‘Vain Shadow’ was Jane Hervey’s first novel; written in the 1950s but put away and not published until 1963, and now reissued as a Persephone book.
It tells a very simple story; the story of an English family in the middle of the twentieth century, the kind of family that had a country house, a small staff, tenants on its estate, over the four days between the death and the funeral of its patriarch.
It’s simple, but it is special because it is so very well executed.
There are just four chapters – one for each of those four days – observing the widow, the adult children, and the one adult grandchild – daughter of a daughter who had died – and their spouses as they do the things that must be done in that particular period, and begin to come to terms with what the death will mean.
The bereaved family is more concerned with that than with grief for the dead Colonel Winthorpe. When his nurse, preparing to take her leave, stops to rest on ‘his’ chair they react to that as an inappropriate act without the slightest emotional reaction to the fact that he will never sit there again. The picture that they paint of him is the picture of a tyrant, a man who bends his family to his will, and takes pleasure in doing so.
This is not a happy family; it’s a family that has walked through life as it walks through these four days; following the rituals, observing the proprieties, but never sharing their feelings and never ever talking about the things that really matter.
It was interesting to observe that his staff and his tenants felt the loss much more, and dealt with the things that they knew should be done so much better that the family. They gave willingly to a collection for a wreath; and the time that they came to the house, to walk past the coffin and to pay their respects was the most moving in the whole story.
It also gave more depth to the picture that Jane Hervey painted of the family.
She is an incredibly perceptive writer; drawing each character, and each relationship, clearly, distinctively and believably. She is particularly good at sibling rivalries, and the position of those who have married into the family. And she has a wonderful eye – and ear – for a telling detail. The son sending back his breakfast egg, because it is not exactly how he likes it. The widow’s repeated murmur that now she could have the peach bathroom she had always wanted. The housekeeper sailing off erect on her bike, to tell that tenants on the estate everything that they needed to know. Choice possessions being shared out to save a little on death duties.
She moved skilfully between each and every member of the family, missing nothing of any importance. Even more skilfully, she moves between observation of the characters and their individual streams of consciousness, and she makes it feel entirely natural and right.
The widow and the granddaughter were at the centre of the story. One felt her life was over, that it was too late for her to change. The other felt that she had to make a change, that it was time for her to live that life that she wanted.
There were times I might have laughed and there were times I might have cried, but I did neither. Because Jane Hervey walked the line between those two things so very, very well, and because this story, this family, this situation, felt so horribly, utterly real.
I read that this story is – at least in part – drawn from life, and I don’t doubt that for a moment.
It’s not an easy book to love, but it is a very fine piece of writing, it is utterly compelling, and it has left words and images in my head.
I hope – and I think I believe – that Jane Hervey was the young woman who saw a chance to change her life, and I hope she seized that chance.