I’m sure that it is only because of Persephone books that Marghanita Laski is remembered now at all. Born into a family of intellectuals in Manchester in 1915, Marghanita Laski went on to become a journalist, novelist and radio panellist. During her lifetime, she produced several novels, biographies, satires and plays, and edited some works of stories and poems. In 1999, Persephone re-issued The Victorian Chaise Longue, following it with Little Boy Lost, The Village and To Bed with Grand Music. Without Persephone books, I wonder how many people would have heard of Marghanita Laski? So many great writers lost to the vagaries of literary fashion, and so many of them women.
I have read all four of those novels – they are each quite different – and in their way, each quite brilliant. I was looking round for more Laski – and I remembered reading reviews by other bloggers of another Laski novel – not re-issued by Persephone – with a quite memorable title. Love on the Supertax.
“This is a story of the spring of 1944. But it does not tell of that jocund season as you know it in Finsbury and Hoxton, where, after their day’s work is done, clear-eyed, confident men and women meet to discuss the Trades Disputes Act or to visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Left-Wing artists at the Klassical Kinema; nor of spring where the first warm rays of sun strike down on the bountiful barrows of Bermondsey, the colourful backyards of Shoreditch. This is not a story of that spring of 1944 as it came to strong vigorous citizens with an ample present and an assurance of the future, but of spring as it came to the needy and the dispirited, to the fallen and the dispossessed, spring as it came to Mayfair.”
My fragile 1940s edition, came courtesy of eBay, and as I now realise it was Laski’s first novel (Wikepedia describes it as a comic novel – I would say it is more satire) I’m very glad I have read it. I certainly liked it, although it wouldn’t be my favourite of hers, and I think, I can understand why this one has not been re-issued. Whether it will be of course in time, I don’t know, but I somehow doubt it (she says sticking her neck out). That isn’t to say I was disappointed, I wasn’t at all. I thought there was a lot in the novel that is in fact quite clever, savagely witty. There were moments when it felt a little Mitfordesque. Characters and the society in which they live, examined with Laski’s critically observing eye. I can’t help but wonder whether modern readers would entirely ‘get it.’ Laski uses language very cleverly in this novel – her characters are from two different and distinct backgrounds, the upper classes and the working classes. However, Laski uses the language we more usually associate with the description of poorer working class households to describe her upper-class characters’ lives.
“Shivering with cold, Clarissa pulled on her scanty ragged underclothes, her laddered stockings and her last tweed suit that she would have sent to the cleaners weeks ago if they wouldn’t have kept it for months. She splashed her face with cold water and, with a final look of disgust at the grubby untidy bedroom, dragged herself down to the basement.”
Upper class Clarissa and her parents, the Duke and Duchess are portrayed as ill-prepared, for the world they find themselves in. Struggling valiantly to hold on to their world and its values – they are figures to be pitied.
Her working-class characters, are intelligent, worldly, have opportunities to earn wartime wages that are denied the struggling, upper classes. Social mores were changing in the 1940s and Marghanita Laski’s first readers must have read her novel with a wry smile, and a good deal of understanding for what she was saying.
The plot itself – is simply told. Clarissa and her parents are impoverished aristocracy. One son is serving abroad, the other involved in shadowy exploits of the black-market kind. Their country home has been requisitioned by the army, and they live in a kind of genteel squalor in their London home, with no servants, they are frequently hungry and cold. Their fortune; mismanaged by the Duke has disappeared and the Duchess has taken to selling some of her clothes to a dress agency. Clarissa and her parents, struggle to make ends meet, juggling shillings and coupons, and trying to save face with the traders who make their living off the backs of their upper crust customers. They find themselves rather envying the working classes who can take advantage of ‘war wages’ and who are all doing rather well.
Around the same time that Clarissa’s brother introduces her to handsome (and rather slimy) Sir Hubert Porkington, Clarissa meets Sid. Sid is from an altogether different background, he is highly politicised a member of the communist party, and Clarissa has her head turned immediately. Sid sets out to teach Clarissa a thing or two about the world, and Clarissa is enchanted, desperate to prove herself worthy of becoming part of his world. Sid takes her to parties, to lectures, she meets people, with something to say, who open her eyes, and Clarissa convinces herself she can become part of this world, throwing off the inconvenience of her embarrassing background.
It is, perhaps inevitably Sir Hubert (who never gets any nicer to my mind) who tells Clarissa how she can’t just throw off her class like she can her clothing, insisting she should be working to save her class, not working against it. Clarissa has fallen in love with Sid, but when he takes her to tea with his family, she begins, sadly to see, how difficult it will be to convince Sid’s friends and family that she is worthy of a place in their world. But is she? Could Clarissa work in a factory, join the communist party and forget her upbringing?
I really enjoyed Laski’s witty social commentary in this short novel – it lacks the brilliance of To Bed with Grand Music or Little Boy Lost, and she is not quite as funny or as sharp as Nancy Mitford, but still this is an enjoyable little read which fans of Laski’s other books might enjoy.