We had a very good reading group on Marghanita Laski. She began her novel-writing career with comic political satires, first Love on the Supertax, and then this novel, Tory Heaven. Copies of this novel may be harder to come by than Love on the Supertax, as I haven’t seen it reviewed elsewhere.
Review by Thecla W:
The novel opens in 1945. Five Britons, shipwrecked on an island in the Far East in the early years of World War 2, listen to the general election results on their radio and learn that a Socialist government has been elected. The strongest reactions come from the two young men in the group. James, a conventional young English gentleman, is horrified while Martin, a research scientist from a lower social class, is delighted. The other characters are Penelope, an earl’s daughter, Ughtred, a senior civil servant who was in Singapore for his last posting before retirement and Janice, a beautiful blonde of whose background nothing is known except that “at the time of the debacle she had been staying at Raffles Hotel in a double-room.”
They are rescued and return home by ship.
While waiting to disembark at Southampton, James prays to God to “fix the election” and let him see “the England of all decent Conservatives’ dreams.” He hears a clap of thunder over his right shoulder and once on dry land, finds himself in a society designed entirely to suit people of his class.
The Socialist government didn’t last and the new Tory regime has brought in a system of strict social classification. There are five classes, A, B, C, D and E. The A’s like James are at the top.
The novel concerns the adventures of James and the others in this old-fashioned Conservative utopia.
This is a very entertaining satirical novel.
Laski has two main targets for her satire. Firstly, the kind of upper class people who believe that it is grossly unfair that their pre-War life with all its privileges no longer exists and secondly, the social stratification imposed and policed by totalitarian regimes. She does this by turning the unwritten rules of the old British class system into formal regulations which are enforced and breaches of which can lead to punishment, in this case allocation to a lower grade in the Degrading Court.
James, Ughtred and Penelope are all A’s. The Ministry of Social Security provides James with a role (he chooses to be a man-about-town, while Ughtred is a clubman), an income, accommodation and so on. Laski shows him, an untalented young man possessed of a strong sense of entitlement and feeling very hard done by, taking to this life with great enthusiasm.
Then he visits his family in Sussex. Here things are not so simple. James assumes that A’s can do what they like but under this regime they are just as constrained as those from lower classes. James expects to find his parents and brother and sister enjoying the kind of life they always wanted. Instead he finds that they cannot relax and have to make sure they stick to the rules. His first evening at home, he suggests that they needn’t dress for dinner. His parents are horrified. They suspect the butler of being a spy who will report them if they don’t adhere to the behaviour prescribed for A’s. So they must have a dinner gong, must dress for dinner and must eat stodgy, traditional English food. His parents don’t like this; his father refers to “happy days during the war when we used to open a tin of baked beans in the kitchen”. Likewise, when James goes for a drink with his father, they can only go to pubs reserved for A’s. His father greets an old friend from the Home Guard who is a B and then hurriedly moves on when he sees a policeman watching him; they are no longer allowed to meet socially.
Laski has great fun with this. Here is James’ mother describing the charitable activities she is expected to do as an A .
“The Government want all ladies in my position to do a lot of charity, visit the poor with blankets and calves’ foot jelly and send them coals for the winter; in fact they issue us with special coals for the purpose. Well, of course, we’re only supposed to do charity to C’s, and there aren’t nearly as many C’s around here as there are A’s. We’re all supposed to go once a month and the consequence is, all the C’s are getting more blankets than they could possibly use. And as for the calves’ foot jelly – they just won’t touch it now they’ve tasted Heinz’s tomato soup.”
All life is controlled by the Ministry of Social Security which issues the appropriate discs, gold for A’s, silver for B’s and so on. James is told by the Minstry that he can’t marry Penelope, instead he must have his marriage arranged through their office. Men-about-town have to marry debutantes and Penelope is over thirty.
Ughtred enjoys his life as an elderly clubman but he is more intelligent and more thoughtful than James and is horrified to discover there is no longer a free press. Penelope doesn’t like her new life but tries to adapt to it.
Towards the end of the novel all five end up in the town of Starveham. James and Ughtred are there staying with Penelope and her family at Starveleigh Castle. The occasion is an election. The 1832 Reform Bill has been repealed and so few people have votes. In spite of this, the parties (Whig and Tory) still canvas and have a riotous day during which James comes upon Martin and Janice. They are E’s. Martin has become a Communist and is part of the underground. Janice is a prostitute, the only kind of work open to a female E.
James tells them that the regime is firmly established. Martin disagrees,
“Nothing in the world would be easier than to change this regime into a Communist one. It’s just a question of re-distributing the discs .…The only difference between this system and the Russian one is which people are at the bottom and which at the top.”
Laski also has fun with the Intellectuals. The reason that the Socialist government didn’t last was that they
“..went delirious with organization. They cut out the Light Programme of the BBC and substituted continuous editorial comment by Mr Kingsley Martin. They turned all the strip cartoons into illustrations of intellectual activity. They organized WEA lectures in every village hall and showed foreign films in every cinema.”
Alas for James, it was all a dream. There is another clap of thunder over his right shoulder and he finds himself back on the ship, waiting to disembark.
This novel is written in a light-hearted style but has serious points to make as well. There are several references to the levelling effect of the war when different social classes mixed more and found more common ground than they would have thought possible. I think Laski is saying that, however much you may want to, you can’t go back, too many things have changed and that this is a good thing. But the other message is that trying to control people’s lives too much by enforcing rules about behaviour is ridiculous and futile.
Altogether, it’s a very enjoyable read, in fact it’s a hoot.