I was going to say that I'd now read all four of Marghanita Laski's novels, but I find there's a fifth, her first, called Love on the Supertax, though it's out of print and expensive to get hold of. Anyway, the ones I have read are The Victorian Chaise Longue, slightly bizzarre but enjoyable, the amazing To Bed With Grand Music, so shocking she had to publish it under a pseudonym, and the totally wonderful Little Boy Lost, which has to be on the list of my best books ever. Would The Village measure up?
I wish I could say yes. Not that I didn't enjoy the novel, because I did -- it was really interesting and it certainly kept me reading happily to the end. But to be honest I didn't think it was quite as good as any of the others.
The story starts the day the war ends. Wendy Trevor, from the houses up at the top of the hill where the gentry lived, and Edith Wilson, from Station Road, the other side of the tracks in every sense, are meeting for the last time for their nightime duties at the Red Cross Post. The two women spend a relaxed and comfortable few hours, drinking tea and discussing their respective offspring. Then dawn breaks and they set off for their homes. Goodbye, Edith, says Mrs Trevor,
and Edith said "Goodbye, Mrs Trevor," and gravely, almost sacramentally, for the first and last time in their lives, the two women embraced and kissed each other.
This moment, of interest in itself because it sets the overarching theme of the novel -- the class divide and the way it has been affected by the war -- will also come to have immense significance as the story continues. For Mrs Trevor's daughter Margaret, a pleasant and capable girl but not a particularly bright or beautiful one, will soon fall in love with her childhood friend Roy, Mrs Wilson's son. A simple and ordinary enough thing, you might think, especially as Roy falls equally in love with her. But of course, as both of them are fully aware, they are playing with fire. They manage for a while to keep their relationship secret, with long walks during their lunchtime breaks from work and occasional stolen days in the country, but eventually they are spotted embracing in a park, and soon the whole village knows and almost everyone, whether gentry or working class, is scandalised. The lovers are determined to follow their dream and marry, but will the Trevors ever agree to let Margaret marry so far beneath her?
It's notoriously difficult to explain the British class system to anyone who hasn't grown up with it. If, like many non-natives, you think it has something to do with money -- the more you have the higher your class -- this is the novel to put you right. For the Trevors, high up the social scale, are as poor as church mice while Roy Wilson, who is working as a printer, is earning so much money that his prospective in-laws almost faint when he tells them his yearly salary. But of course this makes no difference to their attitude. Roy is working class and Margaret must not lower herself.
Wendy found herself pleading with this new, stern Margaret who stood there judging them. "It's your happiness we want", she said, "you must believe that. Daddy and I know that Roy can give you more in the way of material things than we can. If he was only our class, I give you my word we wouldn't hesitate for a minute".
"Class", said Margaret with a new contempt. "What's class? What's class ever done for you or me or any of us? Roy and I are people, I tell you, and a thing called class isn't going to stand between us. If class is something that says that one kind of people can fall in love and another kind can't, then its a wicked thing".
Stirring stuff. But in a way this encapsulates the reason why this novel, for all it's charm and interest, didn't quite make it for me. Laski clearly has an agenda here and I found at times it was a bit too obviously hammered home. It was really interesting to have read it immediately after the last one I reviewed here, The New House, which, though written a decade or so earlier and so before rather than after World War Two, deals with social class in a subtler and for me more successful way.
But please don't let me put you off! I'm sure there will be many people who have read this and adored it, and if you haven't read it yet, you certainly won't regret picking it up. I read it in a lovely old hardback (first edition, second impression, January 1952) but of course you can get a spanking new one from Persephone.