Retro Reads: The Village by Marghanita Laski
On May 7, 1945 the BBC in London interrupted its scheduled programme with a newsflash. The war in Europe was over. The following day would be a national holiday. The celebrations which swept through the country on VE-Day are well documented — the celebrating crowds, the dancing, the street parties, the bonfires, the flags and bunting, the relief and thanksgiving that the darkest hours of suffering and danger were over.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation at 3pm on that day and gave an impromptu speech to cheering crowds in central London. Later that evening King George VI made his wireless address to the people.
This is the point at which we meet the residents of Priory Dean, a rural community twenty miles from London and the setting of Marghanita Laski’s novel, The Village, which was published in 1952.
Spoiler alerts: This article refers extensively to plot points in the novel.
The opening chapter perfectly encapsulates the themes of this absorbing, sometimes uncomfortably sharp depiction of a society on the cusp of change.
We are introduced to two women, Wendy Trevor, married to an army major, who lives in the posh area of Priory Hill, and Edith Wilson, married to a van driver, who lives in needs-no-explanation Station Road. Wendy’s daughter Margaret and Edith’s son Roy have always been got on well. You can see where this might go, can’t you?
Wendy and Edith listen to The King’s Speech, then join everyone revelling in the streets which have been dark for the past six years. But something impels them each individually to slip away from the party, put on their Red Cross uniforms, and go to the Village Hall where they have spent one night every week for the duration of the war. No need to go there tonight, of course — it’s all over. But as the women say, you never know, there might be a final raid, just for spite.
Perhaps because it’s the last time that the two of them will meet in these circumstances, they talk at length, enjoying the warmth and companionship and the intimate atmosphere which leads them to speak openly about their children. Each shares her experience of losing a baby. For the first and last time, they embrace and kiss each other when they leave the hall, and go to their homes, separate in so many ways.
The war has acted as an equaliser, not eliminating class divisions, but masking them for the time being. The description of how Wendy and Edith wear their headscarves illustrates this beautifully. Wendy’s is knotted under the chin, a style favoured by the middle and upper classes (hers would probably be Hermes if she could afford it), while Edith’s is worn as a turban, a style associated with working-class women and nowadays charmingly modelled by YouTube influencers. But when they put on their smart little Red Cross caps, they are equal — for the moment. They can overlook the fact that Wendy is a cut above and Edith is her daily housekeeper, and that this relationship should define the limits of any interaction between their families.
So when their children Margaret Trevor and Roy Wilson fall for each other and want to get married, we might expect a less than enthusiastic response from Wendy.
What is surprising is the vehemence of her objections to the match between a stalwart, good-hearted girl with an uncertain future and a reliable, kind young man, with a steady job in the prestigious and well-paid printing industry, and a house lined up in the village for him and Margaret.
Consumed by sheer snobbery and petty-mindedness, she tells the pair that they will be a social embarrassment if they continue to live in the village as they plan. She applies so much pressure that happy couple go to Tilbury Docks straight after the wedding reception and sail off to start a new life in Australia, where, as Roy’s sister sarcastically remarks, there will be no one to know he’s no better than dirt.
Roy Wilson agrees to emigrate, although he thinks that people like the Trevors have had their day, and that the future of England belongs to people like him.
He may be expressing the hope of the book’s author, Marghanita Laski, who was a vigorous left-wing writer and intellectual. Two months into the story, a Labour government is elected, to the dismay of those in the village who hoped to see ‘Mr Churchill unassailably established in the seat of power’ and who scoffed at the idea of ‘nationalised medicine’.
Priory Dean is earmarked as an area for industrial development. Prefabs and a housing estate are built, spacious, well-built houses designed to be suitable for the whole of society. Some of the villagers view the prefabs and say they are really lovely inside with modern conveniences and everything fitted. Comfort and prosperity do seem to be within the reach of ordinary people, while the so-called gentry struggle to maintain and heat their grand houses.
The landscape and demographics of Priory Dean are changing, and the village has to adjust to the post-war new normal, as the old class divisions and social barriers are shaken up.
The Priory Hill lot are on the way down, no longer able to command deference simply because of their position, and the tradespeople and labourers from the other end of town are seen to be doing quite nicely thank you, and spending lots of money which supports local businesses.
Miss Moodie, the local draper, surprises everyone by selling her shop and buying a significant local house in Priory Hill. However, this isn’t a vulgar-tradesperson-getting-above-themselves story. Miss Moodie is revealed as coming from an old village family and having innate gentility, as illustrated by her new uniform of good tweeds and her impeccable taste in furniture — ‘A Few Good Pieces’ — which she has inherited, as opposed to the ‘elaborately veneered walnut that most of the tradespeople bought’. Oh yes, class is alive and kicking, but its contours have shifted.
The Village is studded with characters who could sustain their own stories. I had high hopes that the newly arrived Americans, the Wetheralls, would shake things up a bit, with their comfortable lifestyle, thick carpets, radiogram and the courage to serve peaches with sausages.
The Wetheralls are rather used as a mouthpiece for observations about social attitudes, with Mr W showing a surprisingly astute grasp of the nature of class distinction. He points out to his wife that money doesn’t bring class superiority, and he counters her complaints about the snobbish social hierarchy in the village by comparing it with racial discrimination in their own country. Such a shame that they fade away from village social life, preferring the Rolls-Royce and swimming pool ambience of the Bentworth Country Club and going out to dinner in London restaurants.
The wife of the new rector is promising. She defies local expectations of what a vicar’s wife should be, taking her baby out in the pram with no hat, bare legs and the child less than dainty, whatever that means. And she used to work in a London County Council school. But we don’t see much of her.
Margaret Wilson’s old schoolmate Jill is a good friend at first, then turns out to be rather unpleasant. She’s an ambitious girl who has landed a job on a magazine in London, and aspires to work on Vogue.
She suggests that Margaret enrol on a secretarial course in London and share her digs in Hampstead. This sounds like the outline of a sparky sitcom set at least fifteen years later, an impression strengthened when Jill gets a boyfriend who is ‘an intellectual, a witty, ironical copywriter’. Can’t you just see him, in his black polo-necked sweater, maybe smoking a pipe? He’s at least a decade before his time! But Jill disappoints when she is astounded by Margaret’s intention to marry ‘the son of the woman who used to be your mother’s char’, and suggests that Margaret just have an affair with him instead.
Top of the tree in the village is Miss Evadne Graham, who lives in the top house, The Hall. She is an intriguing mixture, old school yet modern, class-conscious yet kind. Her love of poetry and modern verse in particular is thought to be odd, and her defence of a poem with lines about dry bones in a desert convinces people that she must be having a laugh — what a sport. Still, the villagers wouldn’t have been alone in their disparagement of T S. Eliot.
Miss Graham is another character who would sit easily in a later context, perhaps even the present day. Posh, cultured, influential, humane, you could see her dressed in something stylishly Scandi, with a taste for obscure verse or something like Japanese film… And her name. Evadne. Quite splendid. Time for a revival, no?