Vain Shadow – Jane Hervey A Persephone Classic

When I visited the Persephone shop a couple of weeks ago, I was amazed, as always, by the sheer number of books that they have reprinted and I have enjoyed. I was sufficiently overwhelmed to buy 3 books – even if I do have the full set – but one of them was a present… I also bought some books from the 50 books that they wished they had published, including One Fine Day and an Elizabeth Jane Howard I had not heard of thus far.

As always if you want to order any of the books, you can look at for complete lists and details of books and many other things.

One of the books that I had missed out on reading when it had first arrived from Persephone was number 83, Making Conversation by Christine Longford. I found this a little disappointing, to be honest, being a record of Martha growing up and going to Oxford. It is hailed as a comedy classic, but it is a very subtle, and perhaps not as strong a novel as I had expected. The hapless Martha swings between political extremes and attitudes to the foreign boarders in her mother’s house. Her career at Oxford, while at some levels a fascinating account of the women who pioneered women’s colleges, was not developed sufficiently for me. An interesting period piece, but not a classic in the same way some of Persephone’s books have proved.

A much better book, in my opinion, and one that stays with me far more, is Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey, number 112.

(This image is copyright Persephone books.)

Jane Hervey has apparently only published this novel, and I think that it is an outstanding one. It was a novel I was so keen to read on once started, despite the subject of a family funeral. There is no real sorrow at the patriarch’s passing, but each family member has his or her own agenda. The eldest son, Jack, follows the displeasing profession of artist and has acquired a much younger wife. Harry is the capable, obsessive manager, and Brian is very keen not to miss out on anything. The women are more nuanced, so real in their reactions to the situation. The widow’s relief at her relative freedom, Joanna, the granddaughter, comes to several realisations about her life, whereas the two wives, Laurine and Elizabeth, reflect and sort out their husband’s obsessions. The other people, servants and locals, are touching in their respect for the old man and the status quo which is threatened by his death. There are whispered conversations, inner monologues and the unwritten customs of funerals as people try to do the right thing. As is normal at such times, emotions are heightened and the future seems ominous as well as representing change. Harry is determined to get things just right, but he is not the eldest  son. Joanna is a fascinating character, and I really enjoyed finding out about her progress through the book.

The four chapters, covering four days of funeral rites, hold the interest through the small details of the house in which most of the action takes place, and the conversations between the characters and their reactions are so telling. It feels like a short story in some ways, but the length and the bringing in of so much information from the outside the narrative of the four days makes it so much more. It is not an intense story, but feels so real in its writing that it could be a an account from one’s own experience. I can highly recommend it as showing the best of Persephone’s novels.