Reviewed by Harriet
Nicola Upson is best known to me, and probably to you, as the author of a series of excellent historical crime novels featuring the well-known novelist and playwright Josephine Tey. Here we have her in quite a different mode: Stanley and Elsie is a novel based in the true life history of the painter Stanley Spencer and his long-serving maid Elsie Munday. Many biographies of Spencer have been written, but here we see him from a different perspective: much of the novel is told from Elsie’s point of view, though we also get glimpses, later in the text, of the machinations of Spencer’s second wife Patricia Preece through the eyes of her lover Dorothy Hepworth.
Born in 1891, Stanley Spencer quickly became a celebrated British artist. As Upson’s book (which by the way doesn’t contain dates) begins, he is in his mid thirties and deeply involved in what was to become one of his most famous projects. A wealthy couple, the Behrends, have become his patrons and have commissioned him to paint works that will cover the entire interior surfaces of the specially-built chapel at the Hampshire village of Burghclere. The work was to take six years in all, during much of which time Spencer was living in a nearby cottage (also provided by the Behrends) with his painter wife Hilda Carline and their small daughter Shirin. At the start of the novel, with both parents busy, someone is needed to look after the house, and the job goes to young Elsie Munday. Lively and intelligent, Elsie quickly becomes a valued member of the household and, though always in the position of a servant, is soon a confidante and eventually a much needed friend in what proves to be a difficult marriage. One important part of her job is to take Stanley’s lunches to him every day, and thus she becomes familiar with the progress of the paintings and becomes deeply involved in their development. Sometimes Stanley borrows kitchen equipment to include in the scenes – once he even takes some bacon slices, both cooked and uncooked. He has Elsie climbing up ladders and scaffolding to make sure she doesn’t miss any important details of the monumental paintings, which represent everyday scenes from the First World War, with a strong religious slant. Elsie is increasingly bewitched by the way Stanley depicts soldiers going about everyday tasks in the midst of wartime.
The whole Burghclere project was to take Spencer around six years to complete, but he painted other works at the same time, including several portraits of Elsie. Hilda painted her too, and one scene in the novel shows her posing for husband and wife, who are sitting side by side, more or less challenging each other to see whose painting turns out best (Hilda’s did, according to Stanley). At the end of the first part of the book Elsie learns that Stanley has decided to move to his birthplace, Cookham, and though he was to create some of his best-known paintings here, this is where his personal life starts to fall seriously apart. Naturally Elsie is expected to go with the family, but Hilda has become increasingly unhappy in the marriage and soon leaves to return to her family home in London. By this time a second daughter, Unity, has been born but, much to Elsie’s disapproval, Shirin has been sent to live with a close relative and will never return to a home with her birth parents. Elsie thus is faced with a double problem – not only is she living alone with Stanley (much disapproved of in the 1930s) but she also has to watch him as he gets drawn into a wholly destructive relationship with the painter Patricia Preece.
Patricia does not come well out of the novel and it would be hard to put a positive construction on her relationship with Stanley. Knowing him to be besotted with her, she allows him to spend a fortune on clothes, jewellery and accessories for her while still living with her long-time lover, the artist Dorothy Hepworth. She will pose for Stanley naked but won’t sleep with him. Much of this part of the novel is told from Dorothy’s point of view, and it’s clear that, desperate not to lose Patricia, she unwillingly colludes in a scheme which culminates in Stanley handing over the deeds of his house to Patricia. He also divorces Hilda and marries her, something she wishes for because of the wagging tongues in the village, but she refuses to live with him and the marriage remains unconsummated. Dorothy meanwhile is desperately unhappy and jealous. By far the better artist, she signs Patricia’s name to her own paintings and manages to sell them to bring in some much needed extra income. As for Elsie, she decides to withdraw from the unhappy state of affairs and hands in her notice. She marries happily and has two children, and the last we see of her is twenty years later, when she returns to visit Stanley, now in his sixties, and he takes her to see the chapel, whose final paintings were completed after the household left Burghclere.
There’s so much to enjoy in this fascinating novel. Many biographies of Spencer have been written, and his relationship with Patricia has been the subject of at least one play, but here we have an imaginative recreation of the lives of some complicated people told in an entirely fresh and convincing way. I wouldn’t have wished to be without the often painful second half of the novel in which we are witness to Dorothy’s anguish and her attempts to justify Patricia’s inexcusable behaviour, but it is sad to say goodbye to Elsie, whose strong perceptive voice is so excellently conveyed in the first half. Reading this has sent me searching online for Spencer’s paintings – there are many to be seen – as well as those of the talented, tragic Hilda, who never recovered from Stanley’s desertion, though after the debacle with Patricia he became deeply involved with her again. But the real star of this particular show is the wonderful Elsie, whose strength and common sense stand as a brilliant foil to all the goings on around her.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Harriet asked Nicola Upson about this book – read their Q&A here.
Nicola Upson, Stanley and Elsie (Duckworth, 2019). 978-0715653685, 310pp., paperback.BUY from Blackwell’s via our affiliate link.