I for one was delighted when Turnpike books re-issued three novels by Janet McNeill. Her writing has been likened to that of Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor, august company indeed. Janet McNeill is certainly within the tradition of such writers, and I understand the comparison, however, unlike them she seems to have struggled to find a modern audience. Born in Dublin in 1907, Janet McNeill lived for many years in Northern Ireland, where her novels are set, making this short novel perfect as my second read for Read Ireland month.
The Maiden Dinosaur takes us to Belfast in the 1960’s, and to Thronehill House, standing within sound of the animals in Belfast zoo; it was once Sarah Vincent’s family home – now divided into flats. Sarah herself lives in one of the flats, surrounded continually by the ghosts of her childhood. Sarah Vincent is fifty, a grammar school teacher and local poet. In the other flats live; Addie and Gerald, Kimberley and Justin and their new baby, and Helen – one of Sarah’s greatest friends from school days. Inside her flat Helen guards her ageing beauty jealously, mourns her daughter killed many years earlier and entertains her latest male companion, wondering whether this one will be the last. All around Sarah are the echoes of the past; the voices of her long dead parents fill the rooms which now are inhabited by other people.
“Mama, thirty-four years dead, stirred on the sofa in the drawing-room. Sarah heard the light insistent cough, the tinkling cow-bell lifted and laid again. Mama had various voices. Sometimes she spoke as childhood’s ear remembered, sometimes through the school girl caricature with which Sarah had fought maternal domination, rarely as the adult who demanded terrified pity.”
The novel is firmly rooted in the middle-class middle aged world of a group of women whose lives have been connected to Sarah Vincent’s since their schooldays. As the novel opens there is a tea-party for a group of Sarah’s friends, a monthly tradition, these women come together to talk, gossip and reminisce. Addie is one of these, Helen rarely attends.
“‘Oh dear, am I late?’ on the brink of identification she rebelled against it.
‘I think an order mark would be in order, Sarah Vincent,’ Addie said in plummy-voiced imitation of Miss Hodgkiss, vintage Lower Fifth, 1922; Miss Hodgkiss, long-nosed, austere and pale except for the red triangle of skin which lay, winter or summer, in the opening of her blouse.
Their laughter reached out like tentacles, wrapped itself round her and drew her in”
They are all products of their upbringing, and Janet McNeill observes them with humour, highlighting their slight absurdities and their frailties. One of their number a slightly younger woman, the younger sister of their friend Rose; who died in childbirth, Joyce is married to her sister’s husband and announces her pregnancy at the age of forty-one. Sarah, of course the maiden dinosaur of the title – has nursed an adoration of Helen for most of her life. It is part of McNeill’s skill which enables her to seamlessly switch the point of view of her narration, so we hear Sarah’s thoughts, as well as those of a young girl, one of Sarah’s pupils, and to those of George, Helen’s frequent visitor, dividing his time between her and caring for a sick wife. In her depiction of these characters McNeill shows a gradual wearing a way of those old-fashioned standards within the society which these women grew up in.
“Addie clasped her hands. “I think I’d better go home. I’m sorry Sarah, it was awfully sweet of you to ask me to and I do appreciate it, but I am physically incapable of addressing a perfect stranger as Charles. It’s not me personally, it’s my generation, like butter-knives and calling the lavatory the toilet and eating in the kitchen.”
A couple of humorous episodes stand out. Sarah asked to take part in a television programme about her poetry takes Addie with her. Addie is not sure what she can possibly bring to the occasion, but when the interviewer suggests that their comfortable upbringing must surely have been a barrier against creating really good poetry, Addie puts the interviewer very firmly in his place. Sarah, not a thin woman, nor one used to making any real effort with her appearance – goes to a dress shop with a view to buying something. It’s a dispiriting, humiliating experience which practically every woman could sympathise with.
As they have done for many years, Sarah and Helen go away for their annual holiday, the same hotel, waited on by the same staff; they visit their favourite, old familiar places. There are subtle differences though, which both women become aware of, everything comes to a head though, as they await a visit from George. Sarah must discover how life still has new possibilities in store for her – things she has been so certain of for so long are shaken.
I enjoyed The Maiden Dinosaur very much, although I think I have preferred her other novels to this one, but really they are all very definitely worth seeking out.