On the day the war ended, Wendy Trevor and Edith Wilson weren’t sure what they were supposed to do. Do they turn up for their Red Cross duty as usual? Not having been told to stay at home, the two women–one a middle-class housewife and the other her working-class charwoman–reported for duty and spent the evening together. When the night ended, the two women hesitated, not quite ready to go home:
“There’s a lot of us will miss it,” Edith said. “We’ve all of us felt at times, you know, how nice it was, like you and me being able to be together and friendly, just as if we were the same sort, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll miss it a lot too,” Wendy said. There was no point in her saying that it could go on now, the friendliness and the companionship and the simple human liking of one woman for another. Both knew that this breaking down of social barriers was just one of the things you got out of the war, but it couldn’t go on.
The Village, a 1952 novel by Marghanita Laski is the story of Priory Glen, an English village that, in the years after World War II, is both desperate for change and unwilling to adapt. Barriers between social classes and people’s firm ideas about proper behavior rub up against people’s dreams, which were perhaps fed by the temporary lowering of barriers during the war.
Although The Village boasts a large cast of characters (the Persephone edition includes a four-page character list), most of the story focuses on the Trevor family. This respectable family has come upon hard times financially, and Wendy worries about their two daughters, especially the eldest, Margaret. Margaret is an adequate student, but her grades won’t get her into university, and the village is almost empty of appropriate men for her to marry. (Not that she’d have much luck attracting a husband, as plain as she is.) Her only talent appears to be cooking, and there’s no good way to make a living off that.
Margaret is no more sure of her future than her mother is, but after a few chance encounters with Roy Wilson, son of Edith, she gets a pretty good idea of what she wants. But how to surmount those social barriers?
The more Persephone titles I read, the more taken I become with their offerings. They’re pleasant stories about ordinary people, but there’s almost always a serious edge to them. The pleasure in this book was in the way it presented a clear picture of what must have been a liberating and bewildering time. In Priory Glen, so many barriers had come down, and people had been given a glimpse of what could be, but few people were willing to take any sort of step toward making those changes permanent. Every bit of common sense might say that it would be wonderful for impecunious Margaret to work as a cook to earn her family some money, but it wouldn’t be right, so she ends up in a job that bores her. Roy, her good friend since childhood, makes her feel comfortable and happy, but he’s not a proper choice for a beau. Far better for her to go out with the doctor’s son, even if he’s as bored with her as she is with him.
If I were to register one complaint about this book, it would be that Laski is prone to dropping anvils to make her points when a more subtle approach would do just fine. However, this tendency didn’t end up bothering me much because I cared so much about the main characters’ fates. I wasn’t in much doubt about the way things would end up, but I was eager to see how the characters would get to where they were going–and indeed Laski threw a few surprises in along the way. I look forward to more excellent offerings from Persephone. I’m happy to have quite a few of their books on my shelf, ready for reading.