Friday, March 16, 2007


Marghanita Laski.

Marghanita Laski's The Village was first published in 1952, and has recently been reissued by Persephone Books, but I picked up an old book club edition from the early 1950s at the Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield. I didn't know what to expect, and I was very pleasantly surprised. The novel opens at the end of World War II. Peace has just been declared, and the people of Priory Dean are celebrating—all except Mrs. Trevor and Mrs. Wilson, who, as they have done for the past six years, take up their posts at the Red Cross and spend the evening chatting over cups of tea. Mrs. Trevor is a member of the village gentry, with an old house on Priory Hill. Before the war, working-class Mrs. Wilson from down on Station Road was Mrs. Trevor's "char," but the war has brought them together. Now the war is over, and the village faces new challenges as it struggles to piece together its crumbling class structure. It's difficult, especially now that the gentry are struggling to make ends meet and the sons of the working class—the Poor People—are bringing home fifteen quid a week. Soon Churchill and the Conservatives are out and Labour is in—bringing to power working class men like Aneurin Bevan, architect of the National Health Service and far-left bogeyman to the Tories. But the cracks in the old class system really begin to show when Miss Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson fall in love. It's a wonderful story—beautifully written, bitter and hilarious, full of tenderness and anger—about the end, for better or worse, of a traditional way of life. Sarah Crompton wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "If anyone asked me to describe life in post-war Britain, I would suggest they read The Village, a story of lovers divided by class that tells you more about the subtle gradations of life in the Home Counties and the cataclysmic changes wrought by war and a Labour government than any number of plays by J.B. Priestley or more famous tomes by Greene and Waugh."

All Saints Church, Chilvers Coton, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire. The church were Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was baptized; it appears on the cover of the new Wordsworth Classics edition (2007) of Scenes of Clerical Life, in which it is fictionalized as Shepperton Church.

Now I'm on to George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life—her first published work of fiction. The 150th anniversary of its publication in 1857 is being celebrated in Warwickshire this year, with special events in Nuneaton (where Mary Ann Evans was born) and council sponsorship of the new 150th Anniversary Edition of the book, which is being offered for free to reading groups across the country. Middlemarch is a masterpiece; Scenes of Clerical Life impresses me at first glance as the work of a young writer who needs to work some sesquipedalian vocabulary out of her system. Here's how she describes the clean walls of the new Shepperton church: "the walls, you are convinced, no lichen will ever again effect a settlement on—they are smooth and innutrient as the summit of Revd. Amos Barton's head, after ten years of baldness and supererogatory soap." Here she praises real farmhouse cream—although the praise somehow gets lost: "...most likely you are a miserable town reader, who think of cream as a thinnish white fluid, delivered in infinitessimal pennyworths down area steps; or perhaps, from a presentiment of calves' brains, you refrain from any lacteal addition, and rasp your tongue with unmitigated bohea." Likewise, a hen laying an egg doesn't cluck, or whatever ordinary people with commonplace vocabularies think a hen might do—it "advertis[es] its accouchement, pass[ing] at regular intervals from pianissimo semiquavers to fortissimo crotchets." So far, I'm only kept going by the knowledge that she would go on to write one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.

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