I need to add the novella to my List of May Reads but I find myself in a dilemma. Because I have structured my page according to a star rating system, I really don’t know how to rate the novella.
On the one hand, I was filled with admiration at the structure of the story. Swift has chosen to focus on one afternoon in the life of young housemaid Jane Fairchild, in an English country house, in 1924. With skilfully worded and placed short asides, he gives us the back story (orphaned, put into service at age 14, seduced by the young neighbour Paul Sheringham; in those years it was almost expected that one of the males in the family would be bonking the staff. ) Later he fast-forwards us to Jane Fairchild in her eighties, and then in her nineties. Briefly, but with telling effect.
Swift reveals the inequities of the English class system mercilessly, and the miracle that a poorly educated working class foundling – he actually uses the Dickensian word ‘foundling’ – succeeds in “bettering herself” by leaving domestic service and ultimately transforming herself into a famous writer. It’s Jane’s love of reading that is the key to this social miracle, and oddly enough, the novels of Joseph Conrad, of all unlikely writers, which are the catalyst.
He also uses the theme of war – in this case the First World War – as a reminder of the losses incurred by English families which serves as a brooding undercurrent to the narrative; a sort of harbinger of forthcoming developments.
So far so good. A very English novella, brilliantly plotted and written by an acclaimed British author, recipient of many awards and prizes. This said: what was my problem? I simply did not enjoy the book.
Star-wise, I cannot reasonably leave it ungraded at zero stars ‘No Comment’; neither was it 1 * – dismal; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 3* – average; none of these broad categories apply. I suppose I ought to give it a 4* rating on the strength of the structure and language.
Because of the interminable length of the main scene – the bedroom finale – the endless picking over every nuance, every gesture, every possibility I grew impatient. And the repetitive attention paid to the “leaking seed”, (oh please!) was downright irritating. And also very male. Women really don’t think this way! But Swift makes it clear that in 1924 it was men who counted. All very true of course, but no less irksome nearly a century later.
Following on this whole seed/emissions repetition, there were continuous ongoing references to the maid changing the sex-stained bed sheets: on and on and on. Again : enough already! Do I sound like a nervous Nellie on the topic of bodily functions ? If so, let me refute this false impression.
I note the subtitle is “A Romance”. This baffles me. If it’s meant to indicate the story is a light, fanciful frippett , then I cannot agree. If the subtitle was chosen because of the sensuous quality of the major scene, I can grudgingly agree but today’s readers who enjoy the Romance Genre would chuck the novella aside round about page 9, if they ever got that far.
Was I reading out of my comfort zone ?No, I was not. I’m happy to tackle literary novels by esteemed writers. And have enjoyed many. Maybe I need to revise my opinion of my reading tastes down a notch or two! As I age, I find I prefer a more straight forward narrative . I don’t do subtle very well.
In the end I consulted Goodreads to sample readers’ reviews: the first 3 pages were pretty much 90% rave reviews with a very few 2* and even a 1* review. As we all know, you can’t please everybody. I was struck by the phrase “7 year love affair” between the young man and the maid, used by many reviewers. It certainly did not come across as a love affair to me, with no gestures or words of affection between the couple. Initially the story spoke of the maid’s deflowering as ‘prostitution” and that was the abiding sense of the relationship that stayed in my head.
I’d welcome comments from others who have read the novella.