Tory Heaven or Thunder on the Right by Marghanita Laski – A bitterly insightful Persephone

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This is a most unusual book, even for Persephone who have managed to bring out a wide variety of novels and other books which reflect life in the Twentieth century. This is an extended satire in the form of a short novel, in which certain characters are depicted as living in a nearly familiar setting of a post war Britain most unlike they expected. Its bitterly insightful message, that rigid divisions in society are more than unfair, shows a world in which some people seem to get everything, while the vast majority serve or suffer. It is not a political manifesto as such, but a dystopian vision in which some things seem familiar yet frequently painful. It has disturbing echoes of a society in which nothing had changed after the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, yet in this version of life, so much was different. Its skilful writing avoids melodrama, yet manages to convey so much about the daily lives of so many people.

As the novel opens, set in 1948, five people, including a young man called James, are rescued from an otherwise deserted island. Echoing Persephone’s “Miss Ranskill Comes Home” by Barbara Euphan Todd, the castaways discover a different Britain from the one that they had left a few years previously. James is pessimistic about his return, as despite a comfortable background and a public school education, he had not found his role in life or indeed a means of supporting himself. He discovers to his astonishment that it is his very background which gives him automatic status as a class A citizen, able to live a largely idle life supported by non executive directorships and the fact that the vast majority of citizens are ranked below him. Indeed there is one class of people, C, who are totally dedicated to serving As. He soon finds the lifestyle of privilege and virtually unlimited credit much to his liking, as he discovers other As who are soon suited with women who are either available to marry or ideal mistresses. Women generally within his class are no longer expected or allowed to study at University or work for money; their expectations should be for neatly arranged marriage. Other women must work within the constraints of their own classes or aspire to a relationship outside marriage; James is soon ‘provided’ with a maid for his immediate needs. His family are delighted to welcome him back, but sad that they must live a circumscribed life, not allowed to mix with those in a different class on any level. James sees some of the other castaways, some of which have not been so comfortably settled. It is the political changes which have been introduced that convince him that no change will be possible. Those with a vote preserve the status quo, those without cannot change a system which remorselessly enforces the chasm between the haves and have nots.

This is both a book of its time, but also a book which arguably speaks to society today. We know what happened to Britain after the Second World War; the austerity, rationing and shortages which affected everyone. Here the solution is to toughen the divides so one class has as much as it wants, while the rest of society has to make do. The system of democracy has reverted to control by the already powerful and rich, with Trade Unions and intellectuals being ruthlessly suppressed. This is a skillfully written book, full of wry observations on a society with not totally unfamiliar elements. It is a story, a work of imagination, yet engaging in its black humour and recognisable characters. It is a strange satire, yet a readable novel for times beyond the 1940s. I was very grateful to receive a review copy of this book, which I found an really good, unusual read.

This book is one of the three new Persephone books just released.  I have actually got another review of an older book to post, so watch this space for more Persephone books!

Persephone Post – and one of their books

One of the interesting things about the Persephone Books website is the link to which offers an unusual, historical picture, often of women reading, working or just as an alternative view of the world. Here is today’s

which is an interesting image of a woman operating a printing press. I’m using it today because I want to post about Persephone no.86, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski.

This book,  in some ways, fulfills the expectation of a book by this small but excellent publishing house.It is written by a woman in the twentieth century and it certainly warrants reprinting. I enjoyed it. It is a book set in World War Two, and features a young wife and mother, Deborah, left to look after her small son while her husband is posted to the Middle East for the duration.But this is where the book begins to diverge from the expected. Instead of being yet another ‘brave woman on the home front’ account, Deborah exploits the freedom offered by an absent husband and a willing housekeeper to go to London and find a job. She begins by regretting a one night stand and becomes a solitary, respectable war worker returning to the countryside at the weekend. She changes into a different person gradually, staying in London more, meeting a man and then another who change her life view.

What is so good about this book is the depiction of her reasoning with herself which enable her to justify to herself what she is doing. It is written in the third person, but accurately captures her thought processes, even when the reader is willing her to make a different choice, take different action. Not that I would condemn her outright; women were in a unique position of being given so many new choices and responsibilities. The traditional ways of life were going, and women for the first time had more than marriage, home and children to concern themselves with. This is a short book, with an understandable heroine. I liked reading this alternative view of what women really did in wartime, and it is another memorable book in my Persephone collection.