If you like E F Benson’s petty bitchery, and the psychological dissection of Barbara Pym’s novels, you will love Jane Hervey’s Vain Shadow, first published in 1963. It is now a Persephone reprint in its demurely anonymous grey cover, now synonymous with a certain type of novel, recovered from the past, for middle-class readers. Virago missed a trick by not publishing Vain Shadow, because it is relentlessly feminist and also powerfully socialist.
Hervey exposes the selfish expectations of entitlement that her characters – mostly from the landed classes of mid-twentieth century England – display in their thoughts and actions. But this is not a novel in which the servants and tenants are agitating at the barricades; this is a novel of domestic bullying and misogyny in the early 1950s. It contains a shining thread of joy in the youngest character’s escape from the dismal patterns of marriage that had trapped her mother and grandmother before her. She runs away to another man, to be sure, but we can’t have everything: in comparison to the expectations of the men of the family, she is a shrieking feminist rebel. For a novel written in the early 1950s it’s enough that Joanna gets away at all from her vile, manipulative husband Tony. Another character, Laurine the pretty but despised former actress, looks like she too will be getting her way by the end of the novel, by having a baby. This is also not a feminist escape, but relatively speaking, both women triumph magnificently over male oppression.
Jane Hervey wrote this novel as a response to her own miserable second marriage using her family background (see this excellent interview with her). I am deeply impressed that even though some of Hervey’s relations refused to speak to her for years after this novel’s first publication, she stuck it out and waited for them to stop being so self-absorbed. She had had the training: she divorced her horrible second husband in the 1950s so her family had already had conniptions over that. She is a admirably doughty character, still writing in her 90s.
Vain Shadow begins just after the death of Alfred Winthorpe, a bullying family patriarch of a landed family, and carries on over the four days before the final burying of his ashes, in the large family home. Hervey’s technique to expose the characters’ inner, truthful and often deeply selfish selves is to interject their thoughts as a commentary to what they actually say out loud. Mrs Winthorpe is vague and crushed, but after the relief of her husband’s death she feels that she is slowly emerging from fifty years of domestic oppression. However, there are unnerving signs that her second son, Harry, is turning into his father all over again. Harry is middle-aged and lives at home, crocheting tablecloths and antimacassars, and is very particular about its possessions, his car, his arrangements, and the public behaviour of his relations. Jack is the eldest son, but is a slight disappointment, being a not very good artist rather than the more conventional profession his father expected. He is in his fifties and newly married, having fallen for Laurine, half his age, who is not quite suitable for the Winthorpe tradition. The third son, Brian, is an overlooked businessman married to the anodyne Elizabeth, and takes pleasure in upsetting Harry’s arrangements to assert his better judgement. Joanna is their niece, daughter of their dead sister Sylvia whose unhappy marriage to a rotter seems to be happening again with Joanna’s marriage to Tony.
Vain Shadow doesn’t spare any of the characters. The novel is a calmly gleeful exposure of their cattiest and most selfish thoughts, their least socially agreeable actions and their feuding, sniping ambitions for themselves alone, and not often for anyone else. Their full awfulness is the kind of delicious, gleeful dreadfulness of which we want to read a great deal more. As an example, Tony isn’t quite as grateful as he ought to be that Harry has arranged for Joanna to only receive her income while still married to Tony. Tony clearly wants the money now so that he can use it and then ditch Joanna, whereas although Harry is actually more concerned about keeping the money in the family, he is not going to make Joanna suffer. This small gesture of humanity, albeit for the wrong reasons, is enough to shine brightly as a mark of goodness on Harry’s account, so snide and critical and bossy are all his other actions.
The country-house setting, the constant presence of servants and tenants, the oppressive presence of Alfred’s body in his bedroom and later in his coffin in the library, anxieties over room arrangements and timetables for the funeral, curiosity and drama about the will: this is the stuff of a traditional Golden Age detective novel, down to concern as to what Alfred Winthorpe’s last moments were and what he said before he died. He died naturally, no-one killed him, but – unexpected and shocking within the decorous, traditional context – no-one is sad that he is dead, except, perhaps, Joanna. Relief, and then guilt at feeling relieved, are the dominant emotions, recurring like a bad dream. Only Joanna (again) has the strength of mind to break out of the patterns of behaviour that Alfred has enforced for fifty years, to defy family tradition, to sit in her grandfather’s chair, to leave her husband for another man. In all other respects she is a normal, friendly, concerned and devoted grand-daughter.
The scene where she and Laurine scrub the muddy stone aisle of the church together, before the funeral, is another remarkable departure from the country house tradition. I can’t see the Provincial Lady, Miss Marple or Lady Peter Wimsey doing this: they would expect there to be village women to do the heavy work. Joanna’s calm assumption that she and Laurine will ladder their stockings on their knees on the cold stone floor to make sure that the Big House funeral looks correct, jolts us out of the 1930s dream that the family’s social habits suggest, and into the harsh new world of grasping post-war Toryism and the disappearance of feudal hierarchies. Jane Hervey’s instinct for such telling actions is superb, as good as her ear for dialogue and for the wickedly inappropriate word (her description of a soufflé would quite put you off eating it). Vain Shadow is a perfect, brilliant novel about crumbling boundaries between classes, sexes, generations and traditions, and is complete pleasure to read.
Jane Hervey, Vain Shadow (1963, 2015, Persephone Books), £12