Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson & A Visit to Sandham Memorial Chapel
“I don’t want them to look like war paintings, Elsie. I want them to look like heaven.”
When I was offered a copy of this novel to review as part of the blog tour, I was unfamiliar with the name of its subject, the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) – until I realized that he painted the WWI-commemorative Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, which I had never visited* but knew was just 5.5 miles from our home in Berkshire.
Take another look at the title, though: two characters are given double billing, the second of whom is Elsie Munday, who in the opening chapter presents herself for an interview with Stanley and his wife, Hilda (also a painter), who promptly hire her to be their housemaid at Chapel View in 1928. This creates a setup similar to that in Girl with a Pearl Earring, with a lower-class character observing the inner workings of an artist’s household and giving plain-speaking commentary on what she sees. Upson’s close third-person narration sticks with Elsie for the whole of Part I, but in Part II the picture widens out, with the point of view rotating between Hilda, Elsie and Dorothy Hepworth, the reluctant third side in a love triangle that develops between Stanley and her partner, Patricia Preece.
Hilda and Stanley argue about everything, from childrearing to art: they even paint dueling portraits of Elsie – with Hilda’s Country Girl winning out. Elsie knows she’s lucky to have such a comfortable position with the Spencers and their daughters at Burghclere, and later at Cookham, but she’s uneasy at how Stanley turns her into a confidante in his increasingly tempestuous marriage. Hilda, frustrated at Stanley’s selfish, demanding ways, often returns to her family home in Hampstead, leaving Elsie alone with her employer. Stanley doesn’t give a fig for local opinion, but Elsie knows she has a reputation to protect – especially considering that her moments alone with Stanley aren’t entirely free of sexual tension.
I love reading about artists’ habits – how creative work actually gets done – so I particularly loved the scenes where Elsie, sent on errands, finds Stanley up a ladder in the chapel, pondering how to get a face or object just right. On more than one occasion he borrows her kitchen items, such as a sponge and cooked and uncooked rashers of bacon, so he can render them perfectly in his paintings. I also loved that this is a local interest book for me, with Newbury, where I live, mentioned four or five times in passing as the nearest big town. Part II, with its account of Stanley’s extramarital doings becoming ever more sordid, didn’t grip me as much as Part I, but I found the whole to be an elegantly written study of a very difficult man and the ties that he made and broke over the course of several decades.
For the tone as well as the subject matter, I would particularly recommend it to readers of Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and especially Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me.
Stanley and Elsie will be published by Duckworth on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review. They also sent a stylish tote bag!
Nicola Upson is best known for her seven Josephine Tey crime novels. She has also published nonfiction, including a book on the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld. This is her first stand-alone novel.
*Until now. On a gorgeous Easter Saturday that felt more like summer than spring, I had my husband drop me off on his way to a country walk so I could tour the chapel. I appreciated Spencer’s “holy box” so much more having read the novel than I ever could have otherwise – even though the paintings were nothing like I’d imagined from Upson’s descriptions.
What struck me immediately is that, for war art, the focus is so much more on domesticity. Spencer briefly served in Salonika, Macedonia (like his patrons’ brother, Harry Sandham, to whose memory the chapel is dedicated), but had initially been rejected by the army and started off as a medical orderly in an English hospital. Both Salonika and Beaufort hospital appear in the paintings, but there are no battle scenes or bloody injuries. Instead we see tableaux of cooking, doing laundry, making beds, inventorying kitbags, filling canteens, reading maps, dressing under mosquito nets and making stone mosaics. It’s as if Spencer wanted to spotlight what happens in between the fighting. These everyday activities would have typified the soldiers’ lives more than active combat, after all.
I was reminded of how Stanley explains his approach in the novel:
“There’s something heroic in the everyday, don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments? We have to cherish them, though, otherwise what was the point of fighting for them?”
The paintings show inventive composition but are in an unusual style that sometimes verges on the grotesque. Many of the figures are lumpen and childlike, especially in Tea in the Hospital Ward, where the soldiers scoffing bread and jam look like cheeky schoolboys. There are lots of animals on display, especially horses and donkeys, but they often look enormous and not entirely realistic. The longer you look, the more details you spot, like a dog raiding a stash of Fray Bentos tins and a young man looking at his reflection in a picture frame to part his hair with a comb. These aren’t desolate, burnt-out landscapes but rich with foliage and blossom, even in Macedonia, which recalls the Holy Land and seems timeless.
The central painting behind the altar, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, imagines the dead rising out of their graves, taking up their white crosses and delivering them to Jesus, a white-clad figure in the middle distance. There’s an Italian Renaissance feeling to this one, with one face in particular looking like it could have come straight out of Giotto (an acknowledged influence on Spencer’s chapel work). It’s as busy as Bosch, but not as dark thematically or in terms of the color scheme – while some of the first paintings in the sequence, like the one of scrubbing hospital floors, recall Edward Hopper with their somber realism. We see all these soldiers intact: at their resurrection they are whole, with no horrific wounds or humiliating nudity. Like Stanley says to Elsie, it’s more heaven than war.
If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend even a quick stop at this National Trust property. I showed a few workers my advanced copy of the novel; while the reception staff were unaware of its existence, a manager I caught up with after my tour knew about it and had plans to read it soon. She also said they will stock it in the NT shop on site.
When the Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea
“Perhaps, Claudine thought, warmth and kindness didn’t have a country or a language.”
Caroline Lea’s strong debut novel is set on Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France, in the years of German occupation surrounding the Second World War. Although it’s told in a shifting, close third person, the book opens with and keeps returning to the perspective of ten-year-old Claudine Duret. It’s through her eyes that we view the striking first scene, which takes place in June 1940:
When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. … Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks. Claudine’s mouth watered.
It’s appropriate that Claudine thinks of meat, for the man on fire is Clement Hacquoil, the local butcher. He is the island’s first war injury, the victim of a bombing raid on the St. Helier harbor. As people come together to help him, we meet some of the terrific supporting characters, including Dr. Tim Carter, an Englishman who fears he’ll never fit into this insular community; and Edith Bisson, Claudine’s former babysitter, who concocts herbal remedies.
Two weeks previously there was a call to evacuate and roughly half the island’s population fled – “Like rats … buggering off at the first sign of trouble,” as one old clinger-on taunted. Those who remain are stubborn or without the resources to leave, like Maurice, a former fisherman and now full-time caregiver for his wife Marthe, who has Huntington’s disease. Dr. Carter is determined to stay even after a German commandant and his troops take over the hospital. Claudine, left to her own devices during her mother’s black moods, makes friends with a German soldier, Gregor, but has unpleasant encounters with other soldiers.
A couple things precipitate the book’s crisis: Marthe’s condition is deteriorating but Dr. Carter thinks treatments available in London could help her; and Gregor is in hiding because the Commandant wants to send him to a work camp. Maurice has the idea of escaping to London with Marthe on his fishing boat, and Gregor, Claudine and Edith plan to go along.
I found the trip preparations a bit belabored, such that the whole novel might be improved by a cut of 60–80 pages. I also wondered whether the contrast between Gregor and Hans, the two main German soldiers we meet, was too stark and stereotyping. However, I loved the book’s distinctive characters, the inconclusive ending I didn’t expect, the snippets of foreign languages (not just German and French, but also Jèrriais) and Lea’s atmospheric descriptions of Jersey. She was born and raised on the island, and in passages like this you can sense her fondness for its landscape:
The island was like a beautiful jewel: formed by years of pressure and compression, shaped by the elements and then constrained and combed and ordered by the metallic tools of man. … To the east, picture-perfect houses, like clutches of crafted eggs, nestling by the golden beaches. To the west, the vast mudflats where children could pour salt into a hole in the mud and razorfish might pop out like a conjuror’s trick. The steady breaking and wombing of the sea, metronomic measure of seeping time.
I would not hesitate to recommend this to book clubs (see the reader questions here, but beware spoilers!) and to fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me. I look forward to reading what Caroline Lea writes next.
Note: When the Sky Fell Apart was published by Text Publishing in the U.K. and Australia on February 25th. It is currently available in the U.S. as a Kindle book; a paperback release is scheduled for November.
My thanks go to Caroline Lea for the free signed copy, won through a Twitter giveaway.
Of Human Bondage: Finally Caught Up from 2015
When it came to it, it isn’t me
was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
(from “It Isn’t Me” by James Lasdun)
I chose to read this doorstopper from 1915 because it appeared in The Novel Cure on a list entitled “The Ten Best Novels for Thirty-Somethings.” By happy accident, I was also reading it throughout its centenary year. My knowledge of W. Somerset Maugham’s work was limited – I had seen the 2006 film version of The Painted Veil but never read anything by him – so I had no clear idea of what to expect. I was pleased to encounter a narrative rich with psychological insight and traces of the Victorian novel.
Philip Carey is not unlike a Dickensian hero: born with a club foot and orphaned as a child, he’s raised by his stern vicar uncle in Kent and reluctantly attends boarding school. Much of the book is filled with his post-schooling wanderings and professional shilly-shallying, along with multiple romantic missteps. He studies in Germany, tries to make it as a painter in Paris, and returns to London to train as an accountant and then as a doctor. Each attempted career seems to fail, as does every relationship. Philip reminded me most of David Copperfield, especially after he meets the jolly, Micawber-esque Thorpe Athelny during his hospital internship and becomes friendly with his wife and children.
As is common in Victorian novels, Philip is troubled by his conflicting desires. When it comes to women, he cannot get love to match up with lust. As a youth he loses his virginity to Emily Wilkinson, a woman in her mid-30s, then wants nothing to do with her. A few other dalliances have mixed success, but the novel focuses on Philip’s connection to Mildred Rogers. A café waitress, she’s vain and ill-tempered and acts indifferent to Philip – but is happy for him to spend money on her. He’s disgusted and infatuated all at once: “He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with [her] than happiness with [another].” Though Mildred tries to eschew the traditional roles of wife and mother, the Victorian notion of the fallen woman haunts her.
This on-again, off-again romance forms the heart of the book. Both Philip and Mildred are maddening in their own way. Not since Pip (another Philip, interestingly) in Great Expectations have I been so furious at a main character for consistently making the wrong choices, being dazzled by beauty and status and ignoring the more important things in life. Yet the close third-person narration sees so deeply into Philip’s psyche that I could not help but feel sympathy for him, too, cringing over his every failure – especially when stock market losses leave him destitute and he undertakes humiliating (to him) work at a department store. The novel is liberally studded with intimate paragraphs conveying Philip’s thoughts:
He painted with the brain, and he could not help knowing that the only painting worth anything was done with the heart. … [H]e had a terrible fear that he would never be more than second-rate. Was it worth while for that to give up one’s youth, and the gaiety of life, and the manifold chances of being?
Pain and disease and unhappiness weighed down the scale so heavily. What did it all mean? He thought of his own life, the high hopes with which he had entered upon it, the limitations which his body forced upon him, his friendlessness, and the lack of affection which had surrounded his youth. He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Another humanizing element that especially appealed to me was Philip’s loss of Christian faith. During my study abroad year and especially my master’s year at Leeds, when I wrote a dissertation on women’s loss-of-faith narratives in Victorian fiction, I read a lot of novels about belief and doubt. In Philip’s case, I was interested to see how Maugham portrays what is usually seen as a loss as more of a liberation:
Suddenly he realised that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.
Although Philip frequently indulges in self-pity, he also has moments where he wakes up to the wonder of life. These epiphanies of the beauty of London, of the whole world, were among my favorite scenes.
Unusually in a long book, I thought the last 150 pages were the strongest. I struggled to pay attention throughout Philip’s schooling and wearied of the endless negotiations with Mildred, but when Philip is at his lowest point – like the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, not even sure if he’ll find enough to eat – there’s a real intensity to the plot that made this last chunk fly by.
I read a 1930s Modern Library copy from the University of Reading, but consulted Robert Calder’s introduction to the 1992 Penguin Classics edition for background information. It seems the novel was recognizably autobiographical for Maugham, though where a club foot was Philip’s source of shame, for the author it was his stammer (and his sexuality – he married but is known to have been a homosexual).
Like Joyce’s roughly contemporary A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Calder notes, Of Human Bondage fits into the “apprentice novel” genre. Despite being published in 1915, it is set in a recent past so makes no reference to the First World War, though the Boer War plays a background role. I didn’t find the book to be particularly dated; I even discovered that a couple of sayings I might have pegged as later inventions were around in the 1910s: “like it or lump it” and “put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Of Human Bondage met with a lukewarm critical response in its own time but does seem to be among the more beloved – if obscure – classics nowadays. Calder insists that it “remains Maugham’s most complete statement of the importance of physical and spiritual liberty.”
There have been three film versions – and another is in production this year, apparently. The best known, from 1934, launched the career of Bette Davis, who gave it her all as Mildred Rogers (she was a write-in favorite for the Oscars that year). Overacting, for sure, but her blonde wave and simpering looks were perfect for the role. By contrast, Leslie Howard’s is a fairly subtle Philip. The movie – condensed, amazingly, to just over an hour and a half – focuses on his club foot and his relationship with Mildred; I was disappointed that no attempt was made to reproduce Philip’s introspective monologues through voiceovers.
To my surprise, Calder asserts that Of Human Bondage “has become one of the most widely read of modern novels, particularly by young people, who still find relevance in Philip’s struggle for a free and meaningful life.” It was good enough for Holden Caulfield, after all. It struck me during my reading that two recent novels may have taken inspiration from Maugham: the main character in Esther Freud’s Mr. Mac and Me, set in 1914, has a club foot; and in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life Jude’s shame over his deteriorating physical condition, especially his legs, is reminiscent of Philip’s.
I’m not sure I’ll try anything else by Maugham – how could I when there’s still so much of Dickens and Hardy left to read? – but I’m certainly glad I read this. It’s clear why Berthoud and Elderkin thought Of Human Bondage would be a perfect read for someone in their 30s: it’s infused with the protagonist’s nostalgia for his youth and regret at opportunities not taken and time lost. The novel imagines a world where, even without a god pulling a string, some misfortune seems to be fated. Even so, free will is there, allowing you to recover from failure and try something new that will be truer to yourself in this one and only life.