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.
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