Tuesday, August 16, 2016

the last book I read

Statues in A Garden by Isabel Colegate.

It's the summer of 1914, and Aylmer Weston is a cabinet minister in the Asquith government. It was pretty much a requirement for being a senior MP in those days that you were independently wealthy and didn't have to do anything as mundane and time-consuming as a day job, so Aylmer spends his leisure time hanging out at Charleswood, his country retreat, where his wife Cynthia organises fabulous gatherings and there is much carefree flapping and jolly japery.

Aylmer and Cynthia have three children, Edmund, Violet and Kitty. Edmund is the stolid reliable type, Violet is about to embark on a suitable marriage to a stupendously dull young man, and young Kitty is a bit skittish, so a governess, Alice, is employed to keep her mind on her studies and off unsuitable subjects like ravenously gobbling off unsuitable men. You know what girls are like.

And then there is Philip, Aylmer's nephew, adopted into the family on the death of his parents in India. A more brittle, quixotic character than the others, presumably lacking their easy certainty and sense of entitlement, he soon gets embroiled in an ill-advised business relationship with a man called Horgan, who has some shares to sell in a mining company that is a dead cert for massive profits. So much so, in fact, that Philip would be a fool not to get his family in on the deal; in fact he'd be practically robbing them not to.

So Philip extracts ten grand or so from Aylmer and Edmund (a very serious wedge in those days) and, unsurprisingly, it soon becomes apparent that Horgan's company isn't quite the dead cert he thought it was. As wealthy as the Westons are, losing ten grand or so is going to hurt, but Aylmer is heavily preoccupied with the Irish question and in any case has the upper-class Englishman's desire to avoid confrontation.

So with Violet off doing wedding preparations and Aylmer constantly up in London, Philip finds himself knocking around at Charleswood with little to do and often only Cynthia for company. Eventually the endless rounds of sherry and backgammon start to pall and Philip and Cynthia get down to some serious fucking, discreetly at first but eventually less so, and in the aftermath of one particularly furious encounter the housemaid, Beatrice, finds them in a state of post-coital slumber in Cynthia's bed. Proving that the lower orders really aren't to be trusted, she inevitably blabs to Aylmer in the act of handing in her notice.

Aylmer's uptight stiff-upper-lip upbringing hasn't really equipped him for having to confront his wife with the knowledge that she's been having an incestuous affair with her own nephew/stepson, and after a tense showdown with Cynthia he pops off and drowns himself in the river. Philip feels disinclined to hang about after this, and heads off to London where he immerses himself in Horgan's business and eventually becomes a rich man, partly off the back of some dealings during the First World War which breaks out shortly afterwards, and whose unimaginable carnage puts all the country house shenanigans into perspective.

The obvious thing to say about Statues In A Garden is that it ploughs a similar furrow to the other Isabel Colegate on this list, The Shooting Party. The other obvious thing to say in relation to that comparison is that the later book (Statues In A Garden was published in 1964, The Shooting Party in 1980) is much better, for a number of reasons, not least because the later book introduces some interesting tension between the above- and below-stairs characters. The lower orders don't feature much at all here, apart from Beatrice's moment of glory and some slightly Driving Miss Daisy-esque interaction between Aylmer's mother and her driver, Moberley. It's almost as if Isabel Colegate thought: I really fancy having another crack at that upper-class types on the eve of war thing, only with a richer and more compelling story.

That said, there's nothing wrong with this, beyond its slightness in terms of story. Obviously a bit of the old incest is a compelling plot point, just as it was in previous books in this series here, here, here, here, here and here. Stories featuring the lead-up to World War I are a sort of popular sub-genre of the That Last Golden Summer Before Everything Went To Shit genre, a non-war-related example of which can be found here. A revelation of some sexual shenanigans culminating in a key male character faceplanting fatally into some water was also a climactic plot point in A Fairly Honourable Defeat.

No comments: