When I read Janet McNeill’s Tea at Four o’clock last year I knew I wanted to read more of her adult fiction (she was very well known for children’s fiction). Someone alerted me to the fact that Turnpike Books (a new name to me) were re-issuing her 1967 novel The Small Widow. It immediately went to the top of my wishlist, and so I was thrilled when Karen supplied me with this lovely new edition as part of the Librarything Virago group’s secret Santa swap.
The back cover declares:
“To find parallels with McNeill’s work one must look to English novelists such as Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor. What their writing shares… is a subtlety which makes demands of its readers”
Probably my perfect kind of book in that case? and yes I loved it. There is such delicacy and subtlety in the writing that I would certainly have been reminded of Elizabeth Taylor even had I not been prompted by the back cover. Like Taylor, Pym and Brookner, and I would say Mary Hocking too, here McNeill concerns herself with the changes in a woman’s life, as she ages, and the people around her either die or have no further need of her. Julia is disconcerted and confused by the change in her relationships with her adult children. Janet McNeill understands beautifully the intricacies and complications of family life, the bemusement of bereavement and how nothing is ever exactly how it seems.
“Julia knew by this time that her conduct wouldn’t in any way measure the extent of her grief. She hadn’t been able to measure it herself. She had tried. She thought about death deliberately, trying to assess it. She thought about her own death. She thought about the new carpet in the dining-room; the salesman said it would give her fifteen years. It was disconcerting to compete with a carpet.”
When Harold, her husband of thirty two years dies suddenly, new widow Julia is left struggling with her grief and her new role in the world. She isn’t entirely sure she is acting as she is supposed to, she watches people watching her, fussing round her, while getting on with their own lives. At fifty six Julia has four adult children, two married with children of their own, two living in flats above and below her, they only ever seem to come to her to avail themselves of her milk, coffee or bread. Julia needs to find a way of dealing with her children now that her role has changed, build new relationships with her friends, and discover a way of managing her new and strange independence.
On the day that Harold died, he had been attending a musical event at the Albert Hall with his cousin Madge, a fond but slightly ridiculous figure who has also always been a close friend of Julia’s. Madge lives nearby with her brother Lionel, estranged from his wife, he has an adult son with unspecified learning difficulties, generally called Boy by everyone, when not at home he lives in an institution called The Place. Mildred – another good friend of Julia’s admits to Julia that she too needs to be needed, allows herself to be bullied by her daughters, and seems pleased to be occupied when her husband suffers a stroke and needs almost constant care. These women are products of their generation and the society in which they were raised. Harold had been a prisoner of war, Julia the little woman who he came home to at the end of his ordeal.
“She sat at a table near the door, unhappily aware that she was a long, long way from home. The room was filled with young men and girls who might have been creatures from another planet or straight out of an S.F film. Meeting them in ones and twos on the pavement they would have been remarkable, a little absurd (you smile and say “those silly children” and feel better) but here they had authority.”
When Julia eventually ventures out of the house again, she goes shopping and has coffee in a strange tea shop. After a shaky start, she finds herself delighted in the help and pleasant smiles of the sales girls and spends happily, buying lots of things; suddenly she is confused by her pile of bags, unable to find her glasses and her purse. The shop girls, restoring her purse and glasses to her, have then to put her sobbing into a taxi home. Following this incident, Julia is persuaded to stay with first one of her married children Ralph and his family, and then the other Sheena, neither visit is a great success, and Julia invents workmen and hurries home, to the children’s disapproval.
While Julia contemplates a holiday, it becomes increasingly obvious that Madge is behaving oddly, Julia hasn’t seen her in a while, when suddenly she rings at midnight asking if she can come round to talk.
The Small Widow is a brilliant novel, I enjoyed it immensely. Of course I am momentarily banned from buying books – I’m keeping to my #TBR20 pledge, yet I can’t help but wonder how easily Janet McNeill’s other adult novels are to get hold of. Something for me to investigate in the future.