This novel opens in 1945 on the day in which the end of World War II has just been announced in the small village of Priory Dean. Everyone is celebrating and dancing in the streets but Martha Trevor and Edith Wilson still show up to their post duty at the Red Cross. During the course of their conversation we learn that they are from very different social classes; Martha is part of the upper-class gentry that live on the Hill in town and Edith is part of the working class families that live on the other end of town. At one point Edith worked as Martha’s housekeeper before Martha’s family hit some financially hard times.
The war was able to break down these long-standing class barriers and allowed people to mingle who otherwise would not have anything to do with one another in social situations. During the war the town holds a series of dances to which all members of the town, regardless of social status, are able to attend. These are just the circumstance under which Edith’s son, Roy and Martha’s daughter, Margaret are able to meet. The very last war-time dance is Margaret’s first real social outing and she feels awkward and unsure of herself until Roy asks her to dance with him.
Laski provides us with a full picture of life in a small English town in the mid-twentieth century. In addition to the Wilson’s and the Trevor’s we also get the town spinster, Miss Porteous, a retired school mistress, and her sidekick, the town gossip, Miss Beltram. The town physician, Dr. Gregory and the town pastor, Rev. Robinson are also important figures in this village. Finally, the town “outsiders,” the Wetheralls, who move into the largest house in town also feature prominently in the action. There is a complete cast of characters representing the gentry and the working class and Laski provides a list of these characters with descriptions in the index which is very helpful to remember everyone that appears in the plot.
Once the war is over, everyone goes back to their proper place in town and it is no longer acceptable for upper-class and working-class citizens to interact with one another. Martha Trevor is particularly adamant about not mixing with anyone outside of her social class. She is also bitter and angry that she can no longer afford hired help to run her household; she must scrub her own floors and wash her own laundry which she finds beneath her lot in life. Martha often takes out her frustration on her oldest daughter Margaret whom she feels is not pretty or clever. Martha fears that Margaret will never be able to attract a husband or find employment that is worthy of her high social rank in society.
The relationship that develops between Margaret and Roy is sweet and romantic. Because they are forbidden to have anything to do with each other due to their different social classes, they meet each other in secret. They go to the movies and dinner together and then Roy starts to show up to Margaret’s place of employment every day just so he can spend an hour with her at lunch. The culminating romantic interlude they have during which they confess their love and become engaged involves a bike ride and a picnic in the countryside. Roy is kind, gentle, respectable and has a great job as a printer. He is the perfect husband but Margaret’s parents are angry when they find out because of Roy’s lower social position.
This story has elements of Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Even though the town is scandalized by the intermarriage of this sweet couple, the outcome for Roy and Margaret is much happier than these other star crossed lovers.
This is the third Laski title that I have read from Persephone Books and my favorite of the three. Here are the links to my other two Laski reviews:
Please visit Persephone’s website for more information on these titles as well as their selection of wonderful British Classics: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/
About the Author:
Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.
A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.
An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.