A VERY PECULIAR CLASS STRUGGLE
A 1950S NOVEL WHICH PAINTS A FAR FROM IDYLLIC PICTURE OF COUNTRY LIFE
(THE VILLAGE BY MARGHANTIA LASKI, 1952, PERSEPHONE BOOKS NO 52)
As you scan down the list of players which precedes Marghanita Laski’s novel The Village, you wonder if you might be embarking on a rarefied soap opera. It reads like a pack of Happy Families: “Major Gerald Trevor, of Wood View, Priory Hill. Wendy Trevor, his wife. Margaret Trevor, his elder daughter.” The inventory works its way through nearly ninety characters, including their occupations and addresses. Occupations and addresses are important, as we very soon discover. Who you are and where you live in the village of Priory Dean is at the very heart of this story and is what almost immediately elevates it out of the soap opera.
The Village. Merely the thought of a small rural community seems so detached and socially unchallenging to us now. To Laski, from an intellectual, Socialist background and writing this story in the early ‘50s, it was a perfect microcosm of post-war British society. Those slow-moving shires, stuck in their ways as stubbornly as a cartwheel in the mire; surely nothing could mess with their age-old hierarchies. They are perhaps the most resistant to social change, the most shocked by it.
War is a leveller, bombs making no distinction between the homes of the wealthy and the poor, and for five years people from all walks of British life really were in it together. It was an extraordinary time and returning to the ordinary was not as desirable for some as others.
“The night the war ended,” The Village begins, “both Mrs Trevor and Mrs Wilson went on duty at the Red Cross Post as usual.”
While the entire village comes out to party and to dance into the evening with a common sense of relief and thankfulness, these two women can’t quite let go of the routine they forged together during the extraordinary time of war. And so, as the partying dies down, they put on their blue serge uniforms and turn up for overnight duty as wardens at the village hall, their two camp beds waiting for them as usual. Wendy Trevor, an upper middle class mother of two and married to a former army officer, lives among the gentry on the hill. Edith Wilson, also a mother, also middle-aged, is from the Station Road (read working class) end of the town, her husband a van driver. But they are on friendly terms, these two, despite the pre-war social divide and they spend this night, as so many others during the war, discussing their children, now in their late teens and twenties, and wondering what is to become of them. And then Wendy, overwhelmed by the emotions of this exceptional night, tells for the first time of the death of her first child, a son who only made it to three months. Her tears flow and Edith, who reveals that she too lost a baby in infancy, holds her friend and comforts her. There is no greater equality than this, the shared experience of loss.
A new day dawns and there is no more war – though the prospect of plenty more rationing and hardship – and that night of bonding might never have happened because the old rules immediately come back into play. The two mothers may have fought the war together on equal terms, but the immoveable fact remains that before the war Edith used to clean Wendy’s house and serve her guests at dinner parties.
What follows is not so much a character study as a very acute and overtly political piece of writing, which lays bare the more ludicrous elements of the British class system as it stood at that crossroads moment. An intricate social structure exists in this village, with the aging squire’s daughter, Miss Evadne of the Hall, at its pinnacle, and beneath her the clique of middle classes who huddle together for fear of contamination from the rest of the world, then down through the “respectable” working class in the form of the tradespeople and beneath them further subsets of various kinds of labourers. These rigid boundaries are not necessarily based on wealth: Edith’s son Roy, back from the war, picks up his job as a compositor at the print works and earns far more than Major Trevor, as a chicken farmer, could dream of. Conversely, the Weatheralls, a nouveau riche couple with young children – he’s a businessman, she’s an American socialite – who buy a newly built house on the hill, never fit in with the middle class clique and anyway don’t much care, travelling to the Country Club outside the village to meet up with friends more like themselves. Mrs Weatherall interferes with local politics and society while it amuses her, then brands it all too tediously British and class-riven to be worth her bothering about. But she certainly does not represent any kind of modern ideal or sense of equality, and as her husband reminds her (and you can almost hear his speech coming directly out of the author’s mouth), America’s social segregation of “negroes” is no different to the British obsession with keeping the lower orders in check. His wife bridles at the comparison but can’t deny it.
At the heart of this broiling story is a relationship between two younger residents who try to straddle this divide. In the intimate theatre that is village life, their relatively innocent desire to be with each other stirs up a furore of gossip and indignation. A union between the two classes is unthinkable to the gentry on the hill, the thin edge of the wedge. But actually, they’ve got their eye on the wrong wedge altogether. The real threat to their superior status is not the risk of being made a “laughing stock” in the eyes of the lower orders, but in their loosening economic hold. Their worth is rapidly diminishing, gentility no longer enough to set them apart. Property is what will count from here on. Priory Dean is only 20 miles from London and a modern housing estate is already going up on its perimeter. Very soon it will be swallowed up into the commuter belt altogether.
Laski tells an engrossing story: the domestic ins and outs of people like us can’t help but be fascinating, particularly when there is such a sense of generational upheaval about it. While so many aspects of the entrenched gentry views are odious to us now, laughable even, Laski paints its adherents to some extent as victims themselves. The Trevors (with the exception of their elder daughter) are appalling snobs, yes, but they are beset by financial worries and the world they bought into, one where they were de facto superiors to the masses around them, is not going to wash any more and they don’t even have the economic clout to do anything about it. Their happy status quo is to be left alone, their social group dwindling, their horizons shrinking, while the vulgar tide of aspiration laps around them. In many ways, they see themselves as class warriors, middle class warriors, defending the last redoubt. We might find it distasteful when they talk about the “nastiness” of common people but we recognise a deeper distrust between types that still exists and will continue to exist even as the boundaries and categories change.
There is one negative aspect about the Persephone novels: they end. I’ve read so many of them and invariably reach their final pages with a little flutter of sad panic. It feels to me that Persephone was secretly forged just for me, serving my own personal reading needs. But that’s because the books are so good and speak to the universal side of us, the side that yearns to enter the lives and relationships of people like us.
Thank you Persephone. May your list continue to grow.
(Picture credit: A Devon Cottage ca 1920, by Robert Bevan, 1865-1925. Reproduced by permission from PD-Art and Colourman,)
Peep Show: a shifting view of body parts
“We’re middle-aged women. Of course we’re not embarrassed about body parts,” asserts the artist Cathy Gale. “We’re not embarrassed about anything any more.”
Gale and fellow artist Carol Wyss are enjoying the spectacle of a jostling crowd of elbows, all pointing to the ceiling. The display looks one moment like a busy relief map, the next like a rash of pimples. Anything but elbows.
And of course they could be mistaken for an awful lot of pert breasts as well. But then that’s the whole point of the two artists’ new show, which they’ve called The Casting Couch (not just for the pun on the process of making casts of body parts but happily taking the more titillating aspects of body-watching into account as well.)
The elbow is not the most obvious part of the body to reproduce in plaster but Gale and Wyss are thrilled with the possibilities of their unconventional choice. And anyway, elbows are not such an esoteric choice when you consider that Gale’s current solo work involves making metal “buttons” out of casts of human navels.
Wyss is no novice, either, when it comes to using the human body as an artistic medium. She has produced striking landscapes using the recesses of a human skull and won the inaugural John Ruskin art prize for her extraordinarily complex botanical prints, made up entirely of layers of images of human bones.
Until this point, Wyss’ work has been pretty much a solitary process – just her and a full-size skeleton – but with this new project she has relished having another artist with whom to push further into this anatomical artistic experiment.
Good friends for years, Wyss and Gale have been gratified at how easily the ideas have flowed and their collaborative show is, as Wyss puts it, “the result of three years of conversation and three intensive months of creativity”.
So why the body parts?
Wyss explains: “We were tired of the solitary and invisible work of making art and thought we might have a go at something together. We started casting the landscapes of our bodies. As the small studio started to fill with these casts, shapes seemed to shift.”
And the shifting took them both by surprise, with all kinds of possibilities suddenly presenting themselves. If the elbows are misconstrued as breasts then so be it. The crevice of a folded arm instantly suggests a cleavage, of the breast or buttock variety. Look closely at each piece and you can make out the hairs and dimples and scar marks of a cutaneous history.
Wyss and Gale intend to take the collaborative aspect of their venture a little further still, offering visitors the chance to contribute their own body parts to the installation. For their venue, they have chosen the white-washed, semi-derelict surroundings of the Hart’s Lane studios in New Cross, South London.
The excitement for the artists is that they still don’t know exactly how their installation will appear in this bare and industrial setting. The experimental aspect of the project is deliberate. They want to see what happens when these body parts are given “public exposure”.
“What happens to the shapes cast in the crowded studio when they’re placed in a raw, empty space?” asks Wyss. “How do the shapes and the space interact? What part of the body are we even looking at?”
Gale, who has worked in film and television, is also relishing the unknown quantity of the project. In fact, she points out that there are elements of the peep show about The Casting Couch and its audience might even be slightly uncomfortable with so much dismemberment about.
Fortunately, of course, artists don’t tend to have inhibitions, middle-aged or otherwise, and Gale and Wyss are arming themselves with plenty of plaster so that audience members can contribute pieces of their own bodies and, in that way, be part of a larger, more plastic process.
The Casting Couch takes place on Sat 30th and Sun 31st May from 11am to 6pm at the Hart’s Lane Studio, 17 Hart’s Lane, London SE4 5UP. More information availble at http://www.hartslane.org
There is a private view on Friday 29th May from 6.30pm to 9pm.
It’s OK to be happy
Country Girl by Rebecca Hollweg (Emu Records 2015).
When you don’t have an editor/manager/agent breathing down your neck, you can write what you please. You hope that what you write will please others, too, but fundamentally it is an exercise in remaining true to your whims. It’s usually the best way to proceed and it’s as true with song-writing as it is with prose. You get the feeling that Rebecca Hollweg writes the songs that please her and as a result they are very pleasing songs: melodic, whimsical, gentle, personal.
The other thing about writing to please yourself is that you can forget about genre – about any kind of labelling process that is good for marketing and nothing else. Hollweg makes a little nudge at her distaste for being “describable” perhaps with the title track of her new album “Country Girl”. On the face of it, it’s voicing her desire to get away from dense city life, with its pale stars and urgent traffic. In her heart and by reputation she’s a country girl, she asserts. But of course what she’s pointing out is that she’s also a Country girl, whose musical references range from bluegrass to Country & Western and whose voice is entirely suited to the vibrating emotions of that style. “Country Girl”, “The Week” and “Come Home to Me” are all from that American folk tradition, with its bursts of banjo or twanging electric guitars.
But is she purely a Country girl? No. Just as she finds herself drawn to the diverting aspects of city life, so she cannot fasten herself entirely to the Country sound. There’s such a pretty English nostalgia to “Light” and “Happy Here,” with a little of the brittleness of Nick Drake. And the final track, “Telescopic”, is as much a sound-picture as it is a song, at last the urban escape that she craves.
Just to confound the marketing process a little further, Hollweg even briefly transports us to New Orleans with the vibrant and foot-tapping “Eden”, a delightful tribute to communal gardening. North London in sentiment, Basin Street in feel.
If it pleases Rebecca Hollweg to write these eclectic and intimate songs, then it probably pleases her even more to sing them. Singing and writing is what she does and her life gets gathered up in the process. The utterly sweet “Ruby” is the song you’d want your own mother to write to you, an infectious lullaby for a growing girl, timeless, loving.
Rebecca Hollweg might well have a record company and agent breathing down her neck but she doesn’t sound like they influence the creative process in the slightest. If she didn’t enjoy writing and singing these songs, you wouldn’t enjoy listening to them. And you do, undoubtedly, enjoy listening to them.
You can find more information on this and her other albums as well as performance dates on http://www.rebeccahollweg.com
Know your Place
How a novel written in the 1920s challenged the doctrine that child-rearing was best left to women.
(The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Persephone Classics, £9.)
Some years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child and about to take maternity leave, a colleague asked me how soon I planned to come back after the birth. I didn’t need to give it much thought. “Never, I hope!” I said at once. She shuddered. “I can always hardly wait to get back to work,” she told me. “I love my job. And I can’t stand being at home with my children.”
What struck me as so shocking then (not now) was that parents could be quite so honest about their lack of aptitude for child-rearing. I assumed that considerations like loving your job were secondary to being with your children, that it was quite impossible to feel a greater pull towards one’s workplace than to one’s offspring. But then I didn’t love my job.
Evangeline Knapp, the mother at the centre of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s The Home-Maker, loves her job. Ardent, creative and energetic, she has found in work a glorious focus for life. She is a brilliant saleswoman, a positive force at Willings department store where necessity led her to ask for employment and where she was given a stockroom job before rapidly rising up the retail ranks. But Evangeline (Eva to her family) is a married woman, a mother of three and a respected member of her small-town American community. And this is the 1920s and women are next to never the sole breadwinners in middle class families. There is no suspicion in her community that she might love her job more than her rightful role as a mother and home-maker.
Evangeline loves her job so much that the spectre of her former life as a home-maker hovers over her menacingly. When she has reason to fear she might have to return to it, she goes to pieces. Her colleagues, thinking she’s ill, send her home but she wanders the streets in an agony, broken, her mind jolting with images of her past life, ceaselessly cleaning, perpetually at odds with her children:
“Poverty…isolation, monotony, stagnation, killing depression over never-ending servile tasks… poverty!”
It was an accident that propelled Evangeline out of the house and into the department store. Her husband, Lester, slipped from an icy roof and ended up paralysed from the waist down. Confined to bed for months and then consigned to a wheelchair, his earning value was snuffed out at once. And this is where The Home-Maker is elevated out of a political diatribe about the role of women in the home into a much more affecting discourse about the roles society pushes on us, the nonsense of them, the wastage of them. This is not a book about Evangeline Knapp’s domestic struggle and her salvation through paid work – Canfield Fisher is no flag-bearer for the rise of American consumerism, in fact ridicules the commerce-is-god attitude of the department store magnate, Jerome Willings, who sees such potential in Evangeline. Salaried work in itself is not the salvation. Being useful, is. Evangeline’s journey into job satisfaction is mirrored – and overtaken in the narrative – by her husband’s. Lester, an ineffectual employee, dreamy and disliked, dyspeptic, laughably bad at what he does, also finds himself slipping into a role that he – or his community – never suspected would suit him. Despite his physical limitations, he is suddenly as magnificent in the home as his wife is in the workplace. He revels in the minutiae of his children’s lives, strives to understand them. In his care, the house may be somewhat messier and the routines a little more lax, but the children thrive and blossom. Their potential is all at once realised, their inclinations indulged, their confidence nurtured. This is a happy home now, with a resilient, energetic mother at work, a caring and intuitive father in charge of the children.
Which is why Lester, too, is as horrified as his wife at the prospect of it ending and of his having to return to a workplace that he despises (also, as it happens, Willings department store).
“He would hate it a thousand times more now that he knew it was not only a collaboration with materialism fatly triumphant, but that it kept him from his real work, vital, living, creative work, work he could do as no one else could, work that meant the salvation of his own children.”
So why should it all end? If this formula is so effective – and we see the family flourish under its rule – why is the threat of the restoration of old roles such a dark presence throughout the book? It took a man’s physical paralysis to bring about this reworking of roles. Nobody in the Knapp household wants Lester Knapp to recover, not even Lester himself.
At the centre of this story is a perversity. It’s not gender that should presuppose our aptitude for certain roles in life, but our personalities. Canfield Fisher is not interested in demeaning one role in favour of another but rather she celebrates with touching empathy the thrill of a job well done. Adult humans require vocations – be they big or small – but societal pressures mean that they may veer away from what their hearts desire, what they can excel at. When The Home-Maker was published in 1924 Canfield Fisher was already a literary figure of renown, as well as a social activist, working predominantly in the field of education. But she was a parent, too, and you get the sense that her causes and activities were driven by characteristics of compassion and fellow-feeling. When her husband was serving in France during the First World War, she followed him to Europe with their two small children and immediately busied herself with humanitarian work, establishing a home for the children of refugees as well as helping to produce Braille books for blinded veterans. Back in the States after the war, she and her husband had to work around a role reversal of their own as her writing career overshadowed his own pursuits and he took on much of the child care. Thereafter, her life was not only one of writing, but of social reform. Significantly for a woman who seemed driven by a kind of parental sympathy and understanding, one of her public duties was as the chair of the committee that pardoned US conscientious objectors in 1921.
You hear so much of the author’s humanity and compassion in The Home-Maker. Once we establish that child-rearing is not necessarily a woman’s job, we are free to enjoy it as one of the great privileges of life. Lester’s transfiguration into a nurturing parent, both gives dignity to the home-maker’s role and to the needs of children. The Knapps’ three offspring have not flourished while their mother has been at the domestic helm. Helen, the eldest, as bookish and retiring as her father, has been overly cautious and anxious. Henry, the middle child, was overlooked and defined by a kind of nervous digestive disorder that flared whenever his mother was upset or overwrought. Stephen, not yet at school, was dismissed as a devil-child, robust and physical, with a satanic temper and volatility. His mother couldn’t bear this unpredictability and he was deemed untameable. Other parents commiserated with her. What could you do with a child like Stephen?
But Lester’s transformation is all due to Stephen. Stephen opens his father’s eyes to the many layers of a child’s developing personality, to the unmet needs that result in a child’s only effective blunt instrument, the tantrum.
For Lester, this new understanding comes about as he is lying bedridden, desolate, wishing only to die. His days are spent in a fog of misery. And then through that fog he remembers a half-conversation with his son, something about the boy’s teddy bear. Earlier in the book we witnessed a confrontation between mother and son, when Eva insisted on removing the bear to wash it. Stephen, who had seen what washing did to beloved soft toys, was horrified and, despite hiding his toy, couldn’t outsmart his mother who wearily removed it to deal with later. This is described as nothing less than a trauma; while we as readers could sympathise with Stephen’s predicament, Eva herself was far too busy and irritable to pick up on his misery.
Stephen tried to appeal to his father but they were disturbed and the moment was lost. Now, months later Lester remembers to enquire about what had been troubling his son and, as the story unfolds of the boy’s helplessness over the fate of his teddy, he grasps one of the least comfortable truths of parenthood – – that parents exert a fearsome power over their children, that children are utterly impotent in the face of it.
It takes your breath away when it suddenly occurs to you how trusting your children are, how complete your influence is over them. It is perhaps the most testing aspect of the parental role, so easily a poisoned chalice for both parent and child.
Lester is appalled by it:
“Lester said to himself, shivering, ‘What a ghastly thing to have sensitive, helpless human beings absolutely in the power of other human beings! Absolute, unquestioned power! Nobody can stand that. It’s cold poison. How many wardens of prisons are driven sadistically mad with it!’
He recoiled from it with terror. ‘You have to be a superman to be equal to it.’
In the silent room he heard it echoing solemnly, ‘That’s what it is to be a parent.’”
This enlightenment brings with it a grasp of what can go so wrong with the assumption of this power.
“Could there be human beings – women – mothers – who fattened on it, fought to keep that slave’s look in the eyes of the children?”
When he thinks about how right his life has become, he shudders to realise how wrong Eva’s was, how she had been “a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden”. Eva hated anything unfinished, was slavish towards completing a task. But you can’t finish children, can’t speed up the natural unfurling of their natures. Rather touchingly, as soon as Lester contemplates this growth of young human potential, he instantly packs in thinking of his wife and his thoughts are “flooded with the sweet, early-morning light that shone from his daughter’s childhood”.
“He always thought like taking off his hat when he thought of Helen.”
That’s love, isn’t it? That rush of emotion that both uplifts you and trips you with the unbidden thoughts of loss and pain and separation. Lester’s relationship with his children is, at its core, a love story. There is all the joy of discovery but also the hovering anxieties of how it could go wrong.
It’s not that Evangeline doesn’t love her children. She is a devoted and diligent mother and is thrilled that her upward progress at the store will improve the daily lives and prospects of her three children. But we know from the very opening pages that being at home with them is an appalling trial for her. She translates her role as a carer to one of a drudge and her days are loaded with almost insurmountable domestic chores she has convinced herself are vital to the successful running of a home. (These same chores are later ignored or got around by her husband and children once she is happily ensconced in her job and no one is any the worse off for it).
Children grow up. Legs may, it seems, cure themselves of paralysis. At some point Lester and Evangeline will have to further recalibrate their lives. The book leaves us with two rather desperate adults, clinging to the satisfactions they have both discovered for themselves, but their ears attuned to the misery of the old format. The very thought of Evangeline throwing up her glittering career to return to the battle ground she is capable of creating in the home is very uncomfortable – as uncomfortable as the super-sensitive Lester having to be parted from his children and to endure the business world that he finds so repellent. What – to us now – seems so tragic, is that no party thinks that formalising their roles as male home-maker and female breadwinner is in any way feasible. What looms throughout is that this is simply not an option – arises once for contemplation and is at once dismissed. A tradition once based on economics (because men’s earning power was greater than women’s) is shown up by Canfield as antithetical to a successful society, because earning is only one part of the deal when it comes to doing a good job at being a family and raising a new generation. Staying at home – when you take out the politics and the social pressures – is as challenging and stimulating a vocation as one could choose to have and having the freedom to choose it is what creates a healthy and progressive society.
The Home-Maker, first republished by Persephone in 1991, has now joined a handful of other much-loved and admired titles as a Persephone Classic.
What is so seductive and intriguing about the titles in the Persephone range is their time-travel qualities. So many of these books – out of print for so long, one suspects, because domestic settings for stories were dismissed as trivial and unimportant – allow you to step inside something achingly familiar and yet new and captivating at the same time. Many of these writers, by unfolding scenes set in the home or in a familial context, give us the most pristine rendition of what life was like then, what people ate, how they spoke, what their daily responsibilities were.
And so, in The Home-Maker it is riveting to read of the Knapp family dinner, that they all drink hot chocolate with their meal, while the higher-income Willings, by contrast, enjoy a “foaming brown glassful” of something called “Near-Beer” with theirs (their children dining elsewhere with a nanny).
And recreational shopping: a modern phenomenon? Not in the least. Give us the shops, it seems, and we’ll happily trundle round them for something to do, something to look at. And it was no different in 20s America.
Literary time-travel absolutely requires our collusion to make it work. If we weren’t interested in our modern day domestic and social details, then it wouldn’t be particularly compelling to read about how these have changed (or remained the same) over the past hundred years or so.
Listen to Evangeline Knapp tell her rapt boss, Jerome Willings, about how she goes about her new job:
“I’ve got a good memory for names, naturally. And it interests me. I try to find out something about the customer, too, to put together with the name… This Mrs Warner, for instance, I looked up her address in the ‘phone book and found out that she lives near one of my friends in St Peter’s Parish and I asked my friend about her and she told me that Mr Warner works for Camp’s. It helps to know something personal, I think. In odd moments, when I’m walking down to the store in the morning, for instance, I have my list in my hand and try to hitch the people to the names – this way – ‘J.P. Warner, drug-store husband, about fifteen hundred a year. Laura J. Pelman, teacher in Washington Street School, about twelve hundred. Mother lives with her.’ Inexperienced in selling as I am, I feel as though I could tell so much more what people want in merchandise if I know a little about them.”
Nowadays we call that good marketing or, if you keep receiving seemingly omniscient buying prompts from online merchants, creepy and intrusive. But the point is, it’s not new and reading about it occurring nearly a hundred years ago can helpfully knock a few weary assumptions about our modern age off their perches.
That’s not to say of course that the Persephone writers don’t engage us on “larger” topics (what is larger anyhow than how we bring up our children or choose to run our lives?) and there is naturally a wider generic choice of subject matter. But there is nonetheless a thread of particularly female observation and sensitivity that runs through even the non-domestic works. In William – An Englishman, by Cicely Hamilton, it is the ordinariness, the innocence and haplessness of our main protagonists that highlights the inhuman acts of war. And in that much-admired and idiosyncratic supernatural tale The Victorian Chaise-longue, by Marghanita Laski, it is the vile and nauseating smells and fumes of the Victorian parlour that transport us so eloquently into that terrifyingly constricting world.
If these weren’t such great stories, they wouldn’t bring us along with them. Issues and gestures are not enough – or too much! The world is still big enough for us to need it to be reduced to what we can decipher and understand, to find a common thread. Similarly, the past can be brought forward by beautiful writing and fascinating and enlightening significances discovered and shared through these superb books.
B.B, December 2014
photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/seattlemunicipalarchives/2674725568/”>Seattle Municipal Archives</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>