“For man walketh in vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain
He heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.”
Vain Shadow Persephone book 112 is the only published novel of Jane Hervey – who went on to write two more works which have never been published. Now ninety-five, Jane Hervey originally wrote the novel in the 1950’s but put it away in a drawer for almost ten years before taking it out and polishing it. The setting of the novel we discover very early on however is the early 1960’s, a time of burgeoning social change (no doubt the first draft of the novel had a fifties setting – indeed it has a definite fifties feel). As Celia Robertson says in her brilliant Preface to the Persephone edition, this novel is unashamedly of its time and class – yet it also shows us how far women’s lives have changed and certainly improved since the 1950’s. Vain Shadow is a very autobiographical novel – certain characters so recognisable as themselves by members of her own family that Jane Hervey found herself on very bad terms with them after its publication. Jane Hervey is a pseudonym for Naomi Blanche Thoburn McGaw, whose own life could easily be mistaken for the plot of a domestic drama. Widowed very young during the war, her second husband was a bully who made her miserable, and from whom she was eventually divorced, She found happiness at last with her third husband with whom she founded English Country Cottages for self-catering holidays – a company I am certain my own family have used several times.
The story in Vain Shadow is simple enough – a wealthy family gather at their country estate in Derbyshire following the death of the patriarch. Over a period of four days they mourn him, arrange his funeral and read his will. Here Hervey shows how well she understands families; there is black humour and astute observation in her portrayal of a family living in the midst of death. Mrs Winthorpe is informed of her husband’s death over night by Upjohn the housekeeper, the only member of the household to shed a tear. Mrs Winthorpe had been living in thrall to her husband for fifty-three years; she sits up in bed the morning of her husband’s death playing patience as the news is imparted to other members of the family.
As the nurse leaves the family, her job now at an end, we already have a picture of a man who will not be much missed by his family. A man whose word was law, who was quite adept at ensuring his will was done. His widow upon hearing the news immediately reflecting:
“Never again to have to kiss him goodnight! After fifty-three years of having to kiss him… What a blessing it was all over! (A blessing for him, she meant, of course!) All over! Sickness. Health. Till death us do part.”
Already in the house are the middle aged sons Jack and Harry – Jack is the elder, but it is Harry who seems always keen to take control. Jack’s wife Laurine an actress many years his junior, was disapproved of by the Colonel and Jack is unsure whether his father ever did carry out his threat to cut him out of the will. The third son Brian soon arrives with his wife Elizabeth, and Joanna; the daughter of Jack, Harry and Brian’s deceased sister. Joanna is unhappily married to Tony, another controlling man. Joanna’s future; it seems, like so many women before her – rests in the hands of men, her grandfather, her uncles and her less than trustworthy husband. Over the course of the next four days, Joanna begins to wake up – recognising the parallels between her own life and that of her grandmother, for whom it is now rather too late.
“She looked at Tony, seeing him quite clearly, perhaps for the first time: a man who had caught a wild bird, blinding it so that it would sing for him better in the dark. Slowly, with deliberate cunning , he had edged his darkness down upon her, biding his time until the day when she would sing any tune he called – ‘your money, sweet…’ she could hear him saying it ‘…let me handle it for you. You know how careless you are, sweet!’ – only he had bargained without the singing bird regaining its sight.”
The power play between each of these people is brilliantly done, the jealousy and resentment that simmer quietly between
siblings, the changed relationship which exists between adult children and ageing parent, the politics of power between husband and wife. Each character have their own concerns; Jack worries about his position as eldest son, fears being made ridiculous by exclusion from the will, his young wife is anxious for a child and has her covetous eye on a few pretty pieces in a glass display cabinet. Harry is concerned that Joanna does not cause a scandal by breaking up her marriage.
There are petty arguments surrounding the funeral arrangements – burial or cremation, sorting out precise timings for the day, and flowers. Upjohn takes up a collection among the estate workers for a wreath, later conducting them to stand before the coffin,to show the traditional respect for a man who is very much a symbol of the old ways.
There are some wonderful set pieces in this novel, the high speed funeral procession to the crematorium – in order to stick firmly to that timetable! The heart in mouth wrangling over the contents of that glass display cabinet, are just brilliant – funny in their way as they record the poignant ridiculousness of those rites which surround a death. Jane Hervey keeps a tight hold on the narrative in Vain Shadow – the story evolving over those four days, the action, such as it is – taking place almost entirely within the house, in bedrooms drawing room and dining room. The focus switches between each of these characters, the one the reader roots for is Joanna, though the one we feel for most, perhaps, is Mrs Winthorpe herself, like her, we feel the weight of those fifty-three years.
Vain Shadow is a novel of simple, quiet brilliance, it is our great loss that there are not more books to read by Jane Hervey.