The Small Widow by Janet McNeill

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Reviewed by Simon

Janet McNeill is a name probably known only to aficionados of Virago Modern Classics, where Tea at Four O’Clock once made an appearance. I have to confess to not having read that, but it was enough for me to be keen to investigate Turnpike Books’ offering on behalf of Shiny New Books: her 1967 novel The Small Widow.

The widow is a character usually overlooked in fiction – certainly if that widow is advanced in years and not very likely to remarry. A quick mental scan brings up only Vita Sackville-West’s brilliant All Passion Spent (which bears more than a small similarity to McNeill’s novel).

Things start at Harold’s funeral; Julia has her adult children around her (who are mostly fairly exasperating, in different ways) and is preparing. This scene also gives a hunt of the tone which McNeill often uses – a dry humour that still permits emotional resonance:

Her wardrobe, when she ruffled through it, seemed only to offer her clothes for an all-the-year-round garden party. But she had found at the back a discreet hat and coat of midnight blue that seemed in a woolly way to express a certain hope of the resurrection.

As with Lady Slane in All Passion Spent, Julia has to negotiate the new role that life holds for her now – against the backdrop of her children. They come to her to take her milk, or phone her to complain about how difficult it is to raise children, but they do not understand how her life must change. To them, she is still a mother; she must cope with no longer being a wife. Which brings about poignant moments like this:

And then, mercifully, a sore throat and a shivering body, and the doctor seated beside her on the bed, holding her wrist. She had enjoyed that, his solidity, the smell of the stuff of his suit, his weight altering her balance in the bed. This is one of the things you miss in widowhood, the casual acquaintance with another human body, not related in any way to passion but just the liberty of touching, being touched, of closeness and distance and their variations, the visible echo and evidence of your own presence.

McNeill writes with delicacy and subtlety, alongside the humour – more than one reviewer has compared her to Elizabeth Taylor. While she does not reach Taylor’s heights (nor Sackville-West’s), she is undoubtedly a proficient novelist deserving of this reintroduction to the limelight.

There is an added complexity to the plot that Harold, when he died, was not with Julia but with family friend Madge – a woman who has her own secrets. Which is not to say that The Small Widow is a sensational novel, it is far from it, but there are moments of realisation and confession that add momentum to the simplicity of the plot. Indeed, the gist of the novel is more or universal: grief. Or the lack of it:

“I don’t feel anything,” she said, “not anything at all. It isn’t that I’m trying not to. I want to feel something, even though Harold mightn’t have wished me to. But I just go on in an empty muddled kind of way, getting impatient because I’m always waiting for some piercing grief that doesn’t come. I mean I don’t suppose this is all there is to it, it couldn’t be, could it?”

One of the most moving and unusual scenes is when Julia first ventures out, trying to be normal; her day of shopping goes awry in a way that is emotionally realistic and narratively probable, but still very unsettling. This is the line McNeill constantly treads. In weaker moments, the novel feels almost too believable; it fades into insignificance, simply describing events rather than emotions and thoughts. At its finest moments, though, The Small Widow is a very successful psychological study of a neglected figure in society.

And to finish off, Turnpike Books might be new to some of you – here’s what they have to say about themselves:

Turnpike Books was founded to publish new editions of a series of books that will build into a history of Northern Ireland’s twentieth-century literature, and a parallel series of the major English short story writers.

Turnpike Books is based on the hope that if a writer has something of value to say then that is reason enough to publish their work.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Janet McNeill, The Small Widow (Turnpike Books, 2014) 978-0957233652, paperback, 221pp.

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