit with his slippers on and a pipe in his mouth.

Miss Morrow felt this, but it did not worry her. Inanimate objects were often so much nicer than people, she thought. (p. 38)

Not long after he moves in, Mr Latimer misses evensong after getting delayed during a mildly furtive walk in the country with Miss Morrow, an episode that gives rise to him telling a white lie in the hope of covering his tracks. Meeting the vicar’s wife on his return, Latimer claims he was helping a colleague at another parish in the Cotswolds – in the non-existent village of Crampton Hodnet, hence the novel’s unusual title. Of course the vicar’s wife suspects a budding romance may be developing between the new curate and Miss Doggett’s companion – and perhaps she could be on to something there, as it’s not long before Mr Latimer decides that ‘he might do worse’ than marry Miss Morrow. There are hints of some scandalous entanglements with women in Stephen Latimer’s past, so a sensible wife and helpmeet might just be the answer to the complications that can arise from potential admirers. What follows is a desperate attempt at a half-hearted marriage proposal on the part of Mr Latimer, one which leaves Miss Morrow in no doubt that she must turn it down. Miss Morrow is a bit of a romantic at heart, and it is love she is hoping for, not respect and admiration.

And then, how much more sensible it was to satisfy one’s springlike impulses by buying a new dress in an unaccustomed and thoroughly unsuitable colour than by embarking on a marriage without love. For, after all, respect and esteem were cold, lifeless things – dry bones picked clean of flesh. There was nothing springlike about dry bones, nothing warm and romantic about respect and esteem. (p. 118)

Alongside the Latimer-Morrow storyline, there is another romantic entanglement at play here as Francis Cleveland, a married University tutor in his fifties, loses his head over one of his students, the pretty and intelligent Barbara Bird. Francis, who also happens to be Miss Doggett’s nephew, is treading water in a staid but comfortable marriage to his wife of over twenty years, the efficient and level-headed Margaret. In essence, he feels somewhat marginalised and redundant in his own household. When Miss Doggett spots Francis taking Miss Bird to tea, she is convinced that something untoward is afoot. Even though she is desperate to meddle in her nephew’s affairs, Miss Doggett decides to keep a watching brief on the situation in the hope that it will develop into something even more scandalous in the future.

‘I do not think it is really our business,’ said Miss Doggett. ‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind. It was quite possible that there would be further incidents in the story. It would be much more interesting to wait. It was really not her duty to tell Margaret about last week, but it might very well be to confront her with a complete and convincing story of her husband’s unfaithfulness. (pp. 75-76)

This element of the story gives rises to several priceless scenes as Francis starts behaving like a love-struck teenager, declaring his passion for Barbara in the middle of the British Museum, an outburst that causes the young girl to pause and think again. In spite of her romantic tendencies, Barbara knows that her love is a wild, school-girl crush, not something deep and meaningful to be acted upon or taken seriously. If that were to be the case, who knows what might happen?

How could she explain to him what her love was like? That although it was a love stronger than death, it wasn’t the kind of love one did anything about? On the contrary, doing nothing about it was one of its chief characteristics, because if one did anything it would be different – it might even disappear altogether. (p.126)

Other calamities soon follow including a slightly unfortunate trip along the river and a romantic adventure that doesn’t quite go according to plan. There is also space in this novel for a third romance, the blossoming of young love between Francis and Margaret’s attractive young daughter, Anthea Cleveland, and the ambitious young undergrad, Simon Beddoes.

All in all, Crampton Hodnet is a thoroughly charming and engaging social comedy. In fact, I think it’s the funniest of the three Pyms I’ve read to date. While Crampton does not necessarily have as much depth as Excellent Women, it is an extremely enjoyable novel, all the more so for its pin-sharp characterisation and multitude of hilarious developments. In some ways, the book seems to be saying that wild, passionate, ‘romantic’ love is rather idealised and troublesome, whereas a love that is lasting and fulfilling is much harder to find. Irrespective of the central message, the scenes in this novel are so brilliantly observed, underscored as they are with Pym’s trademark insight and wit – even the little details are spot-on. I couldn’t resist this final quote about Mrs Doggett and her hat (Pym is marvellous when it comes to capturing a character through their dress or hat).

Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow were sitting side by side on the sofa. Miss Doggett was wearing a terrifying new hat trimmed with a whole covey of cyclamen-coloured birds, but Miss Morrow was her usual drably comforting self. (p. 248)

As the story draws to a close, there is a sense that life in North Oxford will continue as before from one academic year to the next; it is only some of the people who will change.

Crampton Hodnet is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

Without going into all the details, it’s probably fair to say that my previous encounters with Muriel Spark have been a little mixed. Nevertheless, given how enthusiastic several of my blogging friends are about this author, I’ve been meaning to give her another try for a while. Having just finished Memento Mori, I think I am finally beginning to see what there is to love about Spark, in particular her razor-sharp wit coupled with a dash of the macabre. Judging by this book alone, she was quite a writer.

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First published in 1959, Memento Mori focuses on the lives of a group of English ladies and gentlemen in their seventies and eighties, all of whom are linked by family ties, social connections and various secrets reaching back over the previous fifty years. As the novel opens, we learn that Dame Lettie Colston (one of the central characters in the book) has been on the receiving end of a sequence of mysterious phone calls from an unknown male caller. Each time the message is the same: ‘Remember you must die.’  The police seem of little help in the matter, and the nuisance calls continue. Another more conventional writer would have used this set-up as the basis for a mystery novel, focusing on the incidents themselves and the search for the perpetrator. However, Spark does something much more interesting with this idea, using it instead as a means of exposing the behaviours of various members of the group, exploring a range of social issues such as class, ageing and our attitudes to mortality.

While Dame Lettie’s brother Godfrey shows some concern for his sister’s welfare, he has pressing problems of his own to deal with. His elderly wife, the once-famous author Charmian Piper, is now in need of care as she is exhibiting signs of dementia. Much of the joy of this novel comes from the acerbic exchanges between the various members of this family, the delightful Charmian being especially prone to mixing everything up in her mind. Here’s a brief extract from one of their conversations.

‘Are there lots of obituaries today?’ said Charmian.

‘Oh, don’t be gruesome,’ said Lettie.

‘Would you like me to read you the obituaries, dear?’ Godfrey said, turning the pages to find the place in defiance of his sister.

‘Well, I should like the war news,’ Charmian said.

‘The war has been over since nineteen forty-five,’ Dame Lettie said. ‘If indeed it is the last war you are referring to. Perhaps, however, you mean the First World War? The Crimean perhaps…?’

‘Lettie, please,’ said Godfrey. He noticed that Lettie’s hand was unsteady as she raised her cup, and the twitch on her large left cheek was pronounced. He thought in how much better form he himself was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine. (pp. 5-6)

Towards the end of that quote, Spark touches on one of the novel’s recurring themes, namely the different characters’ observations on the process of ageing. Godfrey is proud to be in control of all his faculties, and as such he has a tendency to measure himself against his various friends and peers. Another member of the group, the gerontologist Alec Warner, makes a habit of covertly studying each of his elderly acquaintances by way of an amenable third party (Olive, granddaughter of the poet Percy Mannering), recording intimate details about them on a series of coded index cards. He seems strangely obsessed with every aspect of their behaviour as a means assessing their mental and physical health.

While Memento Mori is not a traditional plot-driven novel, several developments happen along the way to keep the reader entertained. At an early stage in the story, Lisa Brooke, a long-standing acquaintance of Godfrey and Charmian, passes away, leaving a significant inheritance to be settled. Her former carer, the poisonous but highly capable Mrs Pettigrew, is staking her claim on the estate, as are the remaining members of Lisa’s family and her estranged husband, Guy Leet. While the details of Lisa’s will are being investigated, Mrs Pettigrew accepts a role as Charmian’s carer, thereby creating all manner of mischief and tension within the Colston household. There are some priceless exchanges between Mrs P and Mrs Anthony, Godfrey and Charmian’s housekeeper – too long to quote here in detail, they are tremendously well-observed. The sly and cunning Mrs Pettigrew isn’t above a spot of blackmail either. She recognises several weaknesses in Godfrey, most notably his strong sense of male pride and his penchant for the occasional dalliance here and there. As such, she sets out to use these flaws in his character to her advantage.

One of the most enjoyable things about this novel is Spark’s portrayal of the relationship between Godfrey and Charmian. There is a very interesting dynamic here. As Charmian starts to rally, her mind improving and sharpening over the winter months, Godfrey finds himself experiencing a corresponding decline. It is almost as though Charmian’s spirits have to wither before Godfrey’s can bloom. As it turns out, Godfrey has always been a little resentful of his wife’s success as a novelist. In some ways he seems to enjoy bullying Charmian, treating her as a helpless child whose memory cannot be trusted. There is a wonderful scene where Charmian makes an afternoon tea all on her own while Godfrey and the others are out. Nevertheless, on their return neither Godfrey nor Mrs Pettigrew is willing to believe Charmian, Mrs P deliberately lying in the process as a means of putting her charge in her place. I love this next passage where Charmian begins to question her sense of duty to Godfrey.

She looked at Godfrey who was wolfing his rice pudding without, she was sure, noticing what he was eating, and she wondered what was on his mind. She wondered what new torment Mrs Pettigrew was practising upon him. She wondered how much of his past life Mrs Pettigrew had discovered, and why he felt it necessary to hush it up at all such costs. She wondered where her own duty to Godfrey lay – where does one’s duty as a wife reach its limits? She longed to be away in the nursing home in Surrey, and was surprised at this longing of hers, since all her life she had suffered from apprehensions of being in the power of strangers, and Godfrey had always seemed better than the devil she did not know. (p. 125)

Interestingly, there is another strand within the novel, one in which the quietly tragic rubs up against the darkly comic. Charmian’s former maid and carer, Jean Taylor, now resides in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. This thread allows Spark to convey a different set of emotions, namely the loss of independence and sense of humiliation one may well experience on entering such a place.

A year ago, when Miss Taylor had been admitted to the ward, she had suffered misery when addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions. But she was a woman practiced in restraint; she never displayed her resentment. The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint. Then she was forced to cry out with pain during a long haunted night when the dim ward lamp made the beds into grey-white lumps like terrible bundles of laundry which muttered and snored occasionally. A nurse brought her an injection. (p. 10)

The other grannies in Jean Taylor’s ward provide some comic moments to balance the poignancy, obsessed as they are with the constant rewriting of their wills and the search through the horoscopes for signs of good news.

Spark also uses this element of the story to pass comment on a range of social issues. Before she entered the hospital, Jean Taylor had longed to move to a private nursing home in Surrey; but Godfrey (her employer at the time) had quibbled about the cost, preferring instead to extol the virtues of the new and progressive free hospitals with their advanced standards of care. This would not do for Godfrey himself of course; instead, this distinguished gentleman imagines himself spending his final years in a nice hotel, possibly somewhere like the establishment in Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

By the end of this marvellous novel, virtually all of the main players in the group will have received one of the mysterious telephone calls with the message ‘remember you must die’. Astute readers may have guessed the true identity of the caller by now, but if not, all will be revealed in the closing stages of the story. In Memento Mori, Spark has delivered a sharp yet moving tragi-comedy about the nature of ageing, one that might just provide us with a timely reminder of our own mortality and the need to treat each other with compassion while we’re still here.

Memento Mori is published by Virago Modern Classics; personal copy.