The Village, Marghanita Laski
First published 1952
Persephone Book #52
Set in the fictional English village of Priory Dean, The Village opens during the celebratory evening of V. E. Day. Although WWII has come to an end (at least in Europe), two women have still turned up for their shifts as Red Cross volunteers. This final night of war work also means a final night spent enjoying each other’s company and chatting over cups of tea. Wendy Trevor and Edith Wilson may have been on friendly and equal terms during the dark days of the war, but such was not always the case. Wendy is a member of the gentry, while Edith used to work as her daily housekeeper.
These women have been through a lot together and formed a close bond; but the ties that bind them prove to be all too tenuous. The war is hardly declared over before the previous social barriers reassert themselves. Yet, the world has changed irrevocably during the past seven years, and the pieces can no longer be reassembled to form quite the same image as before; regardless of how much many in the community would like for things to return to how they were.
This new world is defined by a shift in the socioeconomic status of the inhabitants of Priory Dean. The Trevor household, and their elite Priory Hill social circle, are on the decline; while the Wilson’s and their working-class neighbors in Station Road are prospering. There is barely any money coming in for the former, while members of the latter are earning excellent wages. The Trevors are left mourning the past; the Wilsons looking to the future.
Wendy and her husband have put all of their savings into the educations of their two daughters Margaret and Sheila. They are hopeful that clever Sheila will earn a scholarship to attend university, but come to the conclusion that Margaret’s best hope at a bright and secure future is for her to marry well. Wendy uses her standing in the community to do everything she can to throw Margaret into the path of eligible young men.
But shy and quiet Margaret doesn’t fit into her mother’s social world. The only young man she truly feels comfortable with, happens to be Edith Wilson’s son Roy. Roy and Margaret spent many happy hours together as children; and when they meet again at a village dance, their easy friendship is quickly re-established. A chance meeting at the movie theatre leads to a standing date, and ultimately, to an engagement. The young couple’s happiness means chaos and distress for many in the community. Their relationship marks an unthinkable upheaval in the perilously balanced, carefully cultivated social divisions of Priory Dean. In a fast-changing Post-War world, one relationship may prove too explosive for everyday village life.
The Village offers an insightful look at life immediately following the end of WWII. It is both delightful and sobering; humorous and thought-provoking. Laski’s straightforward prose is engaging, and I was hooked from the beginning. I expected the novel to be well-written and entertaining, but I was surprised at how relevant and politically charged it was. It is much more than a cozy novel about life in a charming village.
The entire cast of characters – which happens to take up a full four pages at the beginning of the novel – is well-developed and realistic. Laski has a talent for describing individuals and their quirks, traits, and of course their flaws. She manages to imbue each with personality and psychological depth. I felt as if I had known these people for a significant period of time; as if I too, were a member of the village community.
The love story is adorable, and I enjoyed rooting for Roy and Margaret. They were both so badly treated by so many people over the course of the novel, that when they are actually met with kindness by a handful of Priory Dean’s inhabitants, it is all the more touching. Based on the first chapter, I thought I would feel more sympathy for Wendy, but her actions and views became inexcusable. She was utterly horrible to Margaret, even before she found out about her relationship with Roy.
I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to experience the novel in the time in which it was written. Even so, reading it in 2018 was a unique experience itself. The Village ended up being a lot closer to our current sociopolitical climate than I had imagined it would be. Discussions about who deserves the right to vote, for example, sent a chill down my spine; as did some comments about education and jobs. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between groups of people clinging to, and fighting to uphold, the past and the status quo. There is also a memorable discussion over the similarities between contemporary views on class in England and race in America, that is incredibly illuminating as well as disturbing and enraging. That race/class parallel stayed in my mind for the remainder of the novel.
I’m sure I interpreted some of the characters’ words and actions in a more sinister light than I would have if I had read this even a few years ago. Frankly, I’m completely out of sympathy and patience for anyone who lets fear of change affect the way in which they view, talk about, and treat other people. By the end of the novel, it becomes clear you can’t stop love or progress no matter how hard you try. I can only hope the same will hold true in real life.
The Village is a fascinating account of a period of great change and transition, that cleverly tackles themes of class, community, and modernity. It is also a sweet love story and an astute character study.
The plot itself may not be flashy or fast-paced, but the characters and quietly powerful social commentary kept me happily turning the pages. I was sad to come to the end, and will be thinking about The Village for some time to come. Having read and loved both this and Little Boy Lost, I am incredibly excited to explore Marghanita Laski’s remaining works. I’m sure I’ll be equally entertained, challenged, and moved by them all.