Posts Tagged ‘Janet McNeill’

With thanks to the Publisher for the review copy

This is a (very slightly edited) repeat of a post from just over five years ago. Lovely Turnpike books sent me this new edition of Tea at Four o’clock, which matches perfectly my other McNeill editions. I first read this one in a Virago Modern Classic, and it remains my favourite of all the Janet McNeill novels I have read.

Tea at Four o’clock is a psychologically astute novel of family tyranny and dominance, the title deliberately misleading with its connotations of cosiness. Set in the author’s native Belfast it is the story of a woman’s cautious attempt to reclaim the life she sacrificed to her exacting family.

Now middle aged, Laura Percival has spent her life at the Percival family mansion Marathon, in thrall to first her father, and later her elder sister Mildred. Laura and Mildred’s brother George, having incurred his father’s wrath left the family home twenty years earlier, never to return. Having nursed the bullying Mildred for the last few years, Laura is left bewildered in her sudden freedom when Mildred dies. Mildred was a woman who demanded that tea should be served at precisely four o’clock each day, that the plants should be watered each Thursday, she exacted a disabling obedience from Laura. On the day of Mildred’s funeral, Laura takes a small amount of pride in the Rev McClintock’s words of praise, in her “…exemplary devotion (who) did not spare herself in the long months of nursing”

Living temporarily at Marathon with Laura is Miss Parks, a strident figure once Mildred’s teacher, who had moved in to help, quickly making herself indispensable and now has little intention of moving back to her bedsitting room on the other side of Belfast. Miss Parks, showing a convenient devotion to the memory of Mildred and her habits sets out to continue the management of Laura. She has not reckoned however, on the reappearance of George Percival on the very day that Mildred is laid to rest.

“George’s memories of his home had been dominated so strongly, and for so long, first by his father and then by Mildred, that he had thought little of Laura during his years of absence. Any picture he had of her was of a quiet child who in her obedience to her father’s or Mildred’s bidding had seemed to accomplish much more than George ever had by his flouting of it.”

George has been living in another part of Belfast, in a smaller kind of house altogether, his wife Amy (who he believes to be rather common) and their daughter Kathie have never met George’s sisters, and have naturally always had an enormous curiosity about Marathon and its inhabitants. Having spotted the announcement of Mildred’s death in the newspaper, Amy persuades him to go to the house and attend the funeral; George arrives just in time to see the funeral cars leave the house. George decides to reacquaint himself with the sister who is left alone in the old family house. George’s motives are suspected by both the reader and the family solicitor Mr McAlister, who has his own designs on Laura. George is not easily repulsed, and to the extreme irritation of Miss Parks spends a lot of time over the next few days with Laura.

In trying to reclaim the life she has given to others, Laura must confront and understand the past, the part she and others played in the consequences which resulted from her one aborted bid for independence. McNeill’s masterly at slowly revealing the truth of both the past and the present, and ultimately Laura cannot help but be seen as having been complicit in her own oppression.

“During Mildred’s illness the hour after lunch had always been treasured, an oasis, a withdrawal into herself, a renewal of courage while the invalid rested. Now the necessity of idleness confronted Laura and became a weight, a terror. What was there for her to do? She glanced through the newspaper, reading the words, but understanding little of what she read. At last, in an agony of loneliness she went down the passageway into the kitchen.”

Told in flashback, we see Laura as a young woman, an art student, who meets Tom, a friend of George’s in her art class. Forever after, Laura is haunted by the ambiguity of the words he spoke to her once twenty years earlier, “I never told you I loved you.” Now Tom is dead, having gone to America and married the first woman he met, his son another young artist is visiting Belfast, and Laura hurries along to meet him. George would like to move his family into Marathon and begins to think he too can manage Laura; however, Laura turns out to be not quite so easily managed. The novel ends spectacularly with McNeill gently twisting the knife just one last time.

This new edition of Tea at Four o’clock is published on October 18th.  I also recommend her other novels re-issued by Turnpike books.

The Small Widow

As Strangers Here

The Maiden Dinosaur

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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.

readingirelandmonthThe 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.


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Asstrangers here


With thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

In her 1960 novel As Strangers Here, re-issued by Turnpike books this year, Janet McNeill focuses her attention on middle and working class Belfast society in the years before what became known as The Troubles (generally seen as having started in the late 1960’s). The scope of the novel is mainly domestic; she explores the underlying tensions of that society within the confines of family life. Like the writers she has often been compared to – Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, McNeill has a practised observant eye.

Janet McNeill was born in Dublin in 1907 where her father was a Presbyterian minister. In 1913, the family moved to England when her father was appointed to a church in Birkenhead. Janet’s father returned to Northern Ireland in 1924, although was later forced to retire through ill-health. Janet McNeill then moved to Belfast, where she worked as a typist and secretary at the Belfast Telegraph. After her marriage, Janet McNeill and her husband Robert Alexander moved to Lisburn to bring up their children. In 1951 Janet McNeill began to write following a BBC competition. She went on to write radio plays, novels for adults and many children’s books. It was for her children’s books that she became best known.

“It had always seemed to him incongruous that in his ministry there should be so much necessity for conventional flippancy. He had colleagues to whose tongue a story would rise to meet any occasion and it was, he knew, the popular approach. These people had come to enjoy themselves, and whether he liked it or not he must wear the mask of a mild humourist.”

belfastBelfast clergyman, Edward Ballater, fears for both his family and his faith. Edward has concerns about the depth of his congregation’s faith – their attitudes to Catholics in the community just a part of his worries. Edward is called upon to help a young man, a member of his community who has been picked up by the police, suspected of involvement in a violent crime. In time, Edward begins to suspect that Ned Donnelley’s family have been lying to him – lies which have had a terrible effect on the how he thinks of himself.

On the day that Edward goes to Ned’s aid at the police station, an I.R.A bomb is thrown. Edward and young Ned find themselves in the role of unexpected heroes, risking their lives to save others.

…He had often tried to prepare other people for death.
He thought of the words that he had used – texts, phrases from hymns, familiar blessed words that by their association carried with them more authority than anything original or spontaneous that he could have said. “At evening time there shall be light.” It was the one he could remember. Old people loved it. It was no good to him. This wasn’t his evening, but the middle of his afternoon, an interruption in a busy working-day. He had always believed that there was a rounded plan for his life, a framework of Divine intention within which his free will had a share of work to do. It was senseless as well as hurtful to accept that his services could be so lightly dispensed with. Yet acceptance was necessary. So often on the faces even of the dying who had long expected to die he had seen in the last moment an incredulous surprise. Not me? Not my turn to die?”

Life at home is difficult too, though Edward has been deluding himself about the truth of the situation. Edward’s wife Florence has been an invalid for several years. Keeping to her room, tapping on her bedside table for attention – her behaviour is rather reminiscent of Victorian invalids. Her illness is unspecified – vague references to bleeding and headaches the only clues we get. Edward and Florence’s son, Colin is married to Clare; the couple are already sniping at one another in the chill of their small flat. Colin was always the apple of his mother’s eye – she watches keenly for his visits, but Colin is beginning to show his own frustration with his mother’s illness. Joanna, Colin’s anxious teenage sister, has grown up in the shadow of her mother’s illness. While her father is out in the evening, Joanna checks the gas taps, checks the back door, checks again, and on returning to her room worries that she may have not checked after all.

“Once out on the landing she felt compelled to make the entire tour again in case anything had been overlooked. There were people who could go to bed light-heartedly as if it were the most natural thing in the world, doors unlatched, lights still burning, one day’s mess left over till the morning of the next day, lying down untroubled. But going to bed was, in a sense like dying, and how could one sleep with an unlatched door on one’s mind any more than with a sin on one’s conscience?”

McNeill often shows wry humour, showing understanding for the absurdities of human behaviour, for example in her depiction of a church treasure hunt. Edward wedged into his own car with four parishioners, as they run around trying to find the contents of their list which includes a chocolate mouse and a hair from the beard of a red haired man. Edward finds himself almost without realising it drawing ever so slightly closer to family friend and parishioner Marion Powell. Marion is friend of Florence’s from girlhood – the only person now outside of the family and the doctor who visits Florence. Marion’s husband Toby has disappeared – again – this time with the girl from the corner shop. Marion, wishing for his return, listens out for his car in the drive; Edward can’t even bring himself to say his name.

Although As Strangers Here takes place in 1950’s Belfast, a place rife with social tensions, McNeill does not really concern herself with the wider political situation; her focus is the domestic, within that society. The devil they say is in the detail, and it is certainly in the detail in writers like Janet McNeill which lifts the narrative above the ordinary. Subtlety and astute observation combine with superb characterisation to bring us a novel of family disharmony set against the background of society in some crisis.

Turnpike books also publish The Small Widow and The Maiden Dinosaur – which I have yet to read – and this reader is grateful that at least some of her novels have been brought back for us.


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Janet McNeill was an Irish writer born in Dublin in 1907. She worked for a Belfast newspaper for a time before marrying and having children, once her children were at school she turned her hand to writing. A prolific writer, Janet McNeill wrote ten novels for adults, radio plays and many books for children for which she was probably best known.

“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”

tea at four o'clockI first came across Janet McNeill when I acquired her novel Tea at Four O’clock (1956) a novel which was published as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. Until I came across that wonderful novel I hadn’t heard of Janet McNeill. Certainly Janet McNeill could be said to be in that tradition of women novelists such as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, particularly Elizabeth Taylor I think, however unlike them, her novels haven’t enjoyed the same kind of revival. Her adult novels concern the frustrations of middle age, rooted in the middle classes; she could also be an acute chronicler of pre-troubles Belfast.

At the beginning of this year I read The Small Widow (1967) by Janet McNeill a novel re-issued by small independent publisher Turnpike Books – who publish a series of books by neglected authors of Northern Irish literature. I recently acquired (ok yes bought) The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill but have yet to read it – and then joy of joys was offered a review copy of Turnpike Books latest McNeill offering As Strangers Here. They both look wonderful and I plan to read them soon – but I wanted to tell you about them all now – because I like to give some support to these small publishing houses – because without them authors like Janet McNeill would remain in the shadows.


In As Strangers Here – (1960) Edward Ballater a clergyman struggling with the sectarianism of his society (and his congregation), questions his faith and his sense that he has failed his family.

The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) – Sarah Vincent is fifty and, like her group of friends, she is resigned to the absurdities of middle-age but over the course of a summer Sarah discovers that life can shatter the past, deeply-held faiths are destroyed and she discovers that new beginnings and new love, have always existed for her.

So thank heavens for Turnpike Books I say. My first two experiences of Janet McNeill were so positive that I really do anticipate these next two with great pleasure.

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the small widow

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.


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