Alice by Elizabeth Eliot – The story of a young woman in a time of change

 

This is a novel about friendship. Narrated by Margaret, this is the story of Alice, “my best friend; one had to have one, and she was the only person in the school who wasn’t horrible”. Margaret knows and loves her friend from childhood, as together they try to survive school, their social season, love and life. It reminded me of Mitford’s “Pursuit of Love” and “Love in a Cold Climate”, in its description of a young woman from a relatively wealthy family trying to find an identity. The similarity is stronger as the narrator is the child of an unorthodox mother who sets up few or no expectations for the narrator, leaving her free to comment on another young woman. Though never fast moving, this book proceeds at a gentle pace as a young woman’s life and times emerges through the eyes of her concerned friend. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this reprinted gem from Dean Street Press.

 

Alice is an unusual girl, accepting to a certain extent, spontaneous at others, and always memorable for those around her. This is the story of her from schoolgirl, negotiating difficult teenage years before that stage is acknowledged, and the young woman she becomes. There is great insight into a life of relative financial comfort, yet with limitations that are undefined and unclear. She is more vulnerable than the other girls, as one of her friends says “Alice does mind things too much and it makes one afraid for her.” Her older sister Sonia, with her model like figure and ability to wear clothes impressively strikes out away from Alice, being influenced by her friends and increasingly distant from her family. Alice’s own decisions and actions are sometimes baffling, sometimes touchingly amusing, and always interesting. The section which depicts her time on an unusual and worn boat is at once domestic, yet also reveals her basic optimism. 

 

This is a book full of gentle insight and genuine understanding of a world which can be confusing. It is humourous in its way, and the dialogue is always cleverly revealing of so much; the times, the particular situation, and the characters who people this novel. It is a skilfully written book of its time, full of the colour of the 1940s, the clothes the food, the places where people live. It acknowledges the problems of servants and their frequent loyalty,yet also the problems of the expectations of young women, including the morals of marriage sometimes lightly undertaken. The novel displays its cast of characters well, especially when they recur after a distance of time and space. Eliot handles her cast, setting and plot successfully while maintaining the centrality of Alice in Margaret’s narrative. There are women who are older who behave badly, and others who are more kindly disposed to the young women. 

 

This is a book of its time, and its recent reprinting by Furrowed Middlebrow with Dean Street Press along with other books by Eliot is an opportunity to read and enjoy this undervalued author. I recommend it as a good introduction to both her writing and more general writing of the time.