TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 November 2015
Helen Ashton was a popular 20th century author with 25 novels to her name; she is largely forgotten now. Persephone Books' raison d'etre is to revive interest in such good neglected writers and their work. This, a family novel, is one of the few, apparently, that has an architectural context, the hero, Martin Lovell, and his daughter Stacy, and son-in-law Oliver, all architects working in London in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and we learn a lot incidentally about changing architectural tastes and designs.
The point of view is Martin's. In a Forster-like opening, we find him, a gauche young man, in Florence, where he is expertly nudged into a marriage with innocent, childish, eighteen year old Letty by her mother, Lady Stapleford. They have little in common, she's not his intellectual equal, and it seems we might be in for a tale of marital disunity. But this is in an era when marriages were meant to last and divorce had a stigma, and they learn to rub along together. The novel is a study of their marriage, depicted with a clear and unsentimental eye. At the end of the book Stacy sums it up thus: '"According to modern ideas, he ought to have got tired of her almost at once. She didn't understand one word about the things he liked, she wasn't any help to him in his career, she didn't even make him comfortable at home, and she wasted his money. She was one of those women who neglect their husbands as soon as they've got their children." This is a fair assessment, if a little jaundiced, given by a daughter not much loved by her mother.
It's about a family divided along familiar lines, their son Aubrey is the mother's favourite, spoilt and indolent, their daughter the father's, misunderstood by the mother and treated with unfair strictness. During the forty years or so covered by the action, the family suffers three deaths, not including the most dramatic one on the last page. Despite all these strains, a mix of love, tolerance and convention keep the family together. Ashton does a good job in tracing the outlines of a representative marriage, typical of its time.
Martin is in love with the planning and creation of buildings. He has that to fall back on, something denied to Letty. At the end of his life he admits '"I've had my best moments out of the things I've built. They've meant more to me than Letty, or the children, or myself. Let them be my justification."' He passes this passion onto his daughter, and she points up the contrast between the generations of women: if Letty had found some equal passion, she might have been more fulfilled, less the negative, impatient and wrong-headed woman that she is.
Readers with an architectural interest will probably appreciate the detailed and frequent descriptions of buildings and their historical styles and characteristics more than I did. I felt there was too much of them, as if Ashton couldn't quite resist the temptation to show off her considerable knowledge of the subject. But she does however show how quickly time and fashions and techniques move in such an industry and the human cost of that. By the end, Martin is hopelessly out of date and old-fashioned (the kind of architect one suspects Prince Charles would approve of).
Four stars then: but it's beautifully written, makes a lot out of small domestic dramas, is never sentimental or predictable. If there's a little falling off towards the end, one can forgive that. Definitely worth a Persephone revival.