The Village by Marghanita Laski

The Village was the final Persephone Laski I had to read, and it’s taken me an age to get around to reading it. What I love about Laski is how diverse her novels are; each one has an entirely different tone and style, and I never know quite what to expect when I begin reading. The Victorian Chaise-Longue is surreal and slightly off-kilter; Little Boy Lost is understated and terribly moving; To Bed with Grand Music is brilliant and shocking. What then, would The Village be?

The Village is a portrayal of life in a rapidly surburbanising village in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War. The opening pages are fascinating, showing a side of war that was not much written about. Amidst the gleeful dancing and the fireworks and bonfires that signal a world that can once again breathe freely, there is a sense of melancholy, and of confusion. Those who were given a role and a purpose by the war are now left with nothing to fill their days. Women from either end of the social spectrum bonded through duties and shared griefs; now those bonds have been broken and their friendships must end. Life is free to go on as it was, at long last, but the sad fact is that many no longer have the money, the strength or the heart to continue as they did in the halcyon days before the war. The village of Priory Dean may once again be at peace, but its residents most certainly are not.

The plot revolves around the burgeoning relationship of two teenagers; Margaret Trevor, part of the old money, upper class set who live in the big houses on Priory Hill, and Roy Wilson, son of Margaret’s mother’s old char lady, Edith, who lives in the working class settlement of houses on the Station Road. During the war, Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s mother, and Edith Wilson developed a close friendship through spending many a night on their Red Cross duty together. However, now the war is over, the women go back to their respective social sets and observe the invisible divide between them religiously.

Wendy is an incorrigible snob, despite being a perfectly nice person; she is determined to preserve her family’s status as being upper class despite the fact that her husband’s war injury and the failure of their smallholding means they have barely two pennies to rub together. Ashamed of their poverty and refusing to ask for help, the Trevors economise as much as possible, but the stress of it all sends Wendy into a nervous breakdown. In the meantime, the working classes are on the up; Ray Wilson earns more in a week than the Trevors have to live on in a month, and Miss Moodie, who used to run the draper’s shop, has sold up and moved to a fancy house next door to the Trevors, much to everyone in Priory Hill’s shock and disbelief.

Into this melee comes some new neighbours; Ralph and Martha Wetherall are fresh from America and full of new money. Their indifference to the social niceties is deplored by the Priory Hill set, but the Wetheralls pity their impoverished neighbours, who don’t seem to realise that the war has killed off their way of life. Their presence in the village demonstrates the infiltration of change, as does the new housing estate springing up on the other side of the village green. However, the real bombshell is yet to come; when Margaret and Roy’s romance is made public, it is clear for everyone to see that they cannot go back to the way things used to be.

The Village really is an eye opening exploration of just how much the class system infiltrated and dictated British society in the early and mid 20th century, and how much things changed after the war (some would say things still haven’t changed much, though!). The working classes were finally able to earn a real wage, and build a more prosperous future for their families. They were able to move into nicer neighbourhoods, mingling with the middle and upper classes who, unable to adapt to the times, were now often poorer than the people they considered to be beneath them. Laski’s contemporary viewpoint is fascinating and evocative of a time of real uncertainty; while The Village appears to be a rather straightforward tale of post-war suburban life, it is actually a dissection of a huge societal upheaval, and a refreshingly real depiction of the scars the war left behind. I wouldn’t say it’s Laski’s best, but it’s still a compelling read and one I would highly recommend.

28 comments

  1. I can well believe the feelings of the people after the War. Here in my own country, after 30 years of civil war a lot of women specially in the war torn areas have found it difficult to give up their positions of authority/bread winners/decision makers for the family which position they held during the war.

  2. I didn’t even realize this one was a Persephone. Last year I found an original hardcover of The Village but haven’t read it yet. Your second paragraph has me wanting to pick it up soon–even after my less than stellar experience with Laski’s chaise-longue.

    1. It sure is! I have an old hardcover too – not the prettiest thing to photograph but it cost a lot less than a Persephone! It’s a very different novel to Chaise Longue but I think for you, as an Anglophile, it will definitely tick your boxes!

  3. I loved this book, one of my favorite Persephone reads of the year. I agree, I’ve read three of Laski’s books so far and they’re all so different. The class system was rather eyebrow-raising to me. I remember one of the characters does mention that it’s just as bad in the U.S., but it’s perceived more as racism than class-ism, which gave me a lot to think about. It made me think about my own parents, who got married in the early 1960s, and any class differences they might have had.

    1. It’s interesting because I think class and class-ism is so inherent a part of British life that it’s sort of unconscious. Saying that I was quite shocked by the attitudes of Wendy and her husband in this – thinking people weren’t as good as them just because of where they were born? I don’t think most British people are like that now – at least I hope not!

      I think the issue of race in the US is quite comparable with class in the UK and I didn’t think about that before Ralph brought it up in the book. Especially as the book was written in the 1950s – it also shows how British people thought about the US race issues at that time.

  4. This is a compelling review of a book I will need to look for, Rachel. I know that women’s issues came to the forefront after the war here. Many had been working in plants and factories, doing jobs they had to give up when their men came home, either because of the norms of the time, or that servicemen returning needed the jobs. The book sounds interesting. Thanks for another great review.

    1. I am certain you would enjoy this, Penny – and it’s interesting to hear that things were much the same after the war in the US too. I’m glad you liked reading my review!

  5. I seem to remember a sitcom from my English childhood in the 1960s called “Beggar My Neighbor” about a working-class couple who lived next door to a more middle-class couple–but the working-class family was much more prosperous than their neighbors (the status of working- versus middle-class being defined more by accent and social aspirations than any material advantage–a position that I would say hasn’t changed much in England). I wish I could remember more about it. Perhaps one of the commentators of “a certain age” will remember the show.

    Also, have you read Sarah Waters’s THE NIGHT WATCH? It too covers similar territory: People who after the war felt their lives lacked purpose and think back with some nostalgia on the days of the blitz.

  6. I loved ‘Little Boy Lost’ and really enjoyed ‘The Victorian Chaise Lounge’ (although many don’t like it). It really is so interesting that each of her books differ so much…I like that! I have a feeling if I ever wrote and I mean ever wrote more than one book, they would be drastically different in so many ways.

    1. I’d love to write books and make each one different and interesting…I fear I wouldn’t manage it though! I’d say this was the most ‘conventional’ of Laski’s novels though and perhaps the best entry point for her? Maybe…

  7. Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that stay with you long after a book has been read. With this book it was the knot in your headscarf depicting which class you’re from…under your chin is ooh, la la…on top of your head…housemaid. And I so agree with you about Laski’s skill at offering up goodness knows what with each of her books. I love them!

    1. Darlene you are so observant! Very good example. Isn’t Laski’s diversity brilliant? I love that she comes up with something so different every time – a sign of a truly talented author!

  8. Hi Rachel, thanks for your review. I read and enjoyed this novel and have a high regard for Marganita Laski’s work. The sharp class divisions in this novel are stunning and confronting – I think The Village helped me finally take of my rosy cosy tinted glasses regarding English village life in the first half of 20thC.

  9. Fascinating topic.

    I think there are a few works that explore this – how there were, within the hell, some ‘benefits’ of the war experience. Which clearly, is a very problematic idea to consider.

    I’ve not read The Chamomile Lawn but the TV series depicted the same thing – how some people had a lot of fun in wartime with parties and revelry in London. As I recall such people (in the book at least) were of the wealthy classes.

    I love how you relish the ‘learning’ involved in your reading, dear R. How we learn about other lives, other eras, other people – and how you articulate that in your reviews.

    I think the war forced many people to reconsider their class stratification prejudices. If you were fighting in France/whatever alongside a menial worker while you were a newspaper editor/art dealer – you needed a ‘we’re all in this together’ relationship irrespective of what you were worth and what you did. And the reverse – the same requirement with the road cleaner, delivery driver, whatever, in regard to others.

    But I fear I’ve lost confidence in you, dear R.

    If you say “Rebecca RULES!!!”, you will reinvigorate my trust in your literary excursions and subsequent remarks.

    Otherwise, I shall remain under my duvet dribbling and muttering to myself “Last night I dreamt I was at Manderly again, how can ANYone fail to respond to that??”

    1. Thank you Bop! Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve often heard The Camomile Lawn is very good – I must read it one of these days.

      REBECCA RULES! – trust me, I do love it!!!

  10. This sounds really interesting! Though the story itself is very different, it reminds me of Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute (which I strongly recommend!), which shows how, surprisingly, the war gave opportunities to people to become something more, to rise above their social background and make a name for themselves. It also shows how traumatic the end of the war was to these people and how lost they were afterwards.

  11. Another book to be added to my ever-growing TBR list for the coming year. So many amazing books, by so many new (to me) authors, but so little time with everything else that needs doing in any given day. Thanks for sharing, Rachel.

  12. Hi.

    I’m Beth from Minnesota.

    “The Village” was fascinating to me. I am a working mother in my early fifties, and when I first
    had children, I got a lot of grief from older women about my returning to work as an accountant.
    The Village was very interesting to me, and not just from a class standpoint. It helped
    to me understand the reasons why women didn’t have jobs out the home then. I have read a lot of
    books by Betty Neels, who wrote romance novels from 1970 until her death in 2000. A lot of
    her books dealt with a young nurse who helped to support a village family, or a widowed
    mother, etc. I loved her books, but found these helpless older women irritating. Why should
    the young woman work hard, turn over her salary to her mother or parents, and then come
    home and “do the dishes? Why were their mothers so pampered?
    Anyway, “The Village” helped me to understand that women Wendy’s age and social status
    absolutely did not get jobs, no matter what their financial needs were. It wasn’t the “done
    thing.”

    “The Village” was about cliques (called social classes) within a small village, and the often
    false values that they perpetuated in order to maintain the status quo.

    “The Village” was about cliques (social classes) within a small village

  13. I must have read The Village at least ten times, when I was living in France and had a limited number of English books available to me; I existed on Evelyn Waugh, Lytton Strachey, Dorothy L. Sayers and of course The Village.

    The danger I perceive almost everywhere with reviews by generations very much subsequent to those portrayed in older books is of course overlooking contemporary attitudes and of course applying current ones, a constant bête-noire for me.

    Miss Laski showed herself in the writing of this book, to be very much aware of the changing times, and the story she created around the subject shows, at least to me, a deep understanding of social conditions at the time.

    As a point of order, I would not describe the Trevors as “upper class,” I would call them middle-class; remember that even the lower middle-class Charles Pooter employed a servant!,
    I would describe as upper-middle class, Miss Evadne Graham, daughter of the late squire – who tragically was forbidden from marrying the presumably middle-class dentist with whom she was in love!

    After my numerous readings I found the Weatheralls whom I saw first as refreshing, rather depressing with their conspicuous and rather vulgar consumption; compare them to Miss Graham and you immediately get an idea of the essential English middle-class view of class. It should be pointed out though that a great deal of glamour was attached to all things American in the 1950s in England at least to the masses.

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