Review by Harriet
The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side.
I’d only vaguely heard of Janet McNeill before I was offered this 1956 novel for review, but I’m always up for an interesting sounding reprint, so I jumped at it. I’m glad I did because McNeill is an fascinating writer. Born in Dublin in 1907, she lived for most of her adult life in Belfast, where this novel is set. It’s just been republished by Turnpike Books, which is dedicated to reviving the work of forgotten Northern Irish writers. Here’s what its founder, James Doyle, wrote about McNeill in a recent article: ‘Janet McNeill was fascinated by characters, especially women, who have subdued their personalities for decades and live as the roles that have been imposed on them, as a mother, wife or friend’. This certainly applies to Laura, the protagonist of Tea at Four O’Clock. Now in her forties, she has lived for her entire life at Marathon, the grand Belfast house where she grew up. Laura was the middle child of three siblings, sandwiched between her older sister Mildred and her younger brother George. Mildred too has remained at Marathon, but George, feckless and untrustworthy, has not set foot in the house since he was banished twenty years earlier for dodgy dealings within the family linen business.
The novel begins on the day of Mildred’s funeral:
Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone.
So Laura is left on her own in the house, except that she isn’t really alone. Apart from the loyal retainer Hannah, she has the company of the officious Miss Parks, who has managed to work her way in to the household during the last weeks of Mildred’s long illness and is determined to make herself indispensable.
Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so.
Miss Parks, however, is not the only person bent on manipulating Laura. Just as the funeral cortège is leaving the house, Laura’s brother George turns up. George – who has married below him, as they say – is living in a much poorer part of town, in a small cramped house, with his wife Amy and their teenage daughter. Laura is delighted to see him after so many years of estrangement, and quickly forms a plan of moving out of Marathon, which holds so any unhappy memories, and taking up residence with George and his family. However, in a misunderstanding which would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic, George is equally fixated on moving in with Laura. Innocent and trusting, she has no idea of his ulterior motives. Then there’s the old family lawyer, Mr McAllister, who is offering Laura support and comfort, but who proves to have motives of his own.
Gradually, through the course of the novel, Laura’s back story is revealed. We learn quite early on that she had fallen in love with Tom. a fellow art college pupil, who emigrated to America where he married and produced a son, also an artist. We also know that Laura had a serious nervous breakdown in her twenties, shortly after her father’s death. But the connection between these events is not revealed until near the end of the novel.
Tea at Four O’Clock is not the most cheerful story – indeed I’d go as far as to say that it is desperately sad. Laura’s life has been effectively ruined, her early talents dashed, by the pressure of selfish and demanding family members. She has no confidence and no idea what she is going to do with herself now she no longer has Mildred to care for.
During Mildred’s illness the hour after lunch had always been treasured, an oasis, a withdrawal into herself, a renewal of courage while the invalid rested. Now the necessity of idleness confronted Laura and became a weight, a terror. What was there for her to do? She glanced through the newspaper, reading the words, but understanding little of what she read. At last, in an agony of loneliness she went down the passageway into the kitchen.
I found myself hoping against hope that something good would happen for Laura but fate, circumstances and her own insecurity seem to be against her. However, late on, she does at least manage to see through some of the people who are trying to take advantage of her. And a huge revelation of something Mildred did decades ago, which has had a huge and malign influence on Laura’s state of mind, promises that perhaps in the future she can learn to come out of her shell and start to enjoy life.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Janet McNeill, Tea at Four O’Clock (Turnpike Books, 2019). 978-0993591389, 110pp, paperback original.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)