There are a great many books sitting on my Virago bookcase, double-banked because shelf space is desperately lacking, and so it if horribly easy for ‘one Virago’ authors to get lost behind the authors who had a few or a great many titles reissued.
Janet McNeill is one such ‘one Virago’ author, and I always liked the look of ‘Tea at Four O’Clock, I always meant to read it, but I lost sight of it only to remember when I saw another book, reissued by another publishing house, sitting on a shelf in the library.
I picked it up.
The story opens when Julia has just become a widow; at the funeral of Harold, her husband of thirty-two years. She is following the steps that she knows that she must follow, but she isn’t quite sure that she is acting as she should, feeling as she should.
Julia had been happy to be cast as wife and mother, but suddenly she had to learn to play a new role that she hadn’t expected or wanted. Her husband was gone, her children were grown, and there was nothing to fill the space that was left.
Janet McNeill captures her situation beautifully, understanding the subtle changes in Julia’s different relationships with children, friends, and other family members; and appreciating that there would be missteps and frustrations as the new widow tried to come to terms with her new life.
She reminded me of something that my mother said to me not long after she was widowed. She said that many people were – or tried to be – kind – but that the only people who understood were those who were widows too.
Her writing has subtlety, clarity and just a little dry wit.
“Julia knew by this time that her conduct wouldn’t in any way measure the extent of her grief. She hadn’t been able to measure it herself. She had tried. She thought about death deliberately, trying to assess it. She thought about her own death. She thought about the new carpet in the dining-room; the salesman said it would give her fifteen years. It was disconcerting to compete with a carpet.”
A wealth of different characters around Julia help to illuminate her story: there is a daughter-in-law whose concern, whose anxiety to do the right thing, becomes cloying; there is a friend who is so grateful for help when she has to chose an outfit for a special occasion; there is a son who is nearby, whose new relationship Julia is pleased to see, though she cannot help but feel a little jealous of the closeness they have; and then there is Madge, the old family friend who was with Harold when he died and whose behaviour is a little strange ….
That creates a certain amount of drama, but ultimately the ‘The Small Widow’ is a quiet book, following Julia’s life though a momentous year and speaking profoundly of the changes and the realisations that year brought.
“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?”
Its hold on me grew steadily as the story progressed.
The back cover of this novel suggests that Janet McNeill should be considered alongside “Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and, more particularly, Elizabeth Taylor.” I have to say that I’m not entirely convinced; and that there were times when the wring felt clumsy and the story felt rather mundane.
But I can say that she does what she does very well, and she does one thing better than any of them. She catches the difficult moments that Julia would rather forget and the emotions that she would rather not acknowledge. That makes her writing feel both honest and real.
She may never be a particular favourite but I’ll happily read Janet McNeill again.
And I must check my shelves for more of those ‘one Virago’ authors ….