Advent by Jane Fraser – a wonderful historical novel of women’s lives in Wales in the early twentieth century

Advent by Jane Fraser

This is a wonderful story of place, of time, but most of all, of a woman who understands all too well the real cost of choices. Ellen is a memorable character, once badly treated, now back in her family home in rural Wales. This is a powerful historical novel, personal in the main but much bigger in themes, of life in the early twentieth century.  Beautifully written throughout, this book contains real prose poetry in describing the kitchen, house and surrounding landscape, especially when snow changes everything. The characters live and breathe in the little expressions, movements and gestures, as well as the dialogue faithfully attributed to them – these are people who really come alive on the page. There is basic humour and details, but also an almost mystical hint of life and times in a rural setting. The characters contained in this novel, whether as part of the action or sort offstage, are cleverly delineated in a few words. The brothers, Jack and George, though twins, are very much written as separate characters, one down to earth, one more poetic, a lover of reading. The women are also varied, tied to a kitchen in the case of Eleanor, Ellen’s mother, or permanently on a settle like Elizabeth, the grandmother. All around Ellen are examples of the different stages of womanhood, such as a heavily pregnant sister, all giving Ellen views of what her life could be like. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read this book, which I greatly enjoyed.

At the beginning of the novel Ellen is shown returning to Wales from America, an exile caused by a rejection of her as a wife for a local farmer’s son. It would seem that when she has not become pregnant she was rejected as a potential wife for Richard. Being in America has given her new friends and more importantly a new view of the possibilities of life for women. She has made the long journey back because her father is ill, and it is coming up for Christmas. The end of the journey is described in detail, with small pictures such as the effect of steam on a passenger’s nose and Ellen’s determination to be independent in carrying her own luggage. When she reaches the family home, Mount Pleasant, she realises that not a lot has changed, that she easily slips back into the routine of life, but that in a way her father is diminished. The description of the build up to Christmas, the weather and the way the family behaves is beautifully and effectively described.

This is a moving,detailed and very effective novel that I really enjoyed. The picture of the women was particularly successful, with their continual presence in the kitchen, the idea that aprons almost held a woman together, that they were always seen working as cooking, cleaning and preparing for their menfolk to return. It is the small details that make this book special for me, such as the way some of the women hold a knife, always ready to cut a slice of bread. Ellen is an imaginative and successful creation, grimly realistic, powerfully determined, resourceful and thoughtful. It is a well paced, well plotted book which I thoroughly recommend as a very fine historical novel offering real insight into women’s lives in a particular time and place.  I would be very keen to read Jane Fraser’s other stories and writing.