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!