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.