Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski


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!

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.

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

It’s always good to have an excuse to read a Persephone, so thanks to Claire and Verity for Persephone Reading Weekend! And thanks too to Ellen, a dear reader of my blog, who lent me a Persephone to read as I am far from my own collection and the Persephone shop. I have been wanting to read To Bed With Grand Music since it came out, as the very subversive depiction of wartime life intrigued me immensely; no charity bazaars and ration queues and cheery keep the home fires burning spirit are found within the pages of this rather incendiary novel, which will forever have me doubting the rose tinted view of women in wartime that I had previously believed so fervently.

The novel opens with Deborah Robertson and her husband Graham lying in bed the night before Graham is to be shipped off to a cushy office job in Cairo. The likelihood is that Graham will be gone for at least three or four years, and the thought of abstinence for such a length of time is intolerable for him. As such, he promises Deborah that though he may have sex with other women, he won’t truly be unfaithful to her, as he couldn’t possibly fall in love with anyone else. Deborah accepts this, but promises that she will be faithful on all fronts, as she has their little boy Timmy to think of, and she expects that home and hearth will fill her hours tolerably until Graham returns. However, life with Timmy and the housekeeper in a sleepy Hampshire village soon becomes deathly dull for Deborah, who feels taunted by Graham’s jealousy inducing letters of high jinks in Cairo. Deborah decides that she will be a better mother by keeping busy and getting a job to help the war effort. Though her first attempt fails due to her missing Timmy, soon, with her sly and pragmatic mother’s support, she heads off to London to do an office job in the War Office. Little Timmy is left at home with Mrs Chalmers, the elderly housekeeper, and Deborah moves in with her racy old Slade school friend, Mady, whose marriage is all but over and lives a life of glamour and genteel debauchery behind the blackout curtains of wartime London.

At first, after a one night stand she feels sickened by, Deborah sticks to her principles and stays in every night, refusing Mady’s invitations to dinner and parties with handsome men. She lives for the weekend to go home to her little boy, who is increasingly growing apart from her. Eventually, Deborah is swayed by the charms of an American, Joe, whose pregnant wife has asked him not to cheapen their marriage by sleeping with just anyone, and whose feelings about infidelity match Deborah’s own. As long as they don’t fall in love, they are just two people who love their spouses, fulfilling their sexual desires. However, before long, the lines get muddied, and Deborah is being showered with expensive gifts, far beyond Graham has ever had the power to give. Used to the constant attention and companionship, when things end with Joe, she moves on to Sheldon, and then to Pierre, who Deborah asks to teach her how to be a good mistress. It is at this point that Deborah changes from being a naive, lonely woman desperate for companionship and becomes a calculating sexual predator, seeking to charm and seduce any man who comes her way. Her behaviour becomes more and more shocking up until the spectacular end, when it seems that Deborah really does not have any redeeming characteristics about her whatsoever, and her moral compass appears to have become completely and utterly shattered.

Deborah is very much an anti-heroine, a woman whose lack of maternal instincts and predatory, fickle nature would cause many a woman to raise her hackles. She is near impossible to like, identify with, or sympathise with, and her selfishness and lack of conscience are very shocking to read about. She cheerfully lies to Graham, to her son, to her friends, to her mother; she will do anything to get what she wants. However, Deborah is, thanks to Laski’s excellent characterisation, far more three dimensional than a stock pantomime villain. One sentence in this book struck me more than any other – when Deborah reveals to one of her men that she is but 24. That’s the same age as me. If I had been married at 21, become a mother at 22, and left by my husband at 24, stuck in a cottage in the middle of nowhere with no-one but a toddler and an elderly housekeeper for company, I’d be miserable, restless and open to the temptations of glamour and male attention promised by a single life in London too.

Deborah seems so adult that it’s easy to forget that she is a mere child, really. She is naive, easily led, and far too restless to have settled down so young. Her rather odious mother, who is hardly moral or full of motherly affection and wisdom, encourages Deborah’s behaviour by packing her off to London with nary a backwards glance, despite knowing full well what her daughter is like. She has offered little support or company while Deborah has been alone without Graham, and makes no attempt to help Deborah find fulfilment within the domestic sphere. Deborah has no friends, no parental guiding hand, and no-one to turn to except Mady and her string of male admirers. I gathered from Deborah’s rather stuffy and arms-lengthish relationship with her mother that she had never really felt loved by her, and her aborted time of freedom in London to study at the Slade, which ended with her very early and rushed marriage to Graham, who was not the man of riches and glamour she had dreamed of marrying, meant that she didn’t get the opportunity to achieve any of the things she had wanted to for herself. Motherhood and the cares of hearth and home clearly stifled her and made her feel lonely and isolated, and when her opportunity came to live a little, and make the most of the beauty she was blessed with, I don’t really blame her for wanting to take every advantage of it.

By the end, granted, Deborah has become intolerably selfish, greedy and callous, used to the glamorous and commitment free life of a girl about town. However, her transformation is, in some ways, understandable; so trapped was she by the early responsibilities of house, husband and child, that she is terrified at the thought of being confined in the role of wife and mother forevermore, and so she rebels against it as fiercely as she can. While there is no excuse for infidelity and for virtually abandoning your child, at the same time, Deborah is an example of what the limited roles for women and the pressure to marry early during this period could cause. The fact that Deborah would rather spend all night out partying and wake up with a stranger rather than be with her husband and child seems abhorrent, but then we must remember that she is only 24, and already condemned to a life she neither has an aptitude or an enjoyment for. If I consider my life, now, at the same age; living alone in New York, free to do as I please, I can’t imagine having to be responsible for a child and settled with a husband. I’m nowhere near ready for such commitments, and far too selfish to have to submit my desires to the needs of someone else. Deborah is the same, but she didn’t have the option to live as I do. Luckily, with the clocks fast forward to 70 years from when To Bed With Grand Music is set, society no longer compels women to marry young and have no life outside of the home. I am free to fulfil myself how I wish, but Deborah wasn’t, until the war gave her a fresh chance at striking out and fulfilling her desires. Deborah’s desires and behaviour may not be morally right, but they are, to me, anyway, somewhat understandable. Unlike other reviewers, I didn’t find Deborah completely and utterly abhorrent. I felt very sorry for her, in fact. If only she had been born a few decades later, I think she would have had a much happier life.

Also, much is not said in this novel; we never hear about what Graham has been up to in Cairo, and Deborah’s letters, filled with lies, are much the same as Graham’s. Deborah is probably not the only one in their relationship who has been unfaithful, and Graham has hardly had a hard time of it, being billetted to a rowdy and fun loving camp in cosmopolitan Cairo, well out of any danger. Even so, it always seems that female infidelity is more shocking and frowned upon than male; male infidelity is almost expected, and brushed to one side, whereas women who stray are branded as harlots. Graham tells Deborah he will sleep around as if it is an accepted fact that men have ‘needs’ and women don’t; this ridiculous and sexist attitude is, I think, played with quite well by Laski. Graham should be the villain of the piece; he intends from the start to be unfaithful to his wife, whereas Deborah has every intention to remain faithful to her husband. However, we only get to see Deborah’s experiences, whereas Graham’s are reduced to the odd brief letter, behind which any number of lies and infidelities could be hidden. As such, Deborah becomes a paragon of vice and Graham becomes the wronged husband, even though really, he has probably wronged his wife just as much. However, because Deborah is a woman, and a mother, we detest her for her behaviour, and manage to completely excuse the midnight prowlings of poor cuckolded Graham. Interesting, isn’t it?

No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life, and Marghanita Laski proves herself once again to be an absolutely phenomenal story teller. Why her books fell out of print, I cannot understand. This has become one of my favourite Persephones; complex, thought provoking, subversive and fascinating, I couldn’t put it down. Read it!

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

What a bizarre little book this was! I’ve had it on the teetering TBR pile for almost a year…I bought it in a charity shop in Richmond when visiting Ham House last Spring, but came across mixed reviews that put me off reading it straight away. However, sometimes books just jump out at me and this week The Victorian Chaise Longue managed to leap the highest and gained my immediate attention. I feel a bit ambivalent about it, a couple of days after finishing. It wasn’t spectacular, but then it wasn’t bad, either; I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. After reading and adoring Little Boy Lost last year, I was expecting it to pack a bit more of a punch, if I’m honest.

The book is about Melanie, a recovering TB sufferer, who lives in a nice house in London with her handsome husband and baby son in the early 20th century. She is pampered, surrounded by prettiness and luxury and adoration and she is almost ready to resume normal life again after being in bed for quite some time. On the day the book opens, Melanie is allowed to leave her bed at last, and is carefully placed on a beast of a piece of furniture; a heavy, rose-embroidered Victorian chaise longue, to enjoy the sun streaming through the windows of her pretty living room and feel part of the goings on of the house. As she drifts off to sleep on the chaise longue, some sort of odd time shift appears to happen, and Melanie wakes up in a completely different body in the past, still lying on the chaise longue. Terrifyingly, Melanie is now considered to be Milly, a dying TB sufferer, who is too weak to even raise her head.

Melanie, as Milly, finds herself passive and helpless, in a body that can no longer function properly. She is cloistered in a hot, smelly room and closely monitored by her sister, Adelaide, who seems to hold some sort of grudge against Milly for something she has done wrong. At first Melanie is horribly confused and at a loss to understand anything; she doesn’t recognise her surroundings or the people around her, and she is convinced she must be dreaming. However, as time goes on, she realises that this is no dream, and most frightening of all, she starts to notice her thoughts and words begin to echo those of Milly and become less and less like hers. She recognises things, knows things, and feels instinctively emotional towards people, all of which, if she were Melanie in someone else’s body, she shouldn’t know or recognise or feel at all. This leaves Melanie, and the reader, wondering; where does Melanie end and Milly begin? Has Melanie been absorbed into Milly? Will Melanie ever be herself again? Or was she ever real in the first place?

It is a very clever exploration of the woman’s role in Victorian society, of her restrictions and reliance on the world of men, and how this role changed ┬áso rapidly from the turn of the century onwards. The chaise longue is a metaphor for the perceived notion of female as weak, passive, idle; needing a ‘lie down’ in the afternoons on her special sofa. Milly embodies the entrapment women in Victorian times experienced, and this is also physically manifested in the hot, airless room she is forced to lie in, too weak to even lift her own head, and at the mercy of those around her. What, for Melanie, is insufferable and stifling is normality for Milly, who has no free will and no ability to make choices for herself. When she manages to muster the strength to speak to the men who could have power to help her, they dismiss her as a silly girl who must submit herself to their superior knowledge. Melanie, on the other hand, cosseted and pampered in her modern day world, has been given all the freedoms entitled to women, and Milly’s situation terrifies her in its helplessness. However, what Melanie fails to see is how similar they are; they are both lying on the chaise longue, both of their lives revolving around men. While Milly cannot help but have her life controlled by men and the social standards men have created, Melanie has had the choice to be an independent woman, and yet she denies it, preferring to be treated as a delicate, decorative object rather than a person with a mind and will of her own. She is a coquette, a flirt, an ultra feminine wide eyed delicate thing, who seeks men’s attention and protection, and has no real role outside of it, rendering her, in a way, equally as powerless as Milly.

It’s a small book with a powerful message and a very interesting plot that has no simple conclusions or satisfactory, neat ending, but it did come across as a little bit too much of an attempt to make a point about female subordination to me. While something along the lines of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper tackles the same themes of male domination over women and female madness, it manages to somehow be different, more menacing, more immediate, than The Victorian Chaise Longue. Perhaps, because Gilman was writing from the point of view of being in a society that devalued women and marked those who dared to be different with the label of ‘insane’, there is more of an urgency and terror about her words, which is something Laski, from her modern perspective, doesn’t quite manage to create. Ultimately, while I was fascinated by this very different and clever story, I was left cold and uncaring towards the characters; Melanie’s lack of spine made me not care less whether she remained trapped in the past or not, which I suspect was not the reaction Laski was aiming for. However, she has done an excellent job of creating a claustrophic and cloying atmopshere throughout the book, which did make me physically feel the real sense of entrapment that Melanie and Milly were suffering. Despite my reservations, it is a good book and I do recommend it, but don’t expect the same brilliance and emotion that you’ll find in the superb Little Boy Lost.

Finally, the winner of The Diary of Miss Idilia is…Heather! Email me your address (my email’s on the About Me page) and I’ll get it sent out to you!

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

Well what can be said? What can be said about a book that makes you want to reach in and scoop up the characters and cuddle them and tell them everything is going to be alright in a few pages, they just need to hold on a little bit longer? What can be said about a book that has you longing for a conclusion that you are afraid is never going to come? What can be said about a book that makes you emotional and maternal and weepy and a little bit shaky? What can be said?!

I am tearing up a little bit just remembering the conclusion of this marvellous, unputdownable read. I was sitting on the train and staring out of the window, blinking back my over emotional delicate lady tears and thinking why did it take me so long to discover this remarkable book? I’ve known about it for ages and ages and I have heard great things about it from many people whose opinions I trust. What prevented me from reading it was that I had read a bit of The Victorian Chaise Longue, thought it was alright but it didn’t grip me, and then decided that all her books were going to be like that so I wouldn’t bother with her others unless someone bought me a copy. What a bad judgement I made! I have learned my lesson well and truly, because Marghanita Laski just rocketed up my favourite authors list and The Village is going to be my next read after a couple of others that I am supposed to be reading first (yes, yes, one of them is The Children’s Book, I said I’d read it and I will…next week…).

So I have Jane over at FleurFisher Reads to thank for picking me as the winner of her Persephone Week Prize Draw and sending me Little Boy Lost as my prize (picture shows the lovely card she sent too), because if she hadn’t have done so, I probably wouldn’t have read it for years and what a world of emotional torment I would have been missing out on if I had have waited that long! I gasp at the thought!

I’m sure you all know the basic plot of this but I’ll rehash it anyway just in case. Hilary is an English intellectual, battered emotionally by the fallout of World War II; his beautiful and much beloved Polish wife, Lisa, was killed by the Gestapo in Paris and his son, whom he only saw briefly just after he was born, is missing, lost somewhere in France. Hilary is afraid of emotion and of love; he doesn’t want to give anything of himself to anyone, or dwell on the past, because he doesn’t want to risk being hurt again. This makes him come across as cold and unfeeling, but he’s not, not at all; he has just built barriers around his heart to protect himself from feeling the pain of losing someone he loves all over again. This would be enough to make most women’s hands go to their hearts and sigh but…there is yet more to come. On Christmas Day after the war has ended, a mysterious Frenchman by the name of Pierre comes to Hilary’s door and asks to speak to him privately. He has news of where his son might be, and is willing to help him find the little boy he only saw once, at a few days old, and who will now be five.

Hilary’s last letter from Lisa contained a promise from her that she would make sure their little boy John was safe; for her sake, she says, Hilary must do everything he can to find their son again and bring him home. As much as Hilary is afraid of loving, and of any intrusion into his now safely ordered life, he agrees to go with Pierre to track down the boy that could be his son, out of love for his wife.

The essential dilemma for Hilary is that he has no idea whether this boy is his son or not. He doesn’t have a photograph of him, only saw him when he was a newborn, red, crying little thing and has no idea of how his wife spoke to him or played with him. There are no points of reference he can use to identify the child unless he sees a clear resemblance either to himself or Lisa, and it is this anguish of not knowing, and not wanting to take the wrong child, but at the same time feeling himself falling in love with this gorgeous little imp of a boy who tugs at his coat and wants to see the trains (oh, I am getting teary again just thinking of the little thing!) and who shows him his broken and battered toys as if they were the finest jewels in the world, that makes this novel so heartrending.

Hilary stays in the little town where the boy lives in an orphanage for a week, and he visits him every day with a view to making a decision about whether he thinks he is his son or not by the end of that week. Hilary wavers, he struggles, he fights against the new feelings of love he desperately doesn’t want to feel again, or allow to influence his decision. He is frightened of having his life turned upside down, frightened of making the wrong decision, frightened of abandoning this little boy, but also frightened of abandoning his real son if he takes this child without being certain and stops the search for his own boy, who might still be out there somewhere. Hilary’s determination to be quite clinical and factual and make the ‘right’ decision without getting emotionally involved becomes more and more difficult as he finds the little Jean working his way into his heart. As his mind becomes more and more confused he allows himself to be infatuated by a local woman, but as his lustful desire for her that has nothing to do with love becomes more and more pronounced, Hilary starts to realise that, after all, his life is empty, and love might be just the thing he needs.

A vulnerable man, afraid of his emotions! A lonely and abandoned little boy, desperate to be loved! How much more can Marghanita Laski tug on a woman’s heartstrings?! I felt like I had well and truly been through the wringer after reading Little Boy Lost, but every tear was worth it; this is a stunningly beautiful portrait of post war Europe, of the damage loss can do to a heart, and of the redeeming power of love that we all have within us. The final sentence is one of, if not the most, powerful and beautiful and wonderful I have ever read, and if you haven’t read Little Boy Lost, you need to get hold of it NOW and read it instantly. It is perfect.