Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

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Reviewed by Anna Barber

Now they would be able to afford a big house, a swimming pool, maids, a car….“I hope he didn’t have any pain,” she said.

In Vain Shadow, Jane Hervey’s only published novel, she tells the story of the Winthorpe family trying to cope in the four days following the death of their patriarch, Colonel Winthorpe. The Colonel’s widow, his three sons, granddaughter and their various spouses assemble at the family home in Derbyshire to plan the funeral and to divvy up his assets. In the most repressed, British way possible the family enact their small domestic drama – rather like the characters in a claustrophobic drawing room play – all getting on one another’s nerves and acting for the most part entirely selfishly. Really, there aren’t many writers I can think of who have skewered a family with such a carefully balanced combination of pathos, affection, ruthlessness, and comedy.

On the face of it, there is not a great deal to like about the Colonel’s three sons – each priggish and self-interested in his own way, they rule over their womenfolk with a firm hand, squabble about who has first dibs over The Times, and constantly try to out-manoeuvre one another with their administrative prowess. There are strained arguments about whether their father should be buried or cremated; badly boiled eggs; and how best to smuggle their father’s body out of the house without their mother seeing. They are hardly grieving – certainly not overtly – and by threading the characters’ internal monologues through the story, Hervey remorselessly shows how petty we can all be, even at times of profound loss.

And yet: in this carefully wrought tapestry of a novel, in which the characters are expertly dissected with a writer’s scalpel, Hervey manages to interlace moments of profound feeling and comedy. The three brothers experience moments of sudden, deep grief, and none of them can think for too long about the fact that the Colonel was alone when he died:

“I don’t think so. After all, he was unconscious.”
“But mightn’t he have…?”
“No, Joanna.”
It was a protest, rather than an assurance: a protest for both of them against the vision of an old man looking out in vain into the darkness for one last glimpse of a known face before the darkness finally took him.

Then, partly fuelled by the constant friction between them, there are the moments of quiet humour:

“Still, if you want to do it, do it. Only in my opinion, it’s not necessary for anyone to go round in person. Why not thank them in person this afternoon, when they come to the private view?”
“Well….yes….possibly…” What an extraordinary expression to use! Jack thought. Almost as if Father were at the Royal Academy. When’s varnishing day?

It reminded me in may ways of the Wilcox family in Howard’s End – where again, the men’s own peculiar kind of British priggishness gives rise to wonderful little comedic vignettes: ‘He did not kiss her, for the hour was half past twelve, and the car was passing by the stables of Buckingham Palace’. It’s done so fondly that you feel as though Hervey is laughing with the characters rather than at them – she doesn’t pull her punches in revealing their flaws, but neither does she make them hateful.

The endpapers

The granddaughter, Joanna, is the heroine of the piece, and breathes some welcome warmth into the story. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with the reptilian Tony (who oozes his way through the family gathering with repellent ease, persuading the uncles that he is a perfect husband whilst quietly dismantling his wife’s confidence), she oscillates between grief for the grandfather she loved and feared in equal measure, and a longing to extricate herself from her miserable relationship. She is, in that way, the feminist epicentre of a very gendered story. It is so easy to forget how recently English women won autonomy – Jane Hervey wrote Vain Shadow in the early 1950s, yet none of the women have any control over their lives: they are allowed to drive the car; have children; and inherit assets only when permitted to do so by their husbands or guardians. The uncles spend a considerable amount of time trying to tie Joanna to Tony in every way possible – primarily to avoid the scandal of a divorce, even though she is evidently unhappy. And Colonel Winthorpe’s widow is a living example of the effects a lifetime’s servitude can have on the human spirit – her independent will has been completely broken by her overbearing husband, and though she can occasionally remember the ghost of their youthful love, all she can really think of now is the peach bathroom she will probably always be denied – first by her husband, and now by her sons. I was absolutely rooting for Joanna by the end, desperate for her to break out of the claustrophobic cycle of abuse and reclaim her youth and happiness – not just for her own sake, but also as a symbol for a generation of women. Celia Robertson’s introduction notes that this is apparently a heavily autobiographical story, which only adds to the sense of urgency.

I very much enjoyed this honest, warts-and-all depiction of a complicated family and the way they cope with their loss. Their idiosyncrasies are amplified at times, but I think a lot of readers would find it all too recognizable, particularly at the beginning – because really, one of the strange oddities of funerals is that they are so often as much about lists, egg sandwiches, and organising transportation as they are about having the space to grieve. For a novel which emanates from a death, it is full of life, and hope – occasionally stifled, but never extinguished – and I would certainly recommend it as being yet another beautifully constructed treasure in the Persephone collection.

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Anna Barber blogs at My Art is Living.

Jane Hervey, Vain Shadow (Persephone Books: London, 2015). 978-1910263020, 234pp., paperback.

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