“The journey into love was so effortless and graceful; the journey out such a long and laboured climb.”
Small Pleasures, by Clare Chambers, tells a story of two love affairs that become entangled. Set in 1957 London, the protagonist is a thirty-nine year old spinster, Jean Swinney. Jean lives with and cares for her mother, a woman who now rarely deigns to leave their house in the suburbs. Her sister, Dorrie, can offer no practical support as she is now living in Kenya with her husband and children. Their father died in the war, although not before he had acted shamefully in the eyes of his wife.
Jean is the only female staff reporter at the North Kent Echo where she is grateful to be treated as ‘one of the chaps’. Describing her role as ‘features editor, columnist, dogsbody’ she is assigned tasks her boss believes will benefit from a female perspective. Thus when a letter is received from a young woman, Mrs Gretchen Tilbury, claiming she gave birth to a child a decade ago while still a virgin, it is Jean who agrees to conduct an interview. Scientists at the time were investigating parthenogenesis in ‘sea urchins, frogs and rabbits’ so such a possibility was not to be dismissed outright.
To all appearances, Gretchen is the perfect, fifties housewife. She is slim, pretty and always well groomed, offering an unfailingly warm welcome to visitors. Her house is kept immaculate, with a steady supply of baked treats on offer. As a sideline, she makes good quality, bespoke dresses for herself and others.
Gretchen’s daughter, Margaret, is the image of her mother – a happy if somewhat precocious child. Jean quietly questions why Gretchen risks upsetting her family idyll by undergoing the medical tests required to prove no man was involved in Margaret’s conception, along with any subsequent publicity. Nevertheless, it could be a big story for a local paper to break.
If the virgin birth premise sounds a somewhat implausible basis from which to spin a novel, rest assured the unfolding narrative contains a great many other threads. Jean’s investigations bring her into contact with many interesting character’s from Gretchen’s past that add breadth and depth. Despite knowing it would be wiser to remain the professional reporter, Jean becomes personally involved with the Tilbury family. She eagerly assumes the role of unofficial aunt to Margaret, and finds a surprisingly understanding friend in Gretchen’s husband, Howard. It is interesting to compare his role with that of Jean’s kindly boss, Roy.
Jean has an unfortunate history with married men, but the possibility of any personal life has long been stymied by the close attentions of her demanding mother. Regarding herself as physically unattractive, this particular aspect bothers Jean less as she ages.
“Time had caught up with most of her prettier contemporaries and those with the most to lose seemed to feel its depredations the hardest”
Like Jean, Gretchen has secrets, which come to the fore as a result of the various investigations. Perfect marriages are so often anything but. Even the lovely Margaret has potential issues.
The writing flows with ease as the twists and turns are revealed, retaining engagement. Life in the 1950s is skilfully rendered, including the food eaten and chores requiring attention. Although societal expectations may now differ, as the author states, extramarital love and sex existed ‘long before such things were formally invented in 1963’.
The denouement ties up few threads, leaving it to the reader to imagine what may happen next. While this didn’t bother me, I wonder if others may wish for a tidier ending.
An entertaining if at times dark evocation of a particular period in British social history. An easy read but one offering plenty to consider beyond the final page.
Small Pleasures is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.