Family Circle is the earliest of Mary Hocking’s books that I have read, and was another of the books included in my Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel from Karen. Published in 1972, and I can only presume therefore written at around that time, the narrative is set firmly in that era. Here we have a Riley Elf compared favourably to Austin 1100s, girls in midi jackets, hippies, references to the CND movement, James Callaghan and talk of immigration.
As a child Flora (saddled with nickname Pug) often visited the Routh family in Lewes, Sussex. To the young Pug the Rouths were figures of great glory, very assured, the perfect family, who allowed their children; Constance, Margaret and Timothy great freedoms. Now as a young woman, recently finished with university, Flora returns to help care for the Rouths youngest daughter, who it appears has had some kind of breakdown which is mysteriously linked with Katmandu, despite her never having been there.
“Margaret Routh claimed to have seen the idol. She assured the police of this when they found her lying in a railway carriage. The police were not interested, being solid men whose horizons were bounded by Bethnal Green”
Margaret was the child closest to Flora in age; a child the family had always asserted was gifted, destined for great things. Upon her return, Flora is instantly reduced to being Pug again by Constance who greets her affectionately. The head of the family is Mr Routh, a former Methodist minister, who has published sermons, and involved himself in many campaigns and good works. On her first evening Flora (Pug) is introduced to Dr Ahmed a Lebanese man undertaking – what Oliver Routh describes as – fascinating experiments in psychology. As he is a keen supporter of racial equality, Oliver Routh is shown to be particularly (almost embarrassingly) fulsome in his praise of people from other nations. He is condemnatory of the police, seeing highhandedness everywhere, a supporter of CND and believes the freedom he has given his children to be the only right and proper way to rear children at all. The Rouths are liberals, Mrs Routh firmly believing that a person’s freedom of action should never be interfered with, or any influence exerted over them, in this way, she doesn’t attempt to offer Pug any advice on how she should deal with Margaret when she sees her again. Mrs Routh has her own firm ideas, and she is very suspicious of and rude to Margaret’s doctor, local G.P Owen Lander as he tries to help Margaret, offering kindness and good sense, along with more practical ideas. Doctor Lander is a thirty something widower, the only doctor for his practice he is working himself to the point of breakdown according the nurse who helps him. Flora begins to find her view of the Rouths shaken a little; she can’t quite reconcile them with the glorious beings of her childhood.
“The problem, I told myself, arose from the fact that I was now viewing the Routh family in a period of stress and although dramatists like to maintain that at such times one sees deeply into the human personality, this is probably a fallacy. The man on the rack is not the whole man. And just as a ship during a storm will pitch and toss, engines straining, timbers creaking, and may to the ignorant give every appearance of breaking up, when the wind subsides it will glide smoothly forward emerging from this testing time with no more damage to the structure than a scratch here and there on the paintwork. The Rouths, too, would survive the storm”
In between taking long walks with Margaret, re-living childhood days and helping out at the Routh’s family home, Baileys, Pug becomes drawn to the doctor, recognising in him someone who does know how to help Margaret. Margaret is confused as to how she became ill, she was travelling in Scandinavia, and returning through Holland had stopped off to visit her brother Timothy, she remembers nothing else. When Timothy turns up, it heralds the beginning of events that lead to scandal for the Routh family; the scales are falling from Pug’s eyes, as events begin to reveal how things really were between each of the Routh family. Mr Routh’s astounding self-delusion and Mrs Routh’s dreadful self-centeredness are exposed for all to see.
There is great subtlety and acute observation of how people really are in this novel, which I found enormously readable, and probably one of my favourite Hocking’s to date.
I have come to love Mary Hocking’s books, although the ones I have read so far have largely been her later works, as her earlier novels can be harder/more expensive to get hold of. As I write this I am watching several Mary Hocking novels on Ebay – I have to decide between paying £3 or £4 for an ex library copy or £16.00 for a nicer edition. As I am not supposed to be buying books at all – I shall probably resist completely – but oh I do wish someone would re-issue her books.