Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski

loveonthesupertax

Mary’s post about this slender novella by Persephone favourite Marghanita Laski reminded me that I had a copy on my shelves that had been sitting there for quite some time. As I am trying to clear some of my backlog of unread books this year, I thought it was probably about time I liberated it from dusty oblivion. I didn’t really know what it was about when I started reading; I bought it on the strength of having enjoyed most of her other novels (The Victorian Chaise Longue and I didn’t really get along, unfortunately), but as most people who’ve read her work will know, every one of her books is completely different and you can’t really predict what you will discover in the pages of the next one you pick up. On opening this, I soon realised that I was in the midst of a Nancy Mitford-esque political satire, set during WWII. Laski’s first novel, it is a light and frothy comedy of barely 120 pages that explores the class divide on the impoverished Home Front.

Lady Clarissa, daughter of a Duke, lives with her parents in their rundown mansion in Mayfair. The domestic servants have all left to join the war effort, the family’s country pile has been requisitioned and the Duke’s fortune has all but disappeared. The family are living in genteel squalor, most of the rooms being boarded up and their meals being cobbled together out of what Clarissa can manage to heat up on a gas ring in the basement kitchen. Hungry, cold and poorly clad, her life has changed immeasurably since the outbreak of war. Instead of going out to glamorous parties and coming home to a nice cup of chocolate and a maid waiting up to help her undress, her evenings are spent eating terrible meals in blacked out restaurants and trudging the miles home through London’s streets to the welcome of a dark house and a cold bed. Coming down in the world is a rather bitter pill to swallow.

When Clarissa meets the handsome and enigmatic Sid, a prominent member of the Communist party, her life suddenly becomes full of colour again. He introduces her to a world of people she has never noticed before; earnest, talkative types who all have interesting jobs and spend their weekends on marches. They quickly fall in love, and Sid sets about converting Clarissa to the ideals of the worker’s party, opening her eyes to the way real people live. Clarissa is enchanted by all of this novelty, and longs to join their world. However, will Clarissa be able to cross the class divide? For in Sid’s world, Clarissa is very much the one who will have to prove her worth, and as much as she may try to look the part, she soon realises that class is not something she can discard with her clothing. And, after all, will the grass really be greener on the other side?

There was much to enjoy in Love on the Supertax; the period details are marvellous, the social commentary is very witty, and there are some brilliant scenes, such as when the Duchess is interviewing for a new nursery maid for her older daughter, and the interviewer becomes the unwitting interviewee when it transpires that the nursery maid is the one who is now in a position to pick and choose. However, unlike when I read most novels of this period, I felt completely lost amidst the contextual background of the events. I didn’t understand most of the political references, and I struggled to work out the point Laski was trying to make because of it. Her descriptions of the Communist Party and of their Capitalist counterparts are very funny, but much of the deeper meaning went over my head thanks to my lack of knowledge of the politics involved. As such, I closed the book not being entirely sure of what I was supposed to take away from it. Perhaps this is why it has yet to be republished? Even so, like Laski’s masterpieces Little Boy Lost and To Bed with Grand Music, this is a fascinating insight into a very different side of WWII, and well worth an hour or two of anyone’s time. I still prefer Nancy Mitford’s take on social satire, but Laski can certainly give her a run for her money!

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31 comments

  1. I loved the First Capitalist International and their takeover bid for a newspaper (the Daily Mirror, do you think?) I thought it was amusing – and parts were laugh-out loud funny – and I was tickled by the idea of a Communist Nancy MItford. I think her point is that the brave new workers’ world that people were hoping for after the war wasn’t going to happen.
    I agree, I can’t see it being republished as the satire will go over people’s heads today. It is very much of its time. But I did love Sid and especially his mother. I could see the germ of what she worked up into The Village later on. Very glad I found it for 1p after my long wait!

    1. I see…I got myself rather confused as I really wasn’t sure whose side she was lampooning by the end! I agree – one of those novels that really is too tied in with its period. It was fun to read though, and another example of just how diverse a novelist she was. I don’t think any of her books are anything alike!

  2. Rachel, I can’t keep up with the rate you read.How do you do it? This sounds a lovely read and I’m so enjoying following your earlier recommendations. I have now ordered and am waiting for The Village to arrive.I’ve just about finished Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks (I’m trying not to read all her books at once so that there’s nothing left to look forward to…) I agree the changes brought about by WWII are fascinating – I read Jessica Mann’s The Fifties Mystique (memoir not a novel) over Christmas and it was quite illuminating and sobering in many ways.

    1. Oh I really don’t read very fast these days, Sue! This is a very quick read, I promise! I hope you’ll enjoy The Village – I very much did. I’m so pleased you’ve read Greenbanks – it’s my favourite! It’s so exciting that you have so many more left to enjoy! I haven’t heard of that book – I shall have to track it down. Thank you for alerting me to it!

  3. I’m surprised at how obviously the title was alluding to Nancy Mitford. I wonder how the contemporary reviewers commented on the book, and what was Laski’s relationship with Mitford like.

    1. Interestingly, this predates Love in a Cold CIimate by five years, so if anyone was alluding to anyone else, it would have been Mitford to Laski! I suspect the title was Laski making fun of ‘Love on the Dole’ by Walter Greenwood, which is about working class poverty in the 1930s. I have no idea if she and Mitford were friends though – it would be fascinating if they were!

      1. I think it’s the characters that are Mitford-esque – although, as you say, maybe it’s Mitford’s characters are Laski-esque. Clarissa is a Hon! Can’t imagine the two of them socialising but I’m sure Nancy would have read it. I’m guessing it must have sold reasonably well when it came out as my edition is a Swedish English-language one with a pink rose on the jacket instead of primroses. Guess the primrose joke on your cover wouldn’t mean anything in Sweden.

  4. Oh I didn’t know about this one! I haven’t read a Persephone for ages but I loves Laski’s two other books. Will definitely look this up.

  5. Have you read “The Village”? This was my first of Laski’s, and I loved it. It shares similar themes but is different in tone.It is a fascinating piece of social history and very moving. Like you, I found “The Victorian Chaise Longue” tricky and am not sure I would have gone further with her had I read this first.

    1. Yes! I very much enjoyed it; it’s a far more subtle and thought provoking exploration of social class. Me too – I was actually put off her for a long time as Chaise was my first. I’m so glad I kept going!

  6. I bought “The Victorian Chaise Lounge” as a Christmas present for my sister so I must ask her how she got on with it. As for Love on the Supertax it does seem to show the difficulty of novels set so firmly in their context, it can be difficult they translate well into other epochs. However, we still read Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Bennett with pleasure. I wonder what it is that makes the difference? Having said that, it does sound like a book I would enjoy.

    1. What a lovely present! Yes…I think the issue with this one is that it’s heavily political. I can cope with historical context, but understanding the specific political arguments and individuals who were obviously famous at the time but no longer so is far more of a challenge. I suppose the true greats are more universal in their scope?

  7. I read this a few years ago and then gave my copy to Simon so my recollection is a little bit hazy but I assumed it was basically satire without any particularly deep meaning beyond observing and ridiculing the class system. Some of it made me laugh and I loved the illustrations but I didn’t think Laski liked any of her characters and it’s hard to really warm to a book where not even the author really sympathises with her creations.

    1. Yes – it’s not really a book with a HEART, is it? It didn’t massively grab me, I have to say – it was funny, but not really a book I loved and will read again and again. Not like Little Boy Lost!

  8. I’ve read and loved The Village, Little Boy Lost, and To Bed with Gand Music by Marghanita Laski – but have so far not fancied reading The Victorian Chaise Longue. This is not a novel I had previously heard of – but I rather like the sound of it – so maybe one to look out for. The Mitford angle aluded to above is rather fascinating. Thank you for your review Rachel. I wonder if Persephone will ever publish it?

    1. The Victorian Chaise Longue certainly isn’t my favourite, but it’s still worth reading. I wouldn’t spend a fortune on this, but again, still worth reading. If you come across it cheaply, pounce on it! I’m not sure if it’s republishable – it doesn’t have a wide enough appeal in my opinion, and as I say, the political focus does make it very of its time. But you never know!

  9. This is actually my favourite of the three Laski novels I’ve read (the other two being LBL and TVCL) – I found it so very, very funny! I loved the visit to his parents, the bread cutting scene… I guess it was the same joke over and over, but it was a brilliant joke :)

    1. Oh really? I’m surprised, Simon! I would definitely say it’s a poor relation to her others. How could you prefer it to LBL?!?! That’s heart wrenching!!

      1. What can I say! I admire a good comic novel more than a good heart-wrenching novel, because I think the former is much more difficult to achieve.

  10. I’m sure I’d miss out on the stuff you missed out on, if not more, but I do love Margharita Laski. I thought Little Boy Lost was marvelous and have been meaning to read more by Laski. The Victorian Chaise-Longue bewildered me greatly though! Am I just dumb? Or was I perhaps in a dumb place when I read it? I got so confused and had to give up. #ashamed

  11. I loved Little Boy Lost and cried tears at the end. I must look for her others now. i know you are often disappointed by modern writers but do read Alys, always by harriet lane i think you will love it.

    1. Me too! You must read the others, Enid, you’ll love them. I especially loved To Bed with Grand Music – it’s astounding! Thank you for the tip – I’ll look out for it!

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