Before the War by Fay Weldon (Historical Novel, 2016/2017).
This bitingly satirical romp of a novel details a wildly dysfunctional English family’s misadventures from 1922 up to the day in the autumn of 1939 when the slow simmering background tensions in Europe finally boil over in open war with Hitler’s Germany. There’s plenty of fine period detail here, flawlessly interwoven with rampant luxury and thoughtless snobbishness, social and political hypocrisy aplenty, and multiple betrayals (mostly of a sexual nature). Along the way, Weldon also boldly “breaks the fourth wall” (as it’s referred to in stage- and screen-writing circles) by addressing the reader directly, commenting freely (and with her trademark wit) on both her role as the author and on the trials, tribulations and ultimate fates of her fictional characters.
The latter is at once a risky step that she carries off with self-referential elan and which adds to the sarcastically blatant fun. Yet it’s also something she gets away from in the book’s later stages. Surely this wasn’t mere inattention on her parts? Did the frequently daring Weldon–of all people!–lose her nerve partway through and go back to a somewhat more conventional (though still effective) narrative style? Or did she sense that once the reader was fully invested in the story and the characters’ lives that she should shift the focus away from the author?
I tend to think it was more the latter, as Weldon (alongside her readers) began to see her characters as more fully developed people–and as less archetypes. It might be worth noting that while seemingly an unusual (even avant garde) practice, such ‘author intrusive’ moments were actually somewhat common back in the earliest formative years of the novel as a literary form. In any case, while the transition is gradual and well-handled, it still struck me as a bit odd.
So who do we encounter in these pages?
In 1922, Sherwyn Sexton is a junior editor at Ripple & Company, a prestigious (if somewhat stuffy) publishing outfit. Sherwyn is handsome, can be charming when he wants and thinks he has the makings of a great author. In fact, he views himself as a true genius. His one defect, as he sees it, is that he is rather short. That troubles him somewhat, but it won’t prevent him achieving success as an adventure writer or from being an accomplished womanizer.
Vivien Ripple, the boss’s daughter, is almost six-feet tall and socially awkward. She’s plain looking and what’s worse (according to her socially-obsessed mother) she refuses to hide the fact that she’s very intelligent, with strong opinions. Her marriage prospects seem pretty limited. So she takes matters into her own hands–offering Sherwyn a business deal disguised as marriage. He can tap into her inherited wealth and get in good with her parents, who worry she’ll never ‘find’ somebody. And she’ll get them off her back about the ‘shame’ of her ending up an old maid. Oh, and Sherwyn will be free to bed anyone he feels like–just not his official wife (who simply isn’t interested).
Vivien’s Dad, Sir Jeremy Ripple, is a clueless hypocrite–a mostly tightfisted book publisher who looks down on ‘the lower classes’ even as he proclaims himself a fervent socialist. He’s also a blindly doting husband of a sexy snob of a wife (who everyone but Jeremy knows is a constantly cheating nymphomaniac) and a willfully distant father.
Then there’s Adela Ripple: the scheming wife/nympho in question. Like all of the above (and many of the supporting cast) she’s self-delusional and mentally justifies a lot of disreputable behavior on (at best) the shakiest of self-serving grounds.
Nobody knows that the bride-to-be is already pregnant (including the girl herself). The paternity of the resulting twins is a recurring question solved only late in the book. But Sherwyn doesn’t mind and actually comes to value Vivien as a friend, even a platonic love. Yet he is stupidly unable to save her from a fatal birth complication or to keep Adela from gaining control of the infants and attempting to pass them off as her own.
Sherwyn soon becomes famous and later, with the inadvertent (and decidedly unwelcome) ‘help’ of a vengeful former friend, will eventually give the now-grown twins insight into their actual origins. That happens just in time for him to live out some of his adventurous spy fantasies as an agent behind enemy lines in World War Two.
Before the War is a wild ride, jumping from place to place, from incident to incident, and occasionally from one time frame to another, by chapters. It’s a bit chaotic, yet it works. It’s recommended to fans of social commentary, family intrigue, the England of the ’20s and ’30s, and free-wheeling satire.