21 January 2020

After the Party by Cressida Connolly

One of my favourite reads of 2018 was The Rare and the Beautiful.  A non-fiction book about the Garman sisters and their relationships with members of the artsy elite between the wars in London is fantastic.  When I found out that Connolly had a new fiction novel coming out I was interested to see if it would measure up.  Once again the focus is on sisters.

With dual timelines of 1938 and 1979, After the Party tells the story of Phyllis Forrester, her family and the events leading up to her incarceration at Holloway prison.  Unlike the usual path for most inmates, no charges or trial preceded her imprisonment.  A knock at the door followed by police rifling through cupboards and then a hurried push into a police car.  She's horrified to learn that her husband has been hiding a gun in the house.  Both Phyllis and Hugh have been identified as active members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. 

After living in Belgium for several years while Hugh worked for British Rubber, the Forresters and their three children have moved back to Sussex.  Both of Phyllis's sisters have offered to house the family while they look for a new home.  Patricia is a middle-class snob, consumed by appearances and etiquette, whereas Nina is carefree but extremely busy running a camp.  In actuality, it is a camp for Party members.  During the summer it is portrayed as an outlet for summer fun but older children are given pamphlets to hand out while wearing Cadet uniforms.  It's all dressed up as jolly good family fun but the message is clearly the promotion of Fascist ideals.

One of my favourite things about the book is how authentic the restraint of certain characters comes across.  Which is not to say there is a lack of outbursts.  When Phyllis is certain about a dalliance between her husband and someone close to her, but bears it in silence, that sense of a stiff upper lip is portrayed brilliantly.  Many times, when the family is together, it is what's left unsaid that creates the most atmosphere.  And class, status, and labels are everywhere.  A slash of red lipstick on someone considered ever so slightly too young is enough to bring out the smelling salts. 

The more I read, the more it seemed that Phyllis was on the outside looking in.  Except with Jamie, a childhood friend from a working class family.  Playful visits were begrudgingly allowed but he was never going to be appropriate as anything more.   

The combination of sisters, familial conflict, and living in the countryside during World War II reminded me of The Cazalet Chronicles.  I didn't quite feel as though I was sitting in the midst of the room as I did with Elizabeth Jane Howard's sublime novels, but I did enjoy being back in an atmosphere reminiscent of it.  The subject of Mosley, and the inescapable connection with the Mitfords, has piqued my interest enough to do a bit more reading.  That biography on Diana that I found in a church book sale should do the trick.

There are a couple of ways to interpret the title.  After the party might refer to changes in Phyllis's life as a direct result of being involved in Mosley's politics, or a tragic event following a misunderstood encounter at an exclusive gathering.  Either way, I like that the interpretation is yours to decide.

   Oswald Mosley with members of the British Union of Fascists