There Were No Windows (1944) is based on the last months in the life of the writer Violet Hunt ; with insight, humour and startling originality Norah Hoult shows the effect on the once-glamorous Claire Temple of the inexorable deterioration of her memory
The book is constructed in three acts: in Inside the House we see Claire at home in her house, South Lodge at what was 80 Campden Hill Road in Kensington, looked after by her cook and daily help; Norah Hoult recreates her vision of the world through very, very funny and most subtly-observed stream of consciousness, and through the reactions of the two other women. In Outside the House Claire has visitors, including her old friend Edith Barlow (carefully explaining to her that her oldest friend, Edith Barlow, comes every second Sunday to lunch), her former secretary Mrs Berkeley, and another friend, Francis Maitland. It is their admirable determination to be kind, mixed with their all-too human exasperation at the way Claire, so polite and normal in so many ways but so maddening in others, makes them want to scream, that is the funniest part of the book. Finally, in The Dark Night of the Imagination, Miss Jones accepts the post of companion. Mrs Temple is a rather difficult person to deal with, she is told. She has been a brilliant woman. In her day. She wrote, entertained a good deal, and so on. However, she says the same things over and over again. Many people find it tiresome'
Throughout all this Claire wanders, lost and lonely, round her house, surrounded by momentoes of the past, trying to behave as though she were still the Claire Temple, but all the time only too horribly aware that she is losing her memory. Occasionally she goes out into Kensington High Street in her bedroom slippers or up to the police station in Ladbroke Grove or encounters an air-raid warden; he is initially kind to her but, in the end, exasperated. This is the nub of the book and why it is so unusual: we empathise with every character in the book (except perhaps the cook, whose behaviour is sometimes close to cruelty). People try to be good to Claire. She makes it difficult for them through no fault of her own. And even though it is no fault of her own they find her maddening: we feel for them, and we feel for her.
As Julia Briggs observes in her Preface, There Were No Windows takes its title from the ultimate terror of old age to be left alone in the dark, and to be shut in upon yourself. She also reveals that Norah Hoult based her novel on truth: she was a friend of Violet Hunt and used to walk over from her flat in Bayswater to the house on Campden Hill. Many of the details about Violets last months came from a book by Douglas Goldring that he wrote about her just after she died. In this he confirms that Violet/ Claire had indeed been proposed to by Oscar Wilde and that her liaison with Ford Madox Ford (Wallace in the novel) was one of the great scandals of the time. Violet and Ford were well-known figures in the London literary world during the first two decades of the C20th, but were notoriously prevented from marrying by Fords first wife (some have surmised that Violet was the original for Florence in his greatest book, The Good Soldier). Violets most successful novel was White Rose of Weary Leaf (1908), Weary Leaf in There Were No Windows, and twice she asks Francis Maitland: "Are you publishing anything? I do wish you could get me into one of those sixpenny paper editions. Dont you think Weary Leaf might be suitable?" Mr Maitland, feeling irritation surge up, checked it by taking another sip of wine.
This is the only book we know, apart from Iris about Iris Murdoch (and arguably this book is more humorous and more profound) that is so true and perceptive about memory loss and about the relationship between those who are in poor mental health and those who are in a good state (after all, Norah Hoult is asking, who is the Fool and who is the King? Who is sane and who is insane?) It is also an incredibly funny book, indeed we are tempted to call it a black comedy. The reader is often reminded that Norah Hoult, an Irish writer living in England, was a kinswoman of Joyce and Beckett. However, There Were No Windows is not in any sense difficult. And, as Julia Briggs comments: Much of this novels power derives from its unflinching representation of old age. [But] its clear-sightedness is redeemed by its generosity, understanding and insight. Norah Hoult transforms her dark materials into a powerful, rich and evocative fiction. Her novel is profound and witty; it is a unique tour de force.