This is the second of the new Bloomsbury Group titles, kindly sent to me by the publisher. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I’ve never read any E F Benson before, but I’ve heard many people wax lyrical about his Mapp and Lucia series, and so I knew he came highly regarded by those of the same literary tastes as me. The Bloomsbury Group books can be, to me, anyway, summed up as light, witty, intelligent books that also have a depth and a heart if you’re prepared to look for it, and Mrs Ames fitted this bill exactly. It captures the narrow and often shallow lives of a group of well to do middle aged neighbours during the Edwardian period, and is very clever and often laugh out loud funny. However, it is also a profoundly sad exploration of how the societal expectations of this era amongst the better classes produced people who lived largely unsatisfying and unfulfilled lives, restricted by convention and moralities they were too afraid to counter. When I closed the pages I wasn’t really sure how I felt; it’s marketed as a cosy read, but it isn’t; the satire might be hilarious, but the unhappy reality of many of the characters’ lives made me feel desperately sorry for them.
The small cast of characters live in Riseborough, a Kent town that appears to be populated largely by wealthy retirees. The society leader is Mrs Ames, a small, toad faced woman, married to a retired solicitor ten years her junior. There is no obvious reason for her social precedence; she is neither beautiful, nor rich, but her commanding personality and natural confidence seem to have beaten all of the other ladies into submission. One of these ladies is Mrs Altham, a merciless gossip who loves nothing better than dissecting the latest comings and goings of her neighbours with her equally nosy husband. Mrs Altham spends her days out in town while her husband spends his at the club; at lunch and in the evening, they relish discussing the news they have separately discovered, and coming to their own, not always flattering, conclusions about the circumstances of their fellow Riseborough residents. The novel opens shortly after Mrs Ames has taken the radical decision to invite wives without husbands and husbands without wives to one of her dinner parties. Riseborough is shocked by this unprecendented departure from convention, and Mr and Mrs Altham feast on the topic for nights on end. However, this daring dinner party gives the opportunity for unattended husbands to meet unattended wives, and there will be unexpected consequences as a result.
Mr Ames, a forty five year old who has retired early and now spends all of his time in the garden, or at the club, thinks that he is perfectly content with his life. However, at his wife’s dinner party, he finds himself attracted by the charms of the local doctor’s wife, Millie Evans, who also happens to be his wife’s cousin by virtue of their joint relation to the local aristocrat, Sir James. He is not a passionate man, and has no desire to leave his wife or enter into a clandestine affair, but he increasingly finds himself drawn to Millie’s house, where he finds sympathy and gentle conversation from the simple minded, beautiful woman who is a world away from his unattractive and socially correct wife. Before long, Mrs Ames gets wind of what is going on, and sets about attempting to win her husband back. However, Mrs Ames doesn’t really understand why Mr Ames is going astray, and her outlandish attempts to attract his attention end up making her a laughing stock. With the situation getting out of hand, Mrs Ames resorts to desperate measures, but will they be enough to restore Riseborough to rights?
E F Benson’s writing is wonderfully funny, and very descriptive; the characters come alive off the pages and the dialogue really sparkles. The plot is thick with the small and seemingly insignificant details of daily life, but which take on an extra measure of excitement and intrigue when they are picked over and elaborated on by the gossipy Riseborough residents. There are awkward dinner parties to be negotiated, costume parties to attend, holidays to decide upon, anti aging measures to try, and suffrage campaigns to launch, none of which can be done without inciting much gossip, envy and one -upmanship. It is an incredibly witty satire of the small lives of people whose world is limited to the narrow confines of a minor county town, but E F Benson’s wit does not disguise the unmistakeable air of melancholy that pervades the novel.
In an age when marriages were built upon the foundations of three week courtships, women were stuck in drawing rooms pouring out tea, and men were nothing but providers, the characters in Mrs Ames reach middle age and find themselves living lives lacking in any real passion or personal fulfillment. Mrs Evans realises she has never fallen truly in love; Mr Ames is made aware of the shallowness of his life; and Mrs Ames wakes up to the fact that the majority of her priorities are utterly meaningless. It made me sad to think that so many of our ancestors must have lived similarly limited lives, trapped by a society whose norms didn’t allow for the freedoms we now take for granted. Most of the characters in Mrs Ames are just going through the motions of life, doing the same things that everyone else does because they are too scared to strike out and live the life they want for themselves; or, even worse, they have no idea of the possibilities that could be out there for them. By the end of the novel, some changes have been made, but the inevitability of things going on much the same made it difficult for me to feel contented when I closed the pages. It is a very funny, and very interesting read, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is merely a light, bright and sparkling satire; it’s much deeper than that, and will give you plenty to think about upon finishing.