This was such a fortunate discovery.
I was looking up another Faber Finds author when the name ‘Frances Vernon’ and some interesting book titles caught my eye. I read that she won the Author’s Club Award for Best First Novel in 1982, with a book that she wrote when she was just seventeen years-old; and that she wrote five more novels that were very well received before her tragically early death, a little less than ten years later.
Now that I have read that first novel, ‘Privileged Children’, I am captivated. To make such a debut, at such a young age, was extraordinary, and I am quite sure that had she lived, had she continued to write, her new books would be anticipated as we anticipate new works by writers like Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters ….
I’m maybe being a little reckless, saying that after reading just one book, a book that isn’t a mature work, a book that is a little gauche, but there is something about it, something I can’t quite explain, that says to me that Frances Vernon was a very special author.
The story opens in London, in Bloomsbury, in the spring of 1909. A child was struggling home with two heavy baskets of shopping. It was clear that her family had fallen on hard times, that the child knew that she had to play her part in the household. And then more became clear. Alice’s mother was a high class prostitute; the household was supported by wealthy men who supported Diana with the understanding that she would be available and she would be discreet.
Diana had seen no other way to keep her home and her child when her husband died, and she hoped that what she did would give Alice the chance of a better life. She wanted Alice to know that women could be strong and capable; the wanted Alice to be able to achieve her ambition, to become an artist.
That was a very fine start to a novel; it was beautifully written, it was perfectly paced; and I wanted to say that this is wrong but I had to concede that Diana was doing the best that she could, and that she was doing it for the best of reasons.
It was a very clever piece of writing.
Diana died of tuberculosis when Alice was just fourteen years-old, and Alice was sent to live in the country with a distant relation. She hated it, she wanted to get back to her mother’s bohemian circle of friends in London, and she succeeded. Because Alice hadn’t learned more from Diana than she had been taught. She had learned to manipulate people, and she had learned to use her sexuality to her own advantage.
Alice established herself in a bohemian household, she took up painting and she sailed through life, quite oblivious to conventions like fidelity in marriage and involvement in raising her children. She was a little like Margery Sharp’s Martha, though she was a very different woman in a very different age. I couldn’t say that I liked her, but I was fascinated by her, and I have to acknowledge that she was consistent, that she lived by her own rules.
She taught her children to live the same way.
Frances Vernon caught the age and its concerns, and the artists and writers in Alice’s household, quite beautifully.
The pace is brisk and the dialogue is straightforward – what must have been long debates summarised in a few exchanges, but it works. There’s a wonderful clarity and colour in the writing, and the storytelling is lovely.
The introduction of a schoolgirl, who has run away from boarding school to become an artist, who Alice takes in, gives structure and direction to the latter part of the story, illuminating characters and relationships, and eventually bringing the story full circle.
That’s more clever writing, and it’s so very engaging.
I believed in all of the people; I believed in everything that happened.
The theme, that years many pass, that the world many change, but that people will always be the product of their past and their upbringing was woven in very well.
Frances Vernon would have sat very well in the Virago Modern Classics list, and I suspect that she might have read a few of those green books when she was very young and they were very new. She was born just three months before me, we would have been in the same school year, and I am quite sure that we would have read and many of the same books.
I was sorry when this book was over; but now I have five more novels by Frances Vernon to find.