So much to read, so little time! But ever since I was very young, I have found it very difficult to give up on things; once I’ve made a commitment I see it through to the end. I guess this makes me quite a loyal person, but perhaps it has not always in my best interests! I’m the same with books, once I’ve started I tend to keep pushing on, even if I’m not enjoying it much. I’m always hopeful that it will improve, or I try to be positive and look for the value and virtues in a book. I also know how hard it is to write one, so I keep going partly out of respect too.
Do you always keep going with a book you’re not enjoying?
I had very mixed feelings reading Miss Carter’s War. I love Sheila Hancock: she published this, her first novel, at the age of 81 (which encourages me greatly!) and still has the energy to speak out for what she believes in – many of you will no doubt have seen her speak in the TV debates on the EU Referendum where she gave one of the most eloquent and passionate arguments for Remain that I saw throughout the entire campaign, and was one of the few people I saw truly engaging an audience. At 83 she is magnificent! However, I’m afraid I was disappointed with the book and had to work hard to keep going with it.
I attended a publicity talk for this book at the 2014 Manchester Literature Festival. Sheila is a very engaging speaker and her interviewer, broadcaster Jenni Murray (whom I also love), expressed great praise for it. I bought it, even though I felt it probably wasn’t my usual thing. This is not necessarily a problem, but when the work is of a lower standard it makes it hard to persevere. Had it not been written by Sheila I doubt it would have been published.
The novel opens with our beautiful and brilliant heroine, Marguerite, graduating from Cambridge, unusual for a woman at that time. She is half French, half English, and has had a mysterious role in the French resistance in the war, working for the British, having been sent here by her underground intellectual parents, whom, we find out, were killed by the Nazis. Brief cryptic descriptions of her wartime activities are dotted throughout the novel for the purpose of illuminating Marguerite’s perspective on contemporary events…I think, although sometimes this is a little clumsy.
The novel covers a vast timespan, from the end of the second world war to the end of the 20th century, with comments on most of the major historical milestones of that period. Marguerite gets a teaching post at Dartford Grammar School for Girls (which Hancock herself attended) and this provides the author’s platform for expressing her opinions on that system and its perpetuation of class inequality. The novel sweeps through the major political events and changes of the second half of the century: reconstruction after the war, the move to the comprehensive education system, popular music trends from Elvis Presley to punk, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, sexual liberation, AIDS and so on and so forth. Although education receives extensive treatment, other events are covered in quite a superficial way, mainly through Marguerite’s political activism. It mostly makes quite simplistic assessments of each of the social issues covered and I found that a bit annoying.
The characters are drawn in quite two dimensional ways, even Marguerite, whom we see for the best part of 50 years, does not really evolve, except at the very end in her old age. Other characters are more like caricatures, from the closet homosexual Tony Stansfield, only able to come out in his middle years, to the caddish but vulnerable war hero Jimmy, the lower-class-grammar-school-girl-unable-to-make-social-leap Elsie, and Tony’s old-fashioned ‘Northern’ parents in their clogs, working at t’mill (really?!). It’s a shame that Sheila, who must undoubtedly have led a varied and interesting life, has not sought to challenge these assumptions and imbue her characters with a little more complexity, but perhaps that is where her writing skills fall short.
It’s a nice enough little story, albeit a bit predictable. Parts of the novel felt that they would be more at home in a Mills & Boon, such as the slightly cringey sex scenes and indeed our heroine, who is almost always beautiful, charming, socially adept, a great cook, a wonderful teacher, etc, etc. Only at the very end when she is an elderly woman, rather like the author, did she become at all real for me.
If you like a bit of escapism and want a sweeping view of post-war British history then this could be worth a read. I think I’ll be passing this on to my Mum, a little younger than the author, but who may enjoy the nostalgia trip a bit more than I did!