Review by Val H:
Oh how I enjoyed The Village (1952) by Marghanita Laski!
On the surface, it is a simple, even dull love story, but this is merely a cover for a witty and fluent examination of class in England immediately after World War II.
In places the novel has dated, but to anyone from or familiar with the UK today, its careful gradations of class and social niceties are still pretty recognisable. Is not Downton Abbey an institution, happily or guiltily watched by thousands and portraying how the rest of the world thinks we still are? (Mind you, Downton Abbey is several cuts above The Village, so no belted earls or Lady Marys here.)
Post-war then, will England revert to the comfortable pre-war world, or is change coming? It seems never to occur to the gentry in Laski’s village that things won’t go on as before, but the working classes and tradespeople are slowly seeing opportunities. Reading it now, we have the benefit of hindsight, knowing about the Atlee government (and more) – and even in the 1952, when Churchill triumphantly returned to power and The Village was published, the scale of change was apparent to Laski. But at the end of the war, in a small village, who knew?
Laski’s story starts on VE Day, with a scratch party for everyone in the village. They have, after all, been all in it together. Despite the reassuring speeches on the wireless, local Red Cross volunteers Mrs Trevor and Mrs Wilson leave the party early, turning up as they have faithfully throughout the war for night duty. They have worked together against the enemy, companionably sharing troubles in passing, but their social positions are different. Witness Laski subtly conveying this:
‘…Mrs Trevor and Mrs Wilson had slipped away…to change…the scarves they wore over their heads (Mrs Wilson’s in a turban, Mrs Trevor’s knotted under the chin) for the smart little Red Cross caps…’
(my bold) (p.3 of the Persephone edition, from which all quotations are taken).
The two women have known each other for years, with Mrs Wilson once charring for Mrs Trevor. It is their children, ‘mild, gentle and innocuous’ (p.26) Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson, just back from the army, who fall in love and cause the bother. Margaret worries her mother. The family cannot afford an unmarried daughter at home; she does not seem attractive to men (‘…the beige silk dress whose shapeless folds left Margaret colourless and unnoticeable’ – p. 32); and a job is both socially and, it seems, intellectually out of the question. All Margaret herself wants is to settle down with a nice young man, keep house and have babies. Mrs Trevor would have no problem with this if the nice young man was of their own kind (like Roger Gregory whom she has no idea pounces on her defenceless daughter on an awful but funny blind date). When she and everyone else find out, through gossip and innuendo, about the young lovers, there is horror and much discomfort before a solution is not so much found as hilariously manufactured.
The horror and discomfort are mostly on the part of the middle classes, it has to be said. Margaret’s family and their friends behave badly, while Roy’s family and friends generally welcome Margaret, despite their surprise and social unease. This is probably no surprise from a the left-leaning intellectual Laski. But she is never unfeeling towards her main characters, accurately targeting their pretensions and stupidities while showing their vulnerabilities. Mrs Trevor in particular is a fine study of a woman who picks unfairly on her daughter but is exhausted by keeping up appearances on too little money. The minor characters meanwhile are from stock on the whole, and that’s a pity, but it does mean a sharp focus on the point.
Best of all, of course, is that Laski the writer and we her readers are all drawn into it. As we recognise and enjoy or condemn the attitudes and frailties in the novel, even today we reveal our own, if only quietly to ourselves.