The Upstairs People by Jennifer Dawson

Jennifer Dawson is one of those rare authors who has had both old work and new work published in Virago green. Her 1961, James Tait Black prize-winning, debut novel, ‘The Ha Ha’ was revived as a Virago Modern Classic, and two later novels, ‘Judasland’ and ‘The Upstairs People were published as Virago New Fiction in the 1980s.

I spotted ‘The Upstairs People’ in a charity shop because the spine was a very familiar shade of green, a shade that always, always catches my eye. The author’s name was familiar, the words printed on the back cover were intriguing, and so I brought the book home. And now I am very glad I did, because it is a little gem.

It tells the story of Cossey, a mother who is so eager to please her children, so eager to teach them, so eager that they will not suffer as she did.

“Ransome Street ran off Ransome’s Fields at a right angle, and when we asked Cossey, our mother, what Ransome meant, she said: ‘Something like this,’ and jumped up and down violently on the bed and laughed and bounced more. Our mother loved violent motion. She said her parents had never given her any love when she was a child, and when a fair came to Ransome’s Fields she was always first on the Big Dipper and the Chairoplanes, and was tipped upside-down laughing. She had a taste for it and was never as sick as we children were …”

But maybe Cossey was too eager; maybe Cossey was damaged.

Her story is told by her middle child, Alma, and her childish perspective, her clear-sightedness, suits that story perfectly.

05fcc8150f24edb5939554f5551444341587343She recalls Cossey’s stories, stories of her strict upbringing and of the coming of the Great War, picking out such telling details and painting in such vivid colours, making them utterly compelling. And she recalls the life that the led, in London, between the wars.

War was Cossey’s greatest fear, and war came again. It took away her husband, the man who had saved her from her terrible childhood, the man who kept the family on an even keel, and things fell apart. She dragged her family from pillar to post, trying to keep them together trying to keep them safe.

But maybe she tried too hard; maybe she was too single-minded.

One child tried pulled too hard and one clung too hard. They were both punished, and it was the middle child, the child who had the wisdom to simply watch and listen, who prevailed.

This is a very dark story, and a very difficult story to try to explain.

It speaks profoundly of the damage that families can do, the damage that war can do, and, most of all, of the damage that a damaged mind can do. The first part of the story is most effective, with the children aware that something is wrong but not at all sure what, or what they could do; the latter part of the story drives the point home, but it is a little too chaotic. Though there are moments of utter clarity, that shine all the more against that chaos.

But what makes the story sing is the quality of the writing. Jennifer Dawson had an idiosyncratic way with worlds, a distinctive view of the world, and it suited this story perfectly.

She understood Cossey, and she understood the consequences of what she was and what she did.

And along the way Jennifer Dawson made me think of a number of other Virago authors: Molly Keane, Ursula Holden, and, most of all,  Barbara Comyns.  A distinguished company, but this book alone has me thinking that Jennifer Dawson belongs there.

And now I’m very curious to read more of her work …

5 responses

  1. This is just the sort of book I would be thrilled to find. I’ve never heard of this author before so thanks for highlighting her work. And sometimes only a dark book will do…

    • I’m sure you would have pounced on an unknown name with a spine in that particular shade of green too, Darlene. This is darker than I thought, but for good reasons and the evocation of the period is wonderful.

  2. Thank you for your great review of The Upstairs People, Fleur! If you would like to read more work by Jennifer Dawson, do visit the website celebrating her work – where you can find out more about her life and work and read her short story “Hospital Wedding”. We are delighted that her best known novel, The Ha-Ha was republished in 2013 in paperback and as an ebook by Valancourt Books. Do tell us what you think of the website too – We’re still building it.

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