Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.
Elsie Munday comes to work as a maid for the Spencer family in 1926, just as they’re moving into a newly-built house in the village of Burghclere in Hampshire. Just over the fields is the strange boxy chapel which Mr Spencer is painting with scenes from the war, while Mrs Spencer works in the garden at home and writes lengthy letters to her fellow Christian Science members. Bohemian and untidy, the couple leave it to Elsie to organise the house (they seem to have precious little idea what to do with a servant), while they pursue their separate interests. As time passes, Elsie gets to grips with her new life. She begins to think of her employers by their first names, Stanley and Hilda; she grows deeply fond of their toddler daughter Shirin; and she gains an increasingly unsettling insight into their married life. For all is not well with these two. Hilda chafes at the rural lifestyle, longing to return to her native Hampstead with its colour and cosmopolitan life, where at least she had a sense of purpose. A gifted artist, she has now lost all motivation, a problem exacerbated by her uncomprehending husband, who nags her to paint again.
And Stanley? Elsie struggles to understand him. On one hand he is charming, charismatic and clubbable. He chats to her about meaningful things: art, faith, hope, love. He and Hilda unquestioningly embrace Elsie as part of their family and she, in return, loves them both fiercely, all the more earnestly because neither of them seems to realise how much damage they are doing to the other. For Stanley has many bad points, to which he is blind, and to which Hilda (to Elsie’s indignation) is resigned. He is self-absorbed and selfish, unable to comprehend that the details of his personal and professional life aren’t also at the centre of everyone else’s concern. He wanders through life half-distracted, constantly occupied by the challenges posed by the chapel. For him, this represents a work of spiritual catharsis which transforms his own traumatic experiences in Macedonia during the war, and pays tribute to the men who never made it home. While he loves Hilda, he’s too self-centred to offer her the support she truly needs, and Elsie watches as their tempestuous partnership begins to fray around the edges. Worst of all, the couple are so fixated on one another, so caught up in their own drama, that they don’t have much space left in their lives for Shirin – their neglected and betrayed daughter.
Here you can see the two portraits of Elsie which are frequently mentioned in the novel, painted simultaneously by Hilda (left) and Stanley (right). I definitely find Hilda’s more appealing: it’s gentler, softer and has more sense of the sitter’s inner life.
Elsie remains with the family as the years pass and the relationships that hold the Spencers together fray even more. She is a thoughtful, compassionate presence, able to see the good in her employers even as they drive her (and each other) to distraction. Through her eyes, we watch the Sandham Memorial Chapel flourish into life – and Upton describes it so beautifully, so profoundly and with such poignancy, that I’m now determined to visit it as soon as possible. We follow her as she moves with the Spencers back to Stanley’s native Cookham, a place that obsesses him and with which he feels a deep symbiotic connection. And it’s through Elsie’s eyes that we watch the growing friendship between Stanley and Patricia Preece, a fellow Cookham resident turned artist, who threatens to offer Stanley the kind of renewed energy and inspiration that Hilda, for some years now, has failed to provide. And yet the story is even more complicated than it appears, for Patricia isn’t as footloose and single as she seems: her relationship with her housemate and ‘friend’ Dorothy Hepworth is in fact a long-term romantic connection. Elsie can only watch as the family she once loved begins to fracture at the seams.
I can’t do this justice by simply reporting the plot, because the real charm of the book lies in Upson’s prose. She writes with a sensitivity to small things, whether that’s the gentle shift in seasons or the way that a loving heart buckles under one last, small, final humiliation. She’s especially good at describing paintings and I found myself breaking off to look things up on the internet, adding another layer to the reading experience. And she has achieved that holy grail of historical-fiction writing, which is to have done her research and to be able to transform it seamlessly into narrative, so that nothing is weighed down by exposition, and everything seems to happen organically. Her characters feel entirely rich and real in their fictional forms, regardless of the fact that they actually were living, breathing people, and you learn to care about all of them (although my sympathies were strained by Stanley and Patricia much of the time).
Can I just say how pleased I am that Upson didn’t feel the need to invent a romantic relationship between Stanley and Elsie? It would have been very easy, and there are a couple of places where she teases us with the idea that it might happen, but instead she gives us a relationship which is much richer and rewarding: a strange sort-of-friendship, in which Elsie is watcher, conscience and confidant. This is the best kind of book, which leaves you with a list of things to look up and all sorts of new discoveries: I wasn’t familiar with the works of Dorothy Hepworth or Patricia Preece before this (indeed, they may be one and the same, as Upson suggests that Hepworth actually painted many works that were then signed by Preece). They’re rewarding to look up, but my favourite ‘discovery’ was Hilda herself, now known as an artist under her maiden name, Hilda Carline. To my delight, I see that there was a monographic exhibition of her work a few years ago, and I’ll be seeking out the catalogue. Stanley and Hilda’s younger daughter Unity also became an artist, and has recently published her autobiography, which promises to fill in more detail about this extraordinary menage.
And, best of all, there’s currently an exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham devoted to Stanley Spencer’s women, which promises to throw more light on his relationships with Hilda and Patricia, and which probably includes many of the paintings discussed here. Obviously, due to the lockdown, it isn’t actually open right now, but it’s due to run until November, and I can only pray that we’ll be out and about again long before then. I’ll report back, if I do get to see it.
Upson’s Stanley and Elsie is a wonderful book, poised and knowledgeable, deeply engaging, and written with grace. Highly recommended to anyone looking for an absorbing piece of historical fiction in which to lose themselves, made all the richer for the wealth of extra material you can unearth online. One of the most successful novels based on art history that I’ve read.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review. A small thought: why on earth design a cover for a book like this that doesn’t take advantage of the subject’s own works? Why show a fragment of a generic still life through the doorway rather than one of Spencer’s own colourful, strange, provocative works?