I hadn’t heard of Janet McNeill until recently but when she was compared with Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym I immediately wanted to find out more.
The Small Widow was first published in 1967 and has been reissued by independent Turnpike Books. It tells the story of Julia Stevens who is suddenly widowed in her fifties. Julia’s whole identity is based on being a wife and mother. Now, her husband is dead and her relationships with her grown-up children and her social circle are in flux.
Julia is a shrewd woman who finds herself unable to grieve in the way those around her require. Much of the book’s drama and humour comes from the distance between what Julia feels and what she is able to convey. She is cool and arch which makes her occasional outbursts all the more shocking.
I particularly like the interplay between Julia and her four children, and the way she struggles with their expectations. She looks after her granddaughter, but finds herself unable to dote. Her son tries to shock her with his explicit language, but is embarrassed when she replies in kind. She is awash with ambivalence – she is resentful of their demands but consumed by love, has an unflinching eye for their failings but is swept away by occasional moments of perfection.
The Small Widow also gives an insight into a fast-changing world. Julia feels ridiculous in a café full of young people in her coat and matching hat, but is disappointed that the girls do nothing with their hair. She is aware of the greater sexual freedom of the younger generation, and experiences moments of jealousy that she can’t share in it. She misses her husband’s protective love, while knowing that he typecast her as dainty and dependent.
I’ve read a few blog posts recently on the merits of rereading. My own feeling is that a lot of contemporary novels aren’t built for it. They are written to be consumed rather than savoured, with high-concept plotting and low-density prose.
The Small Widow is different. It is intricately structured, and every minor character and sly observation play their part in drawing you into Julia’s shifting world. By the end of the novel your understanding of her family is transformed. A second reading would be a new experience, a chance to see what Julia (and I) missed.