Tag Archives: 50s Britain

The Long View: Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956)

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, The Long View begins in London. It’s 1950. Mr. and Mrs. Fleming (and I hesitate to call them Mr. and Mrs. as it makes them sound like some joint entity, which they are most definitely not)–Conrad and Antonia–have been married for 23 years. They have two children: Julian and Deirdre. Julian is on the brink of marriage to June Stoker and Daphne is in the throes of a love affair, which, even with an unexpected complication, is about to end.

It’s the evening of a dinner party for eight to celebrate Julian’s engagement to the very boring, very ordinary June Stoker. The dinner party is described in tedious, predictable detail before it occurs, and so we know that Mrs. Fleming isn’t looking forward to it but she “sank obediently to the occasion.” The big unknown of the upcoming evening is whether or not Conrad Fleming will bother to show up to the dinner party that he demanded and arranged.

Julian and Deirdre are total opposites. Whereas Julian is controlled. unemotional, doesn’t like fuss and has very distinct ideas about a wife’s ‘duty'( like his father), Deirdre is a mess. She’s constantly in the throes of some love affair or another and seems to always juggle two men at once:

one, dull, devoted creature whose only distinction was his determination to marry her, in the face of savage odds (the other, more attractive, but even more unsatisfactory young man).

In the build-up to the dinner party we also meet June Stoker, a young woman who’s marrying to escape a suffocating home life, and yet it’s also clear that marriage to Julian isn’t going to be an easy solution.

the long view

So the dinner party, with its awkward moments, takes place, and Mr. Fleming who has “constructed a personality as elaborate, mysterious and irrelevant, as a nineteenth-century folly” shows up. This is a man who doesn’t “care in the least about other people, […]. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself.” Thinking about his wife, he rues the fact that “he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. This indirectly had resulted in their children.” His son, Julian, bores him, and he thinks his soon-to-be daughter-in-law is an “exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman.” He expects the marriage to end badly for his son, with “two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour.”

Mr. Fleming, who is very smug about “trying not to be a father of any kind,”  echoes Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr. Bennet, but Mr. Fleming is a much more malevolent version, and whereas Mrs. Bennet is really a horrid creature, Mrs. Fleming, who after 23 years of marriage is “literally exhausted” by her husband, now lives her life in a strangely disconnected way. With her sad acceptance, she echoes Mrs. Dalloway, and no doubt the upcoming dinner party was at least partially responsible for that. The dinner party is an event that we could expect the family to enjoy–at least on some level, but it only serves to reveal the pathology of the Flemings’ marriage, and leaves Antonia with the  acknowledgment that “after their first three years she had spent the remaining twenty fighting the battle of his boredom.”

Personally, I think the battle is long lost. We learn that Conrad Fleming is constantly unfaithful; the dramatics of his various mistresses amuse him (“During luncheon, a woman, nearly in tears, and with a Viennese accent, telephoned and asked for Mr. Fleming,”) and by the end of the evening, we see Antonia, at 43, contemplating “the skeleton of perhaps twenty-five years ahead of her on which she must graft some fabric of her life.”

While the pages of the Fleming’s lives move backwards in time, we are privy to Conrad Fleming’s thoughts, but always this is Antonia’s story. 1942 shows us the Flemings’ marriage in wartime, 1937–the Flemings are on a holiday in France, Conrad departs, unable to bear family intimacy for a moment longer, and he faces a crisis in his marriage. Then it’s back to 1927 to the Flemings’ wedding and a honeymoon in Paris. Finally it’s 1926, and a painfully shy 19-year-old Antonia is overshadowed by her aging beauty mother’s need to constantly criticize the daughter who possessing youth, is a potential rival.

The novel’s interesting structure begins by showing us a marriage in which both partners have reached some sort of toxic point in a relationship that is long past stagnation. But the glimpses of earlier years grant us a better view of the perennially unfaithful Conrad, a maddening character, who when he marries Antonia and sweeps her off to Paris, has very decided views:

“I’ve bought you a house, you know.”

“Have you? I wasn’t worrying. Why should I? Where is it?”

“Ah. I am not going to tell you tonight. If you don’t like it, we will get another. But I haven’t furnished it at all.”

“Then we shall not go straight back there?”

“Oh, no. The first step is to put you in it, and then choose things that will go with you.”

“Are they not to go with you also?”

“I am a chameleon,” he said, with a gentle sardonic gleam.

And so over the years, Antonia, now Mrs. Fleming “a great big beautiful doll” installed in the two beautiful homes the Flemings own, finds herself as she says “a sort of scene shifter for Conrad” a man who “likes an elaborate setting.”

By the time the book concludes, we have answers to how the Flemings’ marriage got to this point, and while I was very annoyed by Conrad and wished someone would puncture that insufferable ego, the book argued that we don’t arrive at any given moment in our lives by chance. We have walked certain pathways, turned at certain signposts; there are reasons why we are where we are.

Finally, I have to include this quote because I loved it. This is spoken by Antonia’s friend Leslie, who is a widow at the dinner party, but we also see her married and pregnant in France before the war. Here she is warning June, who isn’t even married yet, about what to expect when she’s pregnant.

Dreadful books about its age and weight at every conceivable moment, and ghastly yellow knitted matinee coats (what are they so often yellow?) and letters from hospitals, and photographs of other people’s babies so that you can see exactly how awful it’s going to look when it’s larger.

I liked this–didn’t love it. The novel slowed down at a few points, and the writing is very mannered. Still, I will definitely be reading more from this author. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s third marriage was to Kingsley Amis, and that makes her a stepmother to Martin Amis

Review copy

 

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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

It had been some time since I picked up a novel by Muriel Spark, so when Caroline mentioned Muriel Spark Week, I decided to join in. For her quirky world view and dark sense of humour, this author is a great favourite of mine, and so I returned to A Far Cry From Kensington–a marvellous novel set in 1950s London.

While the story is set in the 1950s, the events that take place are recalled decades later by a woman who now lives in Italy–“a far cry from Kensington.”  During her long nights of insomnia, the woman, once known as Mrs Hawkins reminisces about her post WWII life as a vastly overweight “comfortable in her fatness,” 28-year-old war widow. Mrs Hawkins recalls how she lived in a Kensington boarding house with an assortment of fellow lodgers and worked in a small publishing house, Ullswater Press.

Mrs Hawkins (or Nancy as we eventually discover) has the ability to reassure people. Perhaps this is due to her matronly figure, or perhaps it’s due to the fact that she listens and freely dispenses advice (to become thin “you eat and drink the same as always, only half,” and to improve concentration, you need to adopt a cat). She has a responsible position at work, appears to be much older than she actually is, and at the boarding house, she’s perceived as reliable.

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realized she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins may be a source of comfort to those around her, but she’s also a woman of firm principles, and those principles are tested, mainly through her professional life. There’s something fishy afoot at Ullswater Press, and it’s here that Mrs Hawkins first falls foul of the very shady character, Hector Bartlett. They become enemies, and this is a relationship that plagues Mrs Hawkins for some time and follows her on to future employment.

A Far Cry from Kensington is full of Muriel Spark’s dark, off-kilter humour, and her novels have the tendency to skewer hypocrisy while exploring beneath the surface of everyday, seemingly respectable life. Here’s Mrs Hawkins and her landlady, Milly, at night, standing on the landing watching the “Cypriot husband and his English wife” next door fighting.

Suddenly they appeared on the stairs, the second half of their staircase, before our eyes, as on a stage. Milly, always with her sense of the appropriate, dashed down to her bedroom and reappeared with a near-full box of chocolates. we sat side by side, eating chocolates, and watching the show. so far, no blows, no fisticuffs; but much waving of arms and menacing. Then the husband seized his wife by the hair and dragged her up a few stairs, she meanwhile beating his body and caterwauling.

 

Eventually I phoned the police, for the fight was becoming more serious. A policeman arrived at our door within ten minutes. He seemed to take a less urgent view of the din going on in the next-door house and was reluctant to interfere. He joined us on the staircase from where we could now only see the couple’s feet as they wrestled. The policeman crowded beside us, for there was no convenient place for him to sit. My hips took up all the spare space. but finally our neighbours descended their staircase so that we could see them in full.

 

“Can’t you stop them?” said Milly, passing the chocolates.

The policeman accepted a chocolate. “Mustn’t come between husband and wife,” he said. “Inadvisable. You get no thanks, and they both turn on you.”

The British publishing industry which may first appear to be a bastion of respectability in the novel, becomes the target of Sparks’s merciless humour. Mrs Hawkins works for the small, ever-shrinking publisher, Ullswater Press, a publisher of “serious books.” One of the partners is largely absent, and that leaves the younger partner, Martin York in charge with various creative financing plans to revitalize the business which include his knowledge about how to “throw off” the Income Tax inspectors. Mrs Hawkins moves on to the publishers Mackintosh and Tooley, and while this firm appears to be eminently more respectable than Ullswater Press, again there are darker forces lurking beneath the surface. With one of the office mottos, “the best author is a dead author,” the culture at Mackintosh and Tooley appears to be pro-reader and pro-employee, but as always Muriel Spark shows us that appearances can be deceiving.

As fate would have it, all of the strands of Mrs Hawkins’s life connect with a “glint of a thin trail, like something a snail leaves in its slow path,”  and eventually, she finds herself mixed up in blackmail, anonymous letters and suicide as she determinedly confronts evil for the first time in her life. Ever stalwart, Mrs Hawkins sticks to her principles simply because she can do no less:

I can’t help it. Sometimes the words just come out and I can’t stop them. It feels like preaching the gospel.

A Far Cry From Kensington is one of my favourite Spark novels–a must-read for fans, and a great place to start if you’ve never read this brilliantly entertaining and vastly amusing author.

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Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton

A few years ago I watched and enjoyed the DVD The Charmer, and so I eventually got to the book-behind-the-film with the novel by Patrick Hamilton. I try–not that it always works out this smoothly–to watch the film version first before moving to the book. This seems to save me a great deal of disappointment as–with a few exceptions–the book is almost always better than the film. Sometimes fate doesn’t cooperate and a book I read years ago is made into the film, and then blast it, I have to make the choice whether or not to see the film and risk disappointment or avoid it altogether.

gorse trilogyMr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (aka The Charmer)–part of the Gorse Trilogy is the really entertaining story of how a sly young conman named Ralph Gorse moves to the town of Reading, ingratiates himself with a local widow, and romances her with the goal of extracting a few pounds. The character of Ralph Gorse is thought to be based on the real-life criminal Neville Heath, hanged in 1946. 

I read Hamilton’s very dark tale, Hangover Square a few years back, and so I was expecting something along the same lines. I was unprepared for Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse‘s nasty humour which comes from the incredible snobbery and endless vanity of Gorse’s victim Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce  and the tepid romance she has with estate agent Donald Stimpson.

Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce, the widow of an army colonel, has many faults, but her two worst characteristics, and therefore her vulnerabilities, are her snobbery and her vanity. She lives in Reading–not at the best address–in small house she inherited from a relative. Although Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce considers herself “top-drawer,” she doesn’t have nearly as much money as she’d like, and so she tolerates and even encourages a romance from local estate agent Donald Stimpson–a man she looks down on but at the same time, she realizes that marriage to Stimpson would remove many of her worries. To Stimpson, Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce is a prize, and he mostly buys her cultivated ‘lady-of-the-manor’ routine. Stimpson has a rival, of sorts, in married Major Parry, a man whose lascivious, suggestive comments about Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce serve to egg Stimpson on to the point he even seriously contemplates matrimony.

Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce is a very silly woman. While she poses as an amateur historian, specializing in French history, in reality, her interest “began and ended with Marie Antoinette“:

“In the character, life, death, looks and adventures of Marie Antoinette Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce was immeasurably interested. Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, as has been said, was no friend of tthe People, so her attitude towards Marie Antoinette may be easily imagined. It was, in fact, one of admiration amounting to emotional adoration.”

During the day, she does little with her life besides ordering her maid around while she lies around in her “exotic” silk-extravaganza bedroom. Even the telephone is “concealed in silk”–with a doll complete with silver wig and crinoline sitting on top of the phone. Mr. Stimpson has upon a “few occasions been permitted to enter” the inner sanctum “but certainly not, as yet, to dally, [he] found it (as he was meant to do) impressive beyond measure, opulently intoxicating, heady, dangerous, thrilling, unmanning.”

Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce’s long-suffering Irish maid, Mary, works 16 hours a day and caters to her employer’s every whim.  Author Patrick Hamilton skewers Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce’s middle class snobbery while illustrating how she loathes the working-classes, laces her speech with affectation, and pretends she’s somehow or another related to a general. While she’s an unpleasant character, Hamilton makes her great fun to read about:

“She was outwardly rather stout, and inwardly beyond measure arrogant. She was rude to her servants, insensitive, vain, and a social snob. She talked (it is hard to believe) about people who did not ‘come quite out of the top drawer’. She talked (but this goes without saying) about ‘Pukka Sahibs’, ‘The Natives’, etc., and this without ever having been within a thousand miles of India. She talked about Wallahs–appending this word to members of the middle-class respectable professions–as in ‘Solicitor-Wallah’, ‘Doctor-Wallah’, ‘Parson-Wallah’, and so forth–but never, let it be noted, speaking of a Grocer-Wallah, Duke-Wallah, Draper-Wallah, or Earl-Wallah.”

Gorse first runs into Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce at the local pub, The Friar–and it’s here that Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce, otherwise known as “Lady Joan” holds court with her two middle aged suitors, the Major and Mr. Stimpson. Gorse first impresses the widow with his reference to the General Strike, and how it was ‘necessary’ to defeat “the outbreak of the Great Unwashed.” Gorse even laces his speech with the occasional French word or phrase and the fact that he doesn’t pronounce French properly escapes Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce and her two middle-aged libidinous suitors. Gorse fancies himself as a bit of an actor, and he sets out to impress and eventually swindle the widow. Just how this happens is the substance of this extremely funny tale, and of course all the laughs come at the expense of Mrs. Plumleigh-Bruce who falls for Gorse’s flattering tongue, and the very best parts are the result of the truly nauseating relationship between Gorse and his middle-aged would-be paramour.

Hamilton captures with pitch perfect accuracy the novel’s three main characters: the vain, snobbish but drearily middle-class Joan Plumleigh-Bruce, her sex-starved suitor and Gorse, the chameleon who’s every bit as vain and shallow as his victim. Perhaps that’s ultimately why Gorse understands his victim so well–because after all they both possess many of the same characteristics. The novel also makes it perfectly clear that Gorse’s charade works well primarily because Reading is a dull little town full of people who have cosmopolitan, grandiose pretensions that create a curious sort of longing and vulnerability that Gorse manages to exploit.

Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse  is an absolutely delightful novel and a thoroughly enjoyable read. The works of Patrick Hamilton (which include the plays Rope and Gaslight) have enjoyed a revival of sorts in the past few years, and after reading the savagely nasty humour in Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse, it’s easy to say that this interest in Hamilton’s work is long overdue. Hamilton died in 1962 of cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure.

Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse is part of The Gorse Trilogy:

The West Pier (1952)

Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (The Charmer) 1953

Unknown Assailant (1955)

The Gorse trilogy is published by Black Spring Press.

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