Tag Archives: 20th century British fiction

The Fat Woman’s Joke: Fay Weldon

“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”

Readers know that there are times when we feel the gravitational pull to return to writers who have special significance or those we’ve particularly enjoyed, and that brings me to Fay Weldon’s The Fat Woman’s Joke. This isn’t my favourite Weldon, but I love this book for its nasty humour and the way in which Weldon shows how food can both stabilize and destabilize a marriage.

The fat woman of the title is Esther Wells, a middle-aged woman, who when the book begins, has left her husband, ad executive Alan, and is living alone in a dingy basement flat. During the day she reads “science fictions novels. In the evenings she watched television. And she ate, and ate and drank and ate.”

This is the only proper holiday, she thought, that I have had in years, and then she thought, but this is not a holiday, this is my life until I die; and then she would eat a biscuit, or make a piece of toast, and melt some ready sliced cheese on top of it, remembering vaguely that the act of cooking had been almost as absorbing as the act of eating.

Phyllis, Esther’s friend, “invincibly lively and invincibly stupid,” comes to visit and is horrified to witness what she sees as her friend’s decline, but Esther, claiming that “Marriage is too strong an institution,”  is perfectly happy where she is.

Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.

Since Phyllis urges Esther to return to her family home, Esther, thinking that Phyllis is deluded in her vision of family unity, and for accepting whatever behaviour her serial philanderer husband Gerry, doles out, decides to tell her story.

the fat woman's joke

If there is a beginning to the breakdown of Esther and Alan’s marriage, it began, at least noticeably, during a dinner at Phyllis and Gerry’s house. Skinny Phyllis is a notoriously bad cook whereas plump Esther is a culinary whiz. Everyone pretends the meal is wonderful, and then dangerous undercurrents enter the conversation. Phyllis and Gerry’s relationship is obviously strained, and Phyllis, whose husband takes sneak peeks at Esther’s plump thighs, warns her guests that “discontent is catching.” That lines makes me think of the Woody Allen film, Husbands and Wives. The upshot of the evening is that Esther and Alan leave an evening of uncomfortable conversation with the decision that they are going to go on a diet.

Unfortunately, Alan and Esther’s lives revolve around food, and Esther isn’t as committed to the diet as her husband. When Alan goes to work hungry, suddenly he begins to notice his young temporary secretary, hobby painter, Susan who sets out to seduce Alan. Although Susan doesn’t know Alan’s wife, Esther, she hates her from afar, partly for her domestic complacency:

I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.

Esther’s story unfolds with asides from Susan, and also with Phyllis supposedly trying to ‘help’ patch up her friend’s marriage.  The Fat Woman’s Joke contains many of Fay Weldon’s themes: female body image, female roles (the good cook, the good wife and mother), the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ the vulnerability of men to flattery, and the minefields of male/female relationships. The young women in the story, Susan and her friend, Brenda, are confident that life will be better for them, that they won’t end up like the Esthers of this world, but Esther has passed her youth, and knows that “equating prettiness with sexuality and sexuality with happiness,” is a very “debased view of femininity,” and while it’s “excusable in a sixteen year old,” a middle aged woman should know better. Esther knows that an aging woman’s “future is not green pastures, but the glue factory.”

Fay Weldon’s novels are not full of subtle, dainty undercurrents, and that’s not a criticism. Her aim seems to be to pull the male/female and female/female dynamic out from under the floorboards and expose it for what it really is. WAR. The conversations occasionally appear to be over the top, so we see Weldon’s characters having conversations that might not quite occur in real life, but are nonetheless the stripped down thoughts that we don’t articulate. This is the facet of Weldon novels that make them so funny–the messes these people make of their lives are comical even though we may know people who have done exactly the same things with tragic results. Ultimately, Fay Weldon is an author whose incredibly sharp wisdom has enriched my reading life immensely.

“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”

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The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis

“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”

The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.

In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match  against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.

The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.

The Sin Eater

Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.

The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”

Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.

Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.

‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.

‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.

‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.

‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’

It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’

‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’

Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.

Henry looked unusually sombre.

As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.

The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.

Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…

While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:

‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.

As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.

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Saturday Night at the Greyhound: John Hampson (1931)

I stumbled across Saturday Night at the Greyhound by John Hampson while perusing Kindle titles from Valancourt Books. I’d never heard of the novel or the author before, so I was surprised to learn that this debut novel, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, was a “smash hit” in its time. According to the introduction from Helen Southworth, Hampson was born in Birmingham, his family had a brewery, and after that failed he worked in hotels and restaurants. He spent time in prison for stealing books but eventually became a paid caretaker for a Down’s Syndrome child, and with this job to support him, was able to write. This is a very short novel, around 111 pages, a story of violence, domestic strife and pub life set in 1930s Britain.

Ivy Flack, born and raised in a Birmingham pub, knows the business very well, and on her own, or with her brother, Tom, she could have been a successful businesswoman. Unfortunately, Ivy, courted by many men, has the bad judgment to marry the worst of the lot. A series of financial disasters finds Ivy, Fred Flack and Ivy’s brother, Tom trying to run a Derbyshire rural pub, but failure is imminent. With Flack, drinking, giving away or gambling the profits, the Flacks are on the edge of ruin. Flack is one of those glib, egotistical men who never acknowledge their failures, and he refuses to face up to the fact that Ivy’s nestegg is practically all committed to debt. Flack loves running a pub; he’s generous with free drinks, and he’s on the tail end of an affair with barmaid, Clara. Clara, the bastard daughter of the local, now-dead squire, longs to escape from the village, and while she isn’t in love with Fred, she’s ready to use him as her ticket out. Clara’s mother, the malevolent Mrs Tapin also works in the pub. The pub can’t support the Tapins but Flack refuses to fire them.

Saturday nightThe book opens with Mrs Tapin who “ loved four things–money, gossip. thinking, and Clara.” She has “seen fourteen men take over the Greyhound Inn in her time. Fourteen and none of them made it pay.” Of course it doesn’t help the Flacks that Mrs Tapin is robbing them blind. Tom knows that the Tapins are no good, and he understands that if he and Ivy ran the pub alone, they’d scrape a living from it. Ivy, always weak where Fred is concerned, believes that her chronically unfaithful husband is tempted by other women, and she refuses to throw him out. So when the novel opens, our central characters, tied by their relationships to one another, are trapped trying to make a success out of the Greyhound.

There are some marvelous insights into the running of a pub, and exactly what separates a successful publican from a failure. Ivy, Tom and Fred are out-of-their-depth in the countryside where customers are marginal and free-spending travelers are rare. From their hard-working parents, Tom and Ivy learned how to run a pub:

From business acuteness they never refused to drink with a customer, but while beer was paid for, all they consumed was cold tea from a hidden jug.

Hampson’s story explores how decent, hardworking characters destroy themselves through love–Ivy in her relationship with Fred, and quiet, serious Tom through his love for sister. So in many ways Hampson constructs a different sort of love triangle.

While part of the novel moves back into Ivy and Tom’s publican history at the Crown and Cushion in Birmingham, the majority of the plot concentrates on one pivotal Saturday night at the Greyhound. Saturday night brings the most business to the pub, and this night is no exception, so the evening begins with preparation for the custom to come, and then follows the events of that evening.

Good old Brum, there was no other place quite like it. Those were the days; from the Bull Ring came a steady flow of custom during the house’s open hours. Market-men, porters from the Midland Station, and the street hawkers used the place regularly, and there had always been a good number of chance people.

Readers should be warned that there is an incident of horrible animal cruelty committed by one of the characters. It’s a scene with an image I would rather not have had planted in my head. We are obviously meant to see the act as horrendous, and it’s an incident that adds to the tension, but that didn’t make it any easier to read, and in a way, after that, the rest of the story paled in an anticlimactic fashion. Overall, animals don’t fare well in this story but serve to show the brutality of the human race; at one point a departing publican, who can’t sell his chickens to Flack, wrings their necks before moving on, and a villager regularly presents dead chickens at the pub, blaming the Flack’s greyhound for their deaths and demanding recompense.

Hampson introduces an upper class couple into the story, and one of the characters is deeply affected by the events she witnesses. Interestingly, she is the sole character altered by events, and this adds to the bleakness of the tale. The story is strongest in its setting and depiction of pub life with an overweening sense of evil that lingered after the last page of this ultimately unsatisfying tale. There’s an agelessness to the story; it could have easily been the 19th century, and that perhaps is due to the various human emotions that brace this tale: lust, love and hatred.

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A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

After reading & liking  A Game of Hide and Seek, I wanted to read another Elizabeth Taylor novel I liked as much as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. A View of the Harbour, set in a drab seaside town, immediately appealed to my imagination. A seaside tourist destination in the off season seems like a party where the guests don’t show– sad, neglected, with all the glamour and excitement gone.  A View of the Harbour is a marvelous look into the lives of a diverse handful of locals who live on the Harbour in Newby in an area known as ‘the old town’ while the ‘New Town’ has grown and expanded around another coastal point. The “pulsing” light from the reassuring presence of the lighthouse guides sailors on the majestic ocean, and there’s the subtle idea that while various passions simmer amongst Taylor’s characters, they lack any such guidance when making their decisions. Instead they employ various coping mechanisms to endure their lives.

The harbour “dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue,” is home to a handful of businesses and residences. Mrs. Beth Cazabon, a published author of weepy, emotional novels is always scribbling away, working on her plots where characters drop like flies while her doctor husband, Robert, a seemingly emotionally detached man, is on call 24/7. Beth Cazabon’s mind lives firmly with her characters, so she’s a distracted wife, a mediocre housewife and an unsatisfactory mother in the eyes of the husband who married her thinking that writing was just a phase Beth was going through. While the Cazabons’ marriage functions, its more pathological aspects are manifested through the behaviour of their two strange children: Prudence and Stevie. There’s a fifteen year difference between Prudence and Stevie which “suggested that they were haphazardly conceived.” Prudence has health problems which have isolated and infantilized her to a great extent, and her sole companions are two Siamese cats she’s constantly fussing. The younger girl, Stevie, is a fey child who wanders around the house singing hymns, given to explosive emotional tantrums and who occasionally says the most inappropriate things.

a view of the harbourBeth’s best friend, the elegant, attractive, divorced Tory Foyle whose husband ran off with another woman during the war lives next door. Tory’s only child is now attending boarding school and his letters home cause Tory some alarm, yet at the same time, she realizes that she must allow her son to have certain experiences.

As a divorced woman, Tory is an object of interest, and widow Lily Wilson, the owner and operator of the waxworks museum is another subject of gossip. Both of these women, single and available are the object of scrutiny from bed-bound, paralyzed Mrs. Bracey who has nothing else to do except watch the more interesting lives of others. Mrs. Bracey lives with her two daughters Maisie and Iris, and from her bed, Mrs. Bracey terrorizes and controls Maisie while Iris manages to escape through her work as a barmaid at the local pub, the Anchor. Iris and Maisie lead very constricted lives due to their mother’s controlling nature, but whereas Maisie begins to long for her mother’s death, Iris escapes in fantasies that a Hollywood star will walk into her life.

Into these lives drifts retired naval officer and hobby artist, Bertram who arrives in the off-season, stays at the pub and observes the residents who live on the harbour even as he quietly insinuates himself into their lives and into their community. Bertram, a bachelor, has spent a lifetime evading serious relationships, and yet he strikes up a routine with the lonely widow, Lily Wilson, and is also attracted to Tory. There’s something about Bertram that’s not quite right, and he’s a character that will generate various opinions. He’s old-fashioned and polite, and yet there are shades of the emotional vampire in some of his behaviours–as though he must taste other’s problems before moving on.  He admits to feeling only “curiosity” about other people and acknowledges that he “always move[s] on” in order to avoid permanent involvement:

When he was kind to people he had to love them; but when he had loved them for a little while he wished only to be rid of them and so that he might free himself would not hesitate to inflict all the cruelties which his sensibility knew they could not endure.

These complex, well-drawn characters play out their lives and their personal dramas over the course of a few months. I won’t say much more about the plot, but I’ll add that the book’s strength lies in Elizabeth Taylor’s ability to create believable, imperfect, fascinating human beings who demand our empathy. Lily Wilson, for example, makes a marginal existence from the shabby little waxworks museum, and every night when she returns home from the pub, she must force herself to walk past the ghoulish figures. She depends upon the museum to make her living and yet she loathes the waxwork figures and is afraid to go to sleep at night. Mrs Bracey is arguably the most unpleasant character in the book for her treatment of her daughter Maisie, and yet Elizabeth Taylor still manages to generate empathy for this woman who is paralyzed, has “a hunger for life,” dreams of good health, and lives to upset other people. There’s a marvelous scene with Mrs. Bracey threatening clergyman, Mr. Lidiard that she may switch to Catholicism as the Catholic priests visit the sick more frequently. After an argument in which Mrs. Bracey tells Mr. Lidiard “shut your trap,” he decides to make a strategic exit:

Mr Lidiard put his cup very carefully into its saucer and stood up. ‘I must be off.’ He made a little bow to Mrs. Bracey. ‘I shall call next week if I may.’ His glance included Maisie.

‘I shall most likely have gone over to Rome by then,’ said Mrs. Bracey.

The decorators made way for him, drawing back a little in contempt for his cloth

‘And you can bring me a book next time,’ Mrs. Bracey suddenly shouted after him. ‘A travel book. A nice book about the South Sea Islands.’ She chuckled. ‘Some of the tricks these natives get up to, the dirty monkeys!’ But her face softened with tenderness and affection.

Beth Cazabon is another incredibly well-drawn character. Her husband thinks that her writing career is a “disease, a madness,” and here she is, in a moment of crisis as she admires Tory’s home and wishes that she was as good a housekeeper:

She would have liked to have achieved such a room as this for her family, and felt the old guilt about her writing coming over her, and the indignant answer trying to smother it–‘Men look upon writing as work.’ Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did wish, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died. ‘Haunted!’ she thought. ‘I’m haunted. Inside me I am full of ghosts. But I am nothing myself–I am an empty house!’

In the midst of all this passion, gossip and drama, Elizabeth Taylor seeds the story with touches of delicate humour. Here’s the creepy, tyrannical librarian:

Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate erratic campaign against slack morals. His censorship was quite personal. Some books he could not read and they remained on the shelves in original bindings and without the necessary stigma ‘For Adults Only.’ Roderick Random stood thus neglected, and Tristram Shandy, vaguely supposed to be children’s books. Jane Eyre, bound and rebound, full of loose leaves, black with grease, fish-smelling, was stamped front and back. Madame Bovary had fallen to pieces.

A View of the Harbour will make my best-of-year list.

Review copy/Own a copy

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham (1929)

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

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Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

“Ah, these continentals.”

It’s the swinging 60s when twenty-year-old teacher Jenny Bunn moves to London from the North of England, leaving behind her family and an ex-boyfriend who laid siege to her virginity and failed. It’s a fresh start that Jenny is after, but while the location has changed and the men have different faces, the focus is the same. Think poor little innocent Jenny Bunn (and what a great name that is) flailing in the treacherous waters of London while circled by a number of sharkish predatory males all determined to strip Jenny of her virginity. They each have their own M.O., some are more successful than others, but arguably the most practiced, and the most vigorous male in pursuit of Jenny is Patrick Standish.

take a girlJenny rooms in a home owned by Mr and Mrs. Thompson and the other young woman who lives there, the French Anna le Page, is Patrick’s most recent lover, and add to that drama the fact that while Mr Thompson is clueless, there’s definitely some amorous vibes headed towards Patrick from the waspish Mrs Thompson. Meanwhile, the high-maintenance (in Patrick’s opinion) Anna le Page seems to be launching into an experimental phase when she grabs Jenny and kisses her on the lips. Poor Jenny takes her dating tips from the outmoded Woman’s Domain which is sadly amusing if you think about it. This is the stuff of sexual farce, and while parts of the book are very funny indeed, I’ve never found the losing of virginity a subject of interest or of fun, and in the case of Jenny, a lamb thrown to the wolves, it’s occasionally painful to read of the way she fights off various assaults. The girl needs to carry a taser.

Ideas about her, she had had to learn, were liable to be got by any man she might nowadays meet. She considered she had led a fairly normal life until she was fifteen or so. She had had friends who were girls and friends who were boys, and she had known quite a few older, married people of both sexes, most of whom were nice to her in the ordinary way. And then quite suddenly, just over the weekend as it were, the whole set-up had changed. All at once there were men everywhere. Men turned up in large numbers on public transport, especially after dark–there were always more of them then; they fairly thronged the streets; they served and waited to be served in shops; the cinemas were packed out with them; they came to the front door selling brushes and encyclopedias; some of them had even penetrated into the Training College. Men had begun not only to get ideas about her in passing, but in a fair number of cases to stay on the spot and get going on putting those ideas into practice, A fair number of the fair number of cases had been rather surprising ones by reason of the age, married status, or general dignity of the man concerned. At least they had surprised Jenny to start with.

A good example of it all had been when she was coming home from school one day and the bus-conductor had tried hard to hold her hand instead of giving her change.

Here’s one of the funniest parts in the book when Jenny meets Patrick for the first time and he thinks she’s a friend of Anna le Page because, to him, Jenny ‘looks French.’

‘Well, I’m not,’ Jenny said positively, ‘I’m English.’ She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or–once each–Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had even been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her, and on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: ‘I’m awfully sorry, I thought you were French’ What could it be like to actually live in France?

While the male characters are a sorry, sex-mad bunch, Patrick is arguably the sleaziest of the lot. He grasps the fact that Jenny is not the sort of girl who can handle a quick, non-committal fumble under the sheets and yet he can’t help himself, plying her with alcohol, and guiding her into his flat in case she tries to “make a break for it.” While the novel includes a few female predatory characters, it’s the males who are seen in the most unpleasant light, so there are plenty of sexist discussions amongst the male characters that are guaranteed to offend (and occasionally bludgeon) a modern audience. The sexism of the male characters who acknowledge they prefer their females “docile” is not necessarily a charge I’d lay at the author’s feet. Amis seems rather fond of Jenny Bunn, and certainly she’s recognized as a wonderful character.

Getting through Take a Girl Like You was a bit of a slog due to several sluggish sections and its dated themes. A lot of the book’s humour comes from Jenny’s innocence and sweetness when it’s contrasted with those who surround her, but this humour only works when naiveté works as a protective sheaf, and while this is definitely true for a great deal of the novel, the humour doesn’t work when Jenny just doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, is plied with drinks, and on more than one occasion lands into a series of sticky situations. Of course, Take a Girl Like You was published in 1960, when attitudes towards women, the treatment of women, sexuality and sexual consent were vastly different–and that’s putting it mildly. So while the book was being read for the first time, it must have seemed to be “incendiary stuff,” to quote the Observer. Now the book seems dated and at some points offensive–particularly for its disappointing ending.  For a modern audience, it’s very difficult to imagine the dating scene of the swinging 60s, what was ok and what wasn’t, but I worked with someone years ago who was married with children when the 60s hit. He told me that when he was a young man, you dated someone and then if it worked, you married them–with his family background, premarital sex was never on the table. When the 60s hit, he said it was like someone ‘threw open the door to the candy store.’ There’s that sense in Take a Girl Like You–the doors are wide open, but Jenny, in a world where love is hopelessly tangled with sex, isn’t ready to move through those doors. She’s hanging onto her principles of waiting for marriage before having sex.

At one point, Patrick in a rare moment of insight chews over his actions against a “humble, defenceless little thing like Jenny,” while feeling amazed that he is the same man who mooned over a girl “fifteen or sixteen years ago” hoping that she’d just look his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Amis views his characters as they approach the disillusionments of middle age in the sequel Difficulties with Girls.

 

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The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the book-to-film connection. Films don’t have to slavishly follow the books on which they are based–case in point: Balzac’s  Colonel Chabert. In the film version, the role of the lawyer Derville is greatly expanded, and only the visuals of a film could convey the immense human carnage and the frozen dead at the Battle of Eylau. And this brings me to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds–one of six stories in this excellent collection. The foreword is written by David Thomson, and rather interestingly, it focuses on the Hitchcock-du Maurier connection. I didn’t really expect that, but was very pleased to read this essay in which Thomson explores the relationship between the writer and the director, noting that “they were good to each other,” and then listing the films Hitchcock made from du Maurier’s books and stories. There’s even an anecdote to consider–a conversation that took place between Truffaut and Hitchcock when the former asked Hitchcock “how many times he’d read The Birds.”

What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.

The foreword goes on to explain Hitchcock’s dilemmas with Rebecca & Jamaica Inn, and also how Hitchcock’s vision of The Birds gave us the film we have today. Certainly if any film captures an audience with its visuals, then that film must be The Birds. The Birds is, arguably, as iconic a film as Psycho, so there’s really no need to delve into plot other than to say it’s Birds vs Man. Yes there’s plenty of visual imagery in the story (the film was shot at Bodega Bay), but interestingly, for this reader, it’s the silences contrasted with the sounds that resonate in my memory.

the birdsThe book’s main character is Nat, a disabled part-time laborer whose WWII experiences help him to prepare for the birds. He lives on the Cornish coast in a small cottage with his wife and two children

He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down towards the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.

Here’s Nat and his family, trapped in their house listening to the birds trying to break in:

The tapping went on and on and a new rasping note struck Nat’s ear, as though a sharper beak than any hitherto had come to take over from its fellows. He tried to remember the names of the birds, he tried to think which species would go for this particular job. It was not the tap of the woodpecker. That would be light and frequent. This was more serious, because if it continued long the wood would splinter as the glass had done. Then he remembered the hawks. Could the hawks have taken over from the gulls? Were there buzzards now upon the sills using talons as well as beaks? Hawks, buzzards, kestrels, falcons–he had forgotten the birds of prey. He had forgotten the gripping power of the birds of prey. Three hours to go, and while they waited the sound of the splintering wood, the talons tearing at the wood.

The second story, Monte Verita, is a sort of blend of Lost Horizons meets Heaven’s Gate. This was my next-to-least favourite in the collection. This is followed by The Apple Tree, a psychological tale of a middle-aged widower who feels nothing but relief when his wife dies. This is an interesting tale as the main character, a man of limited self-evaluation, isn’t exactly nice, and we only get negative memories of his now dead wife, Midge. Delighted to find himself unexpectedly unfettered, the widower remembers his deceased wife as a passive aggressive long-suffering martyr, but there are hints in this story of a stale marriage and that perhaps Midge really did suffer:

So they lived in different worlds, their minds not meeting. Had it been always so? He did not remember. They had been married nearly twenty-five years and were two people who, from force of habit, lived under the same roof.

Through the widower’s memories, we see how he and his wife stumbled through their lives and their marriage, but it was the husband’s retirement that forced them together. Now Midge’s death has relieved her spouse from creating excuses to avoid her company:

The ideal life, of course, was that led by a man out East or in the South Seas, who took a native wife. No problem there. Silence, good service, perfect waiting, excellent cooking, no need for conversation; and then, if you wanted something more than that, there she was, young, warm, a companion for the dark hours. No criticism ever, the obedience of an animal to its master

The Little Photographer is the story of a young, bored, & beautiful married Marquise, so in love with herself, she can’t even imagine the trouble she invites to her doors when left to her own devices while on holiday. Kiss Me Again Stranger is the story of a young man who meets the girl of his dreams–or so he thinks. The Old Man is too tricky to describe and my least favourite story in the collection. This collection of du Maurier stories is well worth reading for the intro and The Birds  alone, but  what’s interesting here is du Maurier’s range: horror, fantasy, crime and the psychological domestic drama.

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Before the Party: W. Somerset Maugham

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a W. Somerset Maugham fan, so when I saw a 47 page short story available for the kindle for a mere 99 cents, I couldn’t pass it up. Before the Party, published in 1922, is classic Maugham territory–the relationship between a man and a woman set against the backdrop of colonialism.

The Skinners, a middle-aged married couple, are preparing to attend a garden-party, and we know almost immediately that there’s been a death in the family–the Skinners’ “poor” son-in-law Harold has been dead now for 8 months. In attendance at the garden party will be his young widow, Millicent, and her sister, Kathleen. The preparations for the party mostly concern the appropriate clothing and whether or not Millicent intends to appear in mourning.

This central theme of appearances–the keeping up of appearances and also the issue of how appearances can be deceiving–are at the heart of this simple little story in which Millicent who’s been “strange since her return from Borneo,” is clearly holding back a great deal of information about the dearly departed Harold and exactly how he died.

Maugham sets up the story perfectly. It’s a beautiful summer day and the event which the Skinners plan to attend is a garden party organized by Canon Haywood. Here’s a perfect quote that epitomizes the occasion:

It was going to be quite a grand affair. They were having ices, strawberry and vanilla, from Boddy the confectioner, but the Heywoods were making the iced coffee at home. Everyone would be there. They had been asked to meet the Bishop of Hong Kong, who was staying with the Canon, an old college friend of his, and he was going to speak on the Chinese missions. Mrs. Skinner, whose daughter had lived in the East for eight years, and whose son-in-law had been Resident of a district in Borneo, was in a flutter of interest. Naturally it meant more to her than to people who had never had anything to do with the Colonies and that sort of thing.

The English summer day and well-trimmed lawns are a far cry from the jungles of Borneo, but as time wears on before the party, Millicent brings the darkness of her home life in Borneo into the staid, respectable lives of her family and gets little thanks for it. Before the Party is a clever little story for its plot but also its wisdom. Yes those in support of the Empire can attend their little ‘fact-filled’ parties and nod with enthusiasm and self-righteousness about the missions, but when the dark facts behind the glamour are uncovered, ‘decent’ people would rather not know….

In Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, we see how some a couple of British people, far from their home shores, behave rather badly, and that’s the same idea found in Before the Party. Whereas as in The Painted Veil, a tale of adultery turns into a tale of redemption (with an aside into self-destruction), the plot in Before the Party is primarily about appearances. Of course, if the topic is the behaviour of exiles living on far-flung shores, we must also consider that some people who lived abroad were sent there because they either didn’t fit in with society’s norms and that the various colonial outposts are seen as last-ditch attempts to reform. This topic: exile to the colonies and various corners of the Empire for reform is found in M. E. Braddon’s Henry Dunbar , the story of a dissolute banking heir who’s packed off to India as punishment for engaging in forgery. In the non-fiction book, White Mischief, we see a community of ex-pats, many shunned by society, establishing their own notorious culture in Happy Valley.

It’s always fascinating to read about the dominant, ruling races running amok among the natives. Take Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France , for example, an excellent novel set in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities against the native population are horrendous, but indulging their bestial natures dehumanizes the officers and the soldiers stationed at the crude outpost. And that’s the thing about colonialism; it’s bad for everyone.

It’s probably no coincidence that after finishing Before the Party, I immediately picked up Joseph Conrad.

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