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Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

It’s a good story – a journalist investigates a claim of a virgin birth. It’s 1957 and the world is a different place. There were local newspapers and no knowledge of DNA and no internet to help with research. Everyone smoked. London was frequently obscured by fog. At work it was a man’s world, and the story was seen by the editorial group of the North Kent Echo as a women’s interest item and was therefore given to Jean to investigate. 

Jean is the character whose fortunes we follow in this book. Her life has been going along evenly, with considerable boredom, until she has to investigate Mrs Tilbury’s claim of parthenogenesis.

Small Pleasures

Jean is nearly 40 and sees her life slipping away, having failed in the matter of finding a husband and establishing a family and a home. Instead, she looks after her dependant and neurotic mother in their semi in the suburbs south of London. Theirs is a life governed by routine and modest expenditure. Quiet desperation, one might almost say. 

Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer … (328)

And then Jean goes to see the young woman who claims that there was no father involved in the conception of her child. Gretchen Tilbury is an attractive young woman and a competent seamstress. It is unclear to Jean why Gretchen wants her story investigated. Gretchen tells Jean that at the time when the baby would have been conceived she was in a private clinic, St Cecilia’s Nursing Home, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. Since Margaret’s birth Gretchen had married Howard, who believed her story. Jean decides to visit the husband at his shop near Covent Garden, and to meet with the matron and fellow patients who occupied the ward in St Cecelia’s alongside Gretchen at the time when the baby would have been conceived. 

As the investigation proceeds Jean is befriended by Gretchen and her much older husband. And she finds Margaret, the child at the centre of the story, very appealing too. Jean begins to spend time at the weekend with the family. Gretchen makes her a dress and Jean buys Margaret a pet rabbit in return. She also finds herself being drawn to Howard Tilbury. And it begins to look as though there was a virgin birth.

I love this about fiction: I know that there has been no proven case of a virgin birth, but I was prepared to accept the possibility that Gretchen Tilbury had a good claim, because it was within a novel.

As Gretchen’s claims become harder to dismiss the reader comes to see that trouble lies ahead for Jean: she and Howard fall in love; her mother has a turn and goes to hospital for a few days; the doctors’ tests continue; Jean begins to hope for a better future than one only enlivened by small pleasures. I won’t relate the rest of the story. It is well told, and tension is kept to the end.

There is a lot about duty and decency in this novel, what was expected of people in the 1950s and what had to be hidden. The author shows the sexism of the time, but the most attractive male characters are those that treat women well: Roy Drake the editor of the North Kent Echo; and Howard Tilbury, the stepfather of Margaret. The sexism of the other reporters, the headmaster she meets and the doctors conducting the tests is pretty dreadful, but it reminds us of how much has changed in 50 years.

Small Pleasures has been chosen by my book group for discussion soon. I am sure we will find that there are many aspects of this novel that we can discuss. It was also longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, published in 2020 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 350pp

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Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fitting that gardens play such an important part in this novel, for I read it while relaxing in mine. At last the sweet peas have arrived, the poppies are dropping their petals and the honeysuckle is drooped over the fence like a chatty neighbour.

For the couple at the heart of this novel gardens represent freedom. Jennifer will find her garden in the Sussex countryside, even if she has to battle with her spade against brambles and snails. For James, a country vicar, it is the only place where he can escape the expectations of his sister and his parishioners.

Father

Gardens were important to Elizabeth von Arnim too. Her first novel was called Elizabeth and her German Garden. And who can forget the magical qualities of the Italian castle gardens in The Enchanted April?

Gardens represent freedom, and in opposition is duty. Both Jennifer and James are caught up in duty’s coils.

Jennifer Dodge is already in her thirties but unmarried. She is one of the nearly 2 million ‘surplus women’ of the interwar years. At a time when marriage was the purpose of a woman’s life, the failure of so many women was an important social issue. She promised her dying mother that she would look after her father and so she is bound by a promise and the sense of duty imposed by father. She has spent the years maintaining a household to his liking, and assisting with his well known, but not well-read, books. He is a man of frigid habits. There are no gardens to enjoy at his house in Gower Street, London. 

Richard Dodge diverts from his normal path and marries a young and beautiful girl called Netta. He has done this because his novels have been criticised for being too sensual, so he plans to use up this sensuality in his life and keep it out of his books. This act frees Jennifer from her duty to father and it allows her to set out to find her own cottage with a garden, which she does as soon as they have gone on their honeymoon. (A nice comedic detail is that father plans to take Netta to Norway.)

James is ‘entangled in his own canonicals’ (224). His sister Alice, a mirror image to father, brought him up and is now his housekeeper in the little Sussex village of Cherry Lidgate. She manages everything for him, and manages him through emotional blackmail. It is owing to her annoyance at him that she lets Rose Cottage to Jennifer. But when she sees that there is a danger from her brother being attracted to Miss Dodge she uses all her powers to separate them and to bring him to his senses – as she sees it. She takes him to Switzerland, and while there the hotel manager asks him to provide a Sunday service for the English guests. James realises that he does not wish to be a vicar.

Really it was a terrible, a horrifyingly lonely thing, thought James, gripping his head in his hands and staring at the Bradshaw on his knees, to be all by oneself in the middle of other people’s determinations and conventions, and having to behave as though they were one’s own, having to put on one’s surplice every Sunday and talk as if one agreed, and talk as if one upheld, when all one wanted – (224)

Alice has a very annoying habit of saying, ‘Bosh!’ when she doesn’t agree with something. She says it once too often to James while they are traveling back to England. She plans to remove the tenant from Rose Cottage and he to propose. The reader cheers to realise that James has thrown off the dreadful Alice. And when she finds a soulmate, thinking herself inconsolable by the loss of James, we think this is entirely fitting for both parties.

While they have been in Switzerland, Jennifer has been getting on with her new life, mostly working in her garden. But she is interrupted by Netta, who has not gone to Norway (because her lap dog would have had to quarantine on their return) but to Brighton. Although marriage to Richard Dodge is not at all to her taste she is persuaded to return to Brighton. She is followed a day or two later by father. Netta has left him and he requires Jennifer to return to Gower Street and care for him again. 

The scene between the two of them is brutal. He believes that Jennifer sped to Rose Cottage to punish him for re-marrying. She cannot persuade him that she loves her life there. She tries to explain to him, but he only listens silently, unable to understand her. 

Such nonsense, too; such grievous nonsense. Stuff about beauty, and independence, and the bliss, he gathered, of nothingness. To have nothing – to be nothing – it appeared to amount to that – was the only freedom, according to his absurd daughter. If she had declared that to be dead was the only true  freedom, it would have made quite enough sense.
But, pitiably and confusedly as she talked, and insulting and ungrateful as her implications were, it did somehow emerge from the welter that the theory of a vendetta for his remarriage was incorrect and she was here because she liked it. (203)

There is much that is farcical about this novel, which lightens the pervading sense of oppression and wasted lives. Few people are honest with each other, preferring to make assumptions about; there are attempts to escape Switzerland that are thwarted by other escapes from Switzerland; meanness of spirit is employed to communicate the fault of other people. Who could forget the description of a lover’s first attempts at a romantic kiss to be ‘gobbling’? Some of the comings and goings are remind me of French farce.

The story reaches a happy-ever-after, but not before we have seen the full extent of Jennifer’s duty and obligation to her father. 

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim, first published in 1931 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2020. 296pp

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Mr Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

Father has been reviewed by two bloggers I respect: Heavenali, who says it is glorious, and Stuck in a Book, who also wrote the helpful Afterword which illuminates the plight of ‘surplus women’.

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