The Village by Marghanita Laski
On VE Day, the 8th May, 1945, the Second World War officially ended in Europe. In the imaginary village of Priory Dean at the heart of Laski’s 1952 book, reprinted by Persephone , life will never be the same again. The strict social divisions in a village – the gentry, the tradespeople, the servants, have been overcome during the preceding years as the war has forced people to cooperate for the common good. The celebrations which mark the end of the war are led by excitable children lighting bonfires, but underneath the excitement there are those who are little sad that they can no longer meet for the wartime duties that have meant so much. Rationing will continue, there will be housing shortages, there will be an end to some old divisions, but essentially there are those who will have money, and those who do not, those who have an indefinable “class” but those who are without, a fact that does not always go together. This is the case with the Trevors, Gerald and Wendy, who have a family name and background, but very little money. There are those in the village who are from more humble backgrounds, but whose trade is bringing in a far more generous wage. As newcomers to the village try to find their feet and position, it is obvious to everyone that whatever people may or may not have financially, there are the silent rules. This is a book which looks back to a definite period of uncertainty, change and challenge.
Mrs Trevor and Mrs Wilson choose to spend the night of the VE celebrations in the Village Hall, in the first aid post that they had staffed during the war. “Down the hill from Wood View, Priory Hill came Wendy Trevor and up the hill from 15 Station Road came Edith Wilson to meet in the porch of the Village Hall”. Priory Hill is the place where the middle class people live, such as retired army officers, solicitors and others live, some impoverished, some maintaining their expectations. Wendy Trevor has slipped from having servants and a good quality of life to making do with little as their latest business has failed. They are investing in their daughters, Margaret and Sheila, hoping that they will either marry well and achieve their independence at least, if not also help their parents. Margaret is not doing well at school and seems to have no interest or talent for anything except home making. Sheila is the clever one, likely to get scholarships and be set on the path to career success. Margaret’s ambitions extend to getting married and having a home. Wendy despairs of finding a “suitable” husband for Margaret, but when the large house “Green Lawns” is sold she has her hopes. The entire village, meanwhile, is divided on what happens next, as well as the incidental events of life with unspoken rules.
This is a powerful book which exposes the class divisions and snobbery that survived the War, but which were being challenged everyday. There are some harsh words spoken, some sadness revealed, but there is also some amusement to be found in an account of a community which is still divided between them and us. The rules of hospitality, of minor slights, of misunderstandings make for a sometimes amusing, always fascinating novel. Laski can be criticised for her hyper awareness of class, but this is a truthful account of the way that people divide people along unwritten lines, and it is a very readable novel of a time seventy five years ago.
I looked out this book from my Persephone collection because of the references to it in other books I have been looking at around the VE anniversary. It is a typical Persephone book in that it is by a less than well known British woman author. Persephone have also produced three of her other books, a political satire, a book of a lost child in wartime France, and under a pseudonym, “To Bed With Grand Music” which goes some way to upset the idea of everyone pulling together in Wartime Britain. They are well worth reading!