Review by Jane V:
Set in London immediately after WW1, the novel, the first of a trilogy, centres on Hervey, the only girl in a group of pre-war graduates who are trying to regroup after the war. (Hence the title.) Returned from the front, the men are disillusioned and isolated. Society has changed and it is difficult for the remnants of their little group to integrate. Hervey has married an irresponsible man and had a son, who she has left in care in Yorkshire. She struggles to support herself and the boy from her wages as a copywriter in an advertising agency, in the evenings writing ‘popular’ novels she is sure will make money. She exists on the edges of literary society but finds it difficult to reconcile her ambition with her need for an income, and her political views with her need to join ‘mainstream’ society. She toys with socialism, joining a doomed left wing newspaper. But always her ambition to write, to live in London and to make sure her son has everything he needs are uppermost in her mind. The novel clearly uses autobiographical material, although it is not an autobiography. Jameson was interested in the perennial female dilemma of family/work balance and the psychological effects of this on the individual. The novel, written in 1934, is politically shrewd about the state of post WW1 Europe and the looming second war with Germany.
I think this novel might be misplaced on the ‘middle-brow’ list. It is not an easy read and has no ‘feel-good’ factor. It is certainly a feminist novel in that it deals with the emotional struggle of a young woman who suffers from a poor relationship with her mother and a guilty one as the mother of a young son she has left behind in care. Hervey is ambitious to become a ‘good’ writer but spends her time in London employed as a copy writer since she must make money. The author explores Hervey’s complex nature from the inside (the novel reads as autobiographical, more akin to Virginia Woolf’s writing than to the ‘good read’ of the lending library). As a study of the confusion and anger felt by the generation of young people whose lives were ruptured by the first world war and as an assessment of Germany after the Armistice and the conditions which led to the second world war, it is a prescient and informed piece of work. It is perhaps not possible that Hervey, the main character in the novel, could have had in 1920 the prescience that Storm Jameson had writing in the mid 1930s when the Nazis were gaining power. Nonetheless it is a rich, multi-layered novel dealing truthfully with the effects and the social and political causes of war while also exploring the emotions, confusions, literary ambitions and character faults of an intelligent and educated young woman in the early 20th century. It is a rewarding read and leaves me interested to read the following two novels in this trilogy.
The novel is also interesting for its discussion of the cultural value of different kinds of writing – advertising copy, popular novels, journalism, and propaganda novels:
Now. . . a warning. The Charel people have complained that their last batch of copy, yours, was too subtle. If the great middle class – your public – enjoyed subtle writing they would buy it. But they buy Mr – . Don’t mistake me. I should have to get rid of a copy-writer who wrote as badly as a popular novelist. All I am saying is that your copy must make as few demands on the intelligence of its readers as if it were popular fiction. The difference – these novelists are paid to be . . . a little diarrhoetic.’ p 130
‘I read your novel. It’s a preposterous novel . . . You despise popular fiction, don’t you? Well then – why do you stay here writing advertisements for soap? What is there to choose between playing on a woman’s silliest emotion to sell her new soap, and gratifying them with a ridiculous story of life as she would like it to be? Both times you’re selling women the lie they want . . . they’ll say; “how lovely our lives are when she describes them to us – give us more, another of your rich exciting human books; persuade us we’re happy, fortunate, noble, pathetic, brave.’ p131/2
‘What are you writing now, Hervey?’
‘Another novel,’ she answered awkwardly.
‘Don’t you know you haven’t any right to write novels unless you put into it this slum and those black troops being used to bully Germans? We shall pay for both crimes.’
‘Propaganda novels,’ Hervey said.
‘Who writes any other kind?’ Renn said. ‘Whether you know it or not, you’re being used. You’re either soothing or rousing people. You’re persuading them that all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or you’re warning them. You’re telling them lies or truths.’ p 324
There is also a dig at the popular novelist ‘William Ridley’, thought to be based on J. B. Priestley. Hervey considers herself to be a better writer than Ridley:
‘I should say that he was a very commonplace writer. He has so much energy, and he notices everything – I think perhaps he is a commonplace genius. He’s very conceited.’ p 145
Poor J. B. Priestly does seem to get a lot of stick in novels of this period!