It came into my mind suddenly that we might be living in the first chapter of one of my own detective stories, the kind of story I always felt to be so improbable. A woman lay dead upstairs waiting to be screwed down; in another bedroom a man was having hysterics; in the kitchen a grey parrot was imitating both their voices; and in the sitting-room crouched the pugs, glaring at us now with rage and terror in their popping eyes. Soon a car would drive up and Henry's sisters would join us, and Mr Galvain the man of business; and I, the stranger in the family, wearing black for a woman I had never known, sat in this unfamiliar cheerless room waiting to meet them.
I do love it when a handy passage does such a great job of setting the scene of a novel, especially when the passage is as evocative as this one.
Susan Prioleau, who narrates this novel (which is, tragically, Monica Tindall's only book), is newly married to Henry, the youngest of the titular Mrs. Prioleau's four children, and because Henry has little contact with his family—least of all with his mother—Susan's only "meeting" with her mother-in-law is at her funeral. Indeed, it's also her first meeting with Henry's two sisters, Melissa and Norrie, and his older brother, Austin, who has always been the clear favorite and who has been rendered practically an invalid, both physically and mentally, by his mother's babying. (He's the man having hysterics in the bedroom in the quoted passage.) Henry's father has been dead for years, and he and his sisters have been alienated from their mother for most of their adult lives.
From the beginning (the story is set just on the cusp of World War II and continues well into the war years), Susan senses a mystery, and it comes naturally to her to try to determine the source of the family's dysfunctionality:
Before I married I made a living of a sort as a reporter and a writer of detective stories. I was not especially successful because I have neither a thick enough skin to make good capital out of other people's misfortunes, nor credulity to believe in my own fiction sufficiently to make it interesting. But I still see people as "copy" though I no longer make my money out of them, and deduction is as much a game with me as it was with my own pet detective, Ambrose Honorius Barty, now mercifully defunct. I still try to discover the job of the man beside me in the bus by the Holmesian method of looking at his coat sleeve and the toes of his boots, and almost unconsciously I interview the people I meet, trying to ask them the right questions and sort out the answers.
This all makes Susan the perfect choice for an unsentimental, unbiased unearthing of the truth behind Helena Prioleau's startling transformation from the charming, witty, artistic girl some of the characters recall from the distant past to the Gorgon-like domestic dominatrix she became after her marriage. And her investigations make reading about it as addictive and compelling as any detective novel.
Indeed, Tindall takes on a rather gutsy challenge. In the first half of the novel, through conversations with her new in-laws and with family friends, she presents a classic ogre of a mother—one of a surprising number of such characters in middlebrow fiction, as I've noted here before, so commonly mocked or condemned as to have become a virtual stereotype of the period—delineating the alienation of Helena's children (all but one), her habits of writing scathing letters that may even have driven a servant to suicide, and a shocking incident with the pet pugs to whom Austin is devoted, among other things. Then, in the second half of the novel, Tindall has Susan steadily uncovering the traces of what has made Helena the monster she is, and she does this (largely via Susan's convenient discovery of Helena's long-forgotten journal and some letters) in a strikingly subtle, realistic, and convincing way that raises Helena far above the level of a stereotype.
I was almost shocked to find myself feeling sympathy for the late Mrs Prioleau in the latter part of the novel. And yet Tindall doesn't oversimplify, and doesn't take the easy route, which a lesser writer might have followed, of suggesting that Helena is a mere victim with no responsibility for the trajectory of her life. She achieves something more complex, suggesting that tragedy didn't create the dark side in Helena but merely helped make it dominant (and suggesting by implication that such darker potentials perhaps reside in each of us). As a result of such subtlety, the novel's gut-wrenching conclusion leaves the reader fascinated and conflicted in all sorts of wonderful ways about this woman who has suffered much and made others suffer with her.
I have to say that The Late Mrs Prioleau is already my favorite novel of the year so far, and one of my all-time favorite rediscoveries of a "lost" work. I think it will be particularly fascinating for any readers who have their own complicated relationships with parents. For instance, the following passage is the very best summary I've ever read of my own mother's strategy of domination, which lurked always in the background while I was growing up:
"She used to make terrible scenes sometimes over nothing at all, and you could feel them brewing like a storm. It made me feel insecure all the time, and any psychologist will tell you how bad that is for children. She'd pick on one of us or one of the maids, and fly into a rage about some perfectly idiotic thing until she had whoever it was provoked into answering back ... generally if it was a maid she gave notice. Then Mother was the aggrieved person, and the odd part was that by the end you generally thought she was, and begged her pardon humbly because she had behaved quite outrageously. To this day I don't know how she did it. "
I don't know how mine did it either. But Tindall also touchingly examines the effects of such an upbringing on Henry's sister Melissa and her approach to child-rearing. It would undoubtedly make many modern parents cringe, but for better or worse I might have been tempted to use the same logic had I ever (heaven forbid!) become a parent myself (and it may well be healthier than the neurotic helicopter parenting most of us have witnessed in recent years):
We were sitting on the beach. It was high tide and windy, with waves breaking on the sands. The children were burying a dead crab one of them had found; Melissa was scrawling designs of sea-gulls on a drawing-block, and I was reading. Suddenly I heard her gasp. Her son, with the impulsive bravery of his five years, was walking deliberately into the sea. I scrambled up, but she clutched my arm, holding me back. "Let him learn," she whispered, white-faced and rigid. We must have been some fifty yards away from the children, yet she watched without cry or movement until Peter was swept off his feet and rolled over in the inevitable wave. She waded in then, and fished him out.
Melissa broke off. She was gazing at Peter who was poised, rather dangerously it seemed, on a high piece of pointed rock. He looked at us unhappily, his mouth open for the first sob. His mother shouted at him. "You got up there," she said, "and you can jolly well get down!" Anxiously he looked down to the comfortable sand below him, and then slowly and carefully began to climb from bis perch.
"See what it's like, Susan?" Her voice was sad. "He's all right this time, as it happens, but he might have fallen and hurt himself badly. He's so tiny still. Only ... I simply daren't. When I think of how Mother undermined Austin … with the best will in the world …"
But one certainly needn't have any personal associations with ogre mothers and dysfunctional families to relish Tindall's brilliant little novel. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I'm tempted even as I write this to pick it up and start reading it all over again.
But now I have to explain the exciting way that this book found its way onto my radar…
I can start by noting that Tindall—who is such a new discovery that I haven't had a chance to add her to my Overwhelming List yet—is in fact the sister-in-law of another author on the list, Ursula Orange, about whom you may recall that I've written several times. She is also therefore the aunt of yet another author on my list, novelist and historian Gillian Tindall, who is the daughter of Ursula Orange.
I made the connection of Orange and Gillian Tindall only after I had already written about several of Orange's novels and made lots of speculations about her. A bit later, a commenter mentioned that Tindall had written about her mother in her wonderful book Footprints in Paris: A Few Streets, A Few Lives (2009). It was from that book that I learned the tragic truth about Orange's suicide at the age of 46.
But the connection to Monica Tindall, and the existence of her one and only novel, came to me more directly and in much more exciting fashion. Imagine my surprise to awaken one morning recently to find an email from none other than Gillian Tindall herself! Apart from anything else, this certainly marks the first time I've been in direct contact with one of the authors on my list! (Tindall quite precociously published her debut novel, No Name in the Street, in 1959, just in time to qualify for my list.)
Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from Gillian, who was very gracious and generous and informative in sharing her thoughts about her mother's little-known work and also in recommending her aunt's (perhaps even more obscure) novel. I might perhaps be able to add a bit more about this in a future post, but for now, I'll merely thank her for contacting me and for opening the door to this wonderful novel!