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Faction or fiction?
on 9 February 2012
By the time I got about half way through this I started to suspect that Forster might be about to do a Memoirs of a Geisha and I was spot on. I should have noted this book is categorised as fiction...
Despite finding Millicent a rather unpleasant pretentious child, who thought more of herself and her abilities than anyone around her, I thought that the transition of the character into womanhood, albeit a cold young woman, was done very well. However, there were many parts of the book that just didn't feel right. In many respects her life was too good to be true: her class and her independent wealth were too convenient. Forster seemed to avoid the challenge of writing a truely ordinary woman's life and instead settled for a rather priveleged life, nestled in the environs of Primrose Hill.
The first major relationships of Millicent's life run in paralell, one of platonic love and the other of loveless passion. However, many women of the age would have had to be far more pragmatic in order to leave the family home. I found it deeply frustrating after the final 'reveal' that the tool Forster uses to skip the really difficult emotional bits of Millicent's life - having her character not record these events in her diary because she's so traumatised. I think it was meant to work as a plot device but it felt lazy to me. I'd also question whether it's at all feasible that a single woman working as a social worker in 30s London having an affair with her married senior wouldn't have been sacked or moved to another authority, rather than just raising a few eyebrows. Life wasn't that permissable. Millicent is portrayed as upper middle class, but she didn't have the freedom of the aristocracy. Women had barely just got the vote and sexual liberation was another World War and 40 years away.
I also felt that using the war to create an unexplained back story for Grace, was a cheap subplot, and the author's 'commentary' which confirmed that Millicent never got to the bottom of this left me feeling cheated. I know that a realistic first person narrative should have holes in it, but it didn't work for me and Greenham Common Connie didn't even resemble a real person, but a sketch of opinions and preconceived ideas in need of a good edit.
This book marketed itself as the story of an 'ordinary' woman, but it's not ordinary at all, and that's not to reject the oft true cliche that all of us leading humdrum lives are fascinating in our own way: this story simply wasn't credible. There was too much Tragedy and grand coincidence lacing the fictionalised missing diary entries together. All of the men Millicent care for go to war and have the most horrendous experiences, either dying or suffering terribly. Such events have been shoehorned into the diaries as historical reference points for her life passing, but it wasn't at all subtle. I think that in contrast most 'ordinary' lives are peppered with small, unexceptional tragedies.