Sarah Vincent is in her fifties, single, a respected teacher and poet, liked by her friends but also protective of her privacy. This is reflected in her home. She still lives in the house she grew up in but it is divided into separate apartments which she lets out. Her tenants are at once close and at one remove.
Her school friends have found different paths through womanhood – careers, marriage, children, good works. Their regular reunions are occasions for rivalry as well as reminiscence. Each piece of news is digested by the group and reframed into a form that fits their narrative. It is clear that belonging brings pleasure but it also has a price.
The novel is cleverly structured so we see Sarah in relation to her contemporaries and to the past and future. It was published in 1964, and Sarah and her friends are at the point where sex is rearing its head in public discourse. They wonder about teenagers but hesitate to share personal confidences ‘since each soon suspected that they weren’t talking about the same thing’. Their perceptions are contrasted with the experience of two younger characters – Sarah’s pupil and a tenant.
Sarah has left much of the décor in her home unchanged. The house is full of her memories of her parents. At times she imagines they are there. She is still negotiating her relationship with them, and what it meant for her, long after their deaths – her failure to be attractive, her longing to please, her clear-eyed understanding of their weaknesses.
She is proud of her intellect and tells herself that she values it more than attractiveness. Yet she is not immune to feelings of failure to conform to the feminine ideal. Her venture into an upmarket clothes shop, the tyranny of the assistants, the attempt to find some magic (and more importantly recreate it at home) is both funny and painful. It is also a reminder that it is often women who police the rules of acceptance.
Sarah’s world appears to reflect continuity – her close ties, her house, her long-established relationships. But just as the wider world is changing, so is Sarah’s. This is subtly done. Is it events, or Sarah’s own thoughts and perceptions that lead her to question the choices she has made?
Nothing is ever simple or overstated in Janet McNeill’s world. Themes are highlighted and interrogated, conclusions formed and then undermined, complexity and ambiguity quietly accepted. All with a quiet, dry wit and beautiful observation.
Enjoyed this? Read my review of Janet McNeill’s The Small Widow