Saturday, May 4, 2019

The vicissitudes of postwar housekeeping: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, The Morning-Room (1950)

I've written about Gwenllian Meyrick a couple of times before (see here), and I seem to be working my way through all six of her novels (and wishing there were more). The Morning-Room, her first novel, was the most difficult to get hold of, and ended up winging its way to me from just about the farthest possible spot within the U.S.—the public library of Bangor, Maine. But it was well worth the effort, as this tale of the postwar housing crisis is Meyrick's lightest and most entertaining tale.

It's a bit difficult to situate Meyrick among the other middlebrow authors of the period. The Morning-Room might be described as something of a cross between Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance and Doris Langley Moore's Not at Home, though it is neither so emotionally complex as the former nor so humorous as the latter. The situation of boarders who turn out to be undesirable is also tied up a bit too neatly at the end (and, in the age of #MeToo, not unproblematically). But despite these weaknesses, Meyrick is so lushly domestic in her quiet little novels of nice people having mild difficulties that I, once again, couldn't put it down.

The novel opens in 1946 as 36-year-old Laura Armitage is searching for a new home for her husband Marcus, soon to be demobilized from the war, and their two children, Caroline and Jamie. It begins quite amusingly with a scene which must have echoed in houses all across the UK during these years:

"Seven bedrooms is too many," said Laura Armitage. "Haven't you got anything with four bedrooms on your books?"

Mr. Evans, the house-agent's clerk, was affronted. He looked so pained that Laura went over her words in her mind, in case she had said something indiscreet.

"Four bedrooms?" he repeated.

"Well, I thought about four," she said humbly.

"Everyone wants a house with four bedrooms, Mrs. Armitage. They usually stipulate for modern conveniences: coke boiler; immersion heater; indoor coal-shed; gas and electric points; garden (but not too large); garage. They also demand a house in not too isolated a position, otherwise the daily help will stop coming as soon as the winter starts."

"How very odd!" remarked Laura. "All that is exactly what I was going to tell you I wanted."

Mr. Evans shut his file with a bang. Most of the papers were loose, and fluttered to the floor, and had to be picked up, which was something of an anti-climax to Mr. Evans' indignant gesture. He was a Welshman with a strong sense of the dramatic.

The house in question is known as South Grove, and Mr Evans ultimately plays a fateful role in her decision to take the house after all, seven bedrooms and all. It just happens that he knows of an absolutely ideal housekeeper, Mrs Mason, who is seeking a place with room enough for her daughter Freda, soon to return from her service with the A.T.S., and the house is conveniently divided between the old servant areas (back of the house) and the old front rooms. Mrs Mason indeed seems to be too good to be true, and of course we know what that means… The original jacket blurb, happily glued inside the Bangor Library copy of the book, sums it all up as follows:

[S]lowly and imperceptibly the morning-room, where Mrs. Mason lived, came to dominate Laura's house, Laura's children and even Laura herself. Then Marcus came home to find that he had known Freda when she was in the A.T.S. And the question is: who is going to take possession of the demobbed warrior? The tension mounts as these convincingly ordinary people drift nearer and nearer to the rocks.

Laura becomes casual friends with Mr Evans, despite their contentious first meeting, and he, along with his new wife who knew the Masons from years earlier, not only plays a role in landing Laura with the Masons, but will finally help rid her of them as well. Along the way, we also meet Laura's widowed sister Helen, who has just met a promising new man, and Marcus's sister and mother.

It's all predictable enough—it doesn't hold a candle to Moore's Not at Home in terms of twists and surprises and unexpected results—but it's still thoroughly readable and enjoyable, and here, unlike in most of Meyrick's novels, there are some very funny moments indeed.

Mr Evans is a bit of a closet socialist, and when he takes Laura to meet the two elderly sisters who are the current owners of South Grove and who are ludicrously class-biased even in the midst of their current poverty, sparks nearly fly:

She lowered herself with an obvious effort into her chair. Laura felt that if she offered to help her, she would only be rebuffed. Mr. Evans, not having had an invitation to sit down, was not quite sure if he ought to do so, and remained standing, planning class extinction for the day when he got into power.

And one of my favorite passages from the entire novel is this subtly morbid description of the impractical kitchen of the new house:

The kitchen was the other side of the passage, opposite the scullery and pantry. It was a huge, depressing room with only one window, which looked on to the yard and a high, dense hedge. The cupboards and woodwork were painted chocolate-brown. There was a deep recess in one wall where the range had once stood. In the middle of this recess, like some malevolent black creature, squatted the boiler. There were hooks in the ceiling big enough to hold a rope and a man at the end of it. The top of the table which stood in the middle of the room was spotted and stained.

There are still two Meyrick novels I haven't yet written about here—The Disastrous Visit (1956), which I have now read, and Shed No Tear (1961), which is resting on my bedside table at this very moment, complete with a lovely dustjacket and an additional delightful bonus, which you'll see at some hopefully not too distant time. 

It's a bit of an odd situation for me, because Meyrick is clearly not as strong an author overall as some of my other favorites. She has a tendency (more in other novels than in The Morning-Room) to sink into melodrama, and there's little that's strikingly original or unique about her writing. And yet, somehow, she has become a favorite of mine in her own right. A big part of it must be her rather ordinary and yet totally relatable heroines—flawed but interesting, and even somewhat feminist (for their time). A strange balance, but one that works surprisingly well.


  1. This sounds like a lovely read -- I hope you're adding it to your list of potential new FM reprints!

  2. Even when you throw in mild sorts of semi-disclaimers, you make me want to read all the books, Scott.

  3. Yes, even when you have reservations you still make me want to rush to the second-hand bookshops and search and search!


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