In a sense Bricks and Mortar is a pretty typical Persephone novel, a largely domestic novel which follow the fortunes of a family across more than three decades. What sets this lovely novel a little apart from the other wonderful domestic set novels which Persephone publish, is that the main point of view in the novel is that of a man and that his career as an architect lies at the centre of the whole story.
“Martin fell in love with Letty quite simply and immediately, without any suspicion that the matter was being arranged for him. He mooned about after her, watched her across the dinner-table with unconcealed adoration, and manoeuvred constantly for a chance to go with her and her domineering, efficient little mother to visit some church or gallery or ruin.”
In 1892 Martin Lovell an awkward, young architect travels to Rome, here he meets Letty Stapleford his future wife. Wanting only to revel in the architecture, ambitious and endearingly passionate about his work, he’s a stuttering nervous young man and no match for Lady Stapleford. Recently returned from India, a widow, Lady Stapleford is almost penniless, her pretty daughter soon to be launched into London society, something Lady Stapleford can little afford. Recognising Martin Lovell to be at least a gentleman – Lady Stapleford sets out to secure the marriage of her daughter to Martin as quickly as possible. Martin Lovell returns to England to begin his career a newly married man, taking a small flat in Gray’s Inn Square. Letty doesn’t share Martin’s love of bricks and mortar, and although the young couple love each other, this is a small irreparable fissure in their relationship.
Martin starts working for Nicholas Barford, they don’t always agree on architectural matters but rub along fairly well, and in time Martin becomes Barford’s partner and later, following Barford’s retirement takes over the business completely. For lovers of architecture, there is plenty to love in this novel, Martin’s own enthusiasm really very infectious, and Helen Ashton’s descriptions really lovely and seemingly very knowledgeable, and if, like me, you don’t know much about architecture; it really doesn’t matter at all. Martin’s development as an architect is explored brilliantly; with his youthful dreams of cathedral building and his early overly ornate projects later coming to embarrass him.
“standing under the light Renaissance arcade in the vine-wreathed courtyard of the Plantin-Moretius house, he decided, finally and obstinately, that he did not care for Flemish Gothic. There was something sinister, high-shouldered and constricted about the steeply-pitched roofs with their peering suspicious rows of dormer windows, the crowded, intricate tracery of the canopied windows and niches, the florid, soaring multiplicity of pierced belfries and arrowy slender spires. It all seemed as angular and ascetic as the tortured, lean-ribbed saints and prudish, shrinking virgin martyrs in the jewel coloured primitives of the museums. He took much greater delight in this warm sixteenth-century brickwork, these light round arches and tall mullioned windows; they satisfied his domestic and balanced mind.”
Letty and Martin have two children, Anatastasia (known always as Stacy) and Aubrey. Stacy very much her father’s child, takes a delightful interest in his work, while Aubrey his mother’s son, is spoiled and sickly. Letty frequently clashes with her daughter, far preferring her darling boy to the girl she doesn’t really understand, while Martin is often bored and irritated by his son. As the years pass, the family move several times, allowing Martin to put into practise his never waning fascination for houses. Stacy’s passion for bricks and mortar soon almost equals Martin’s and he is able to take comfort in the relationship that develops between them. When Martin takes on a new young architect, Nicholas Barford’s nephew Oliver, he and Stacy seem attracted to one another, something Letty is quick to make plain she’ll never condone. Stacy and Oliver move off in different directions, marrying other people, but almost inevitably come together again following the First World War. During the upheaval to traditional gender roles that came about following The Great War, Stacy finally begins her own architectural training. Her own career is not followed in any great detail, which is a shame; the focus is more on her disastrous first marriage, and her relationship with Oliver Barford.
Although I loved the character of Martin, Stacy really is the star of the show, and I wouldn’t have minded much more of her. The end of the novel is a little overly dramatic perhaps and certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected, but I am maybe just being picky. Overall Bricks and Mortar is a lovely novel, and if you want a novel which explores the changing nature of architecture in Britain in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, then this is certainly the book for you.