Review by Mary P:
The novel is set in an office in 1920s London located on Angel Pavement. The business – Twigg and Dersingham – deals in veneers and inlays and is struggling in the Depression. Along comes a mysterious outsider who offers his services to Mr Dersingham as an agent to import goods from the Baltic at a cheaper rate than their current suppliers. Mr Dersingham agrees and business looks up. Priestley describes office life and the day to day, emphasising the hierarchy, and the humdrum nature of daily work and its precarious nature during an economic downturn. The novel takes various characters from the office and portrays their home lives, and their aspirations – Miss Maitland’s life at a women’s club, Turgis’ life in lodgings, Smeeth’s life with his wife and two children.
Turgis falls for Mr Golspie’s daughter Lena, who toys with his affections and stands him up on a date. Turgis becomes more and more obsessed by her, and goes to her home to have it out with her. He throttles her and leaves her for dead. He confesses to her father who finds that she has been revived.
Mr Golspie disappears for South America leaving the business bankrupt now that the suppliers have put up their prices. The employees are now out of work, and pessimistic about their chances of finding work.
Priestley writes well about the hierarchy of the office, and opens up the picture by following various characters outside the office so we learn of their domestic life and relationships. Priestley portrays a world of class differences: Turgis living in digs; Miss Maitland in a women’s club going home to her genteel family for Christmas; Mr Dersingham (living in a suburb and employing servants) and his wife giving a dinner party.
The novel contains many references to films and shows, but particularly to film. Going to the pictures is a regular outing for the working class office workers and provides a glamorous contrast to their everyday humdrum lives. Mr Smeeth goes to a classical concert at the Queen’s Hall – he describes the audience as ‘ quite different from anybody you were likely to see either in Stoke Newington or Angel Pavement; a good many foreigners.’ He struggles to take in this new and alien cultural experience. When he gets home he tells his wife where he has been; she says ‘ Oo, classy, aren’t we?’
Priestly deals sensitively to the loneliness of people both within and outside relationships. Miss Maitland’s fear of ending up like some of the older women at her club, and her desire for some excitement in her life, expressed through romance but not exclusively. She talks of making something happen through getting more involved in her firm’s business, and breaking out of her secretarial role. He also examines Mr Smeeth’s loneliness within his marriage, and his struggles to live with a woman with whom he seems to have little in common.
For the 21st century reader Priestly’s casual anti-semitism is shocking. There are several comments portraying his stereotyped view of Jews.
As far as the portrayal of women is concerned Ms Maitland is the most fully rounded female character in the novel. Priestly gives a realistic view of a world in which women’s ability to be economically independent is very limited, and where their security is looked for through relationships with men.
The structure of the novel does at times slow down the plot. The device of chapters concentrating on one character does at times take the reader into a cul-de-sac away from the unfolding storyline.
In the introduction to the Everyman edition of the novel Priestly writes that his aim was to write about:
the people for whom escape was impossible. Victims of circumstance and the cruel financial chaos of our time is part of that circumstance. [The] original impulse behind its writing was a literary one, the desire to explore and present a certain kind of life – a little world. Its social criticism was really a by-product of this literary process.
In general he achieves this, and his values and attitudes come through the story as it unfolds. In particular his humanity concerning the fragility of the character’s economic circumstances which remain outside their control.