Monday, April 24, 2017

Greenery Street - A Rare Thing Indeed

It's always a dilemma for me when reviewing books published long ago. Even less than a century ago, the culture is quite different. The author has been wholly influenced by that society, and the writing is not only from the time but reflective of it. Assumptions exist; things which are accepted then might now be challenged. The world of the story seems familiar, yet at the same time foreign.  And how do you approach these books?  Do you allow yourself to become immersed, and accept the situations and characters as they are presented - as if you were a reader of that time?  Or, do you turn a critical eye to the work and analyze these points from a modern perspective?  Which is the more fair and responsible way to reflect, being fair both to the author and the story?

These are the questions that I grappled with as I read Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.  Originally published in 1925, my edition was reprinted by Persephone Books in 2002.  I am reading it in 2017 America, which leaves a 92 year gap and the span of the Atlantic from the author's experience to mine.  It was the interwar period, and life was relatively peaceful in Britain.  The world was a much different place, indeed.  Taking this into account, I shall undertake to present two reviews: One summarizing the book and analyzing it in terms of the author and his life, and another from a modern, Western reader's perspective.  It is my hope that, in combining these two, that a fuller picture of the novel shall become clear.

The story is conducted by an invisible, unnamed narrator.  This narrator picks up the readers and transports them to the exact moments that it wants us to see.  There are also numerous asides and explanations of things that we would otherwise now know, and things that the characters themselves wouldn't know, such as the inner worlds of the other residents of the neighborhood.  It also gives voice to the location itself, Greenery Street, which functions as a minor character within the scope of the novel. 

When we meet the main characters, Ian Foster and Felicity Hamilton, they have been secretly engaged to each other after knowing each other a few months.  There is such a strong and certain attraction between them that they both realize quickly that they must marry.  Their first relationship hurdle is to gain the approval of her parents, who have yet to be introduced to Ian.  He is subsequently invited to a dinner at her family's home, an event which is so spectacularly awkward and uncomfortable for all parties.  Felicity's father is so non-committal and avoidant of the issue at hand that he does not even broach the subject of his daughter, even though he and Ian spend nearly an hour together alone after the meal.  Felicity is convinced that this is a good sign, and tacit consent to their nuptials.  There is no need to inquire to Ian's parents, as they are absent from the novel.  His only parental figure is a governor who managed a trust in the boy's name, and from which he received some money in addition to his office job in insurance brokerage.

The narrator then skips us ahead to when the couple have returned from their honeymoon, and are desperately trying to find a home.  Through a series of comical events, they find themselves at Greenery Street, and have their first experience with the London real estate process.  The houses are described as being quite small, with compact rooms and somewhat dingy and haphazard construction.  They are also referred to as perfect for young, childless couples.  In fact, the narrator gives us the piece of information that tenants usually only stay a year or so.  Once they are expecting a baby, they begin to see Greenery Street anew and realize the ways that the house will no longer suit them.  They see its flaws and shortcomings, when those things are blissfully ignored during the post-wedding haze of house-shopping.  The Fosters hurriedly settle on 23 Greenery Street, and move in immediately. 

The street itself is likely a reference to the location in Chelsea where the author and his wife lived, Walpole Street.  The street is lined with attached, identical brick row homes. They each have short stoops and narrow balconies.  If you look online, you can see images from the street today, and other than the surfeit of automobiles parked on the street, you can imagine it has not changed much since Denis Mackail's time.  In fact, from a modern perspective they seem positively palatial, especially for in that area of London.  There is a park nearby, Burton Court, where you could imagine the Fosters walking their Pomeranian dog, Ajax. 

Felicity is presented as a rather mild-mannered, quiet, infinitely polite young woman.  As a newlywed, she is moving from a situation where she was under the care of her parents, to one where she is in charge of a household.  As she and Ian are upper middle-class, they naturally hire two servants, a cook (Gertrude) and a housemaid (Ellen, but nicknamed The Murderess because of her menacing appearance), to work for them.  Although Felicity is in charge of the home, these two women are the ones who actually do the work.  The reader never learns much about them, except through the actions that Felicity and Ian discover.  First, near the middle of the novel, Felicity comes upon Ellen passionately kissing the grocery man on the steps.  She is so shocked that she retreats and pretends as thought the situation never happened.  When she tells Ian about it later, he is in shock that anyone would find the housemaid attractive enough to kiss in that way.  One of the central conflicts of the second-half of the novel is whether or not one of the Fosters should speak to Ellen about her behavior, or even to relieve her of her post, and if so how that discussion should be carried out.  This becomes even more dire when Ian discovers Ellen drinking his whiskey, late at night.  He, too, says nothing and takes no immediate action; he simply returns to the bedroom and tells Felicity. 

This conflict is the aspect of Greenery Street that I found the most frustrating and the most interesting.  Both Ian and Felicity have never been in charge of other people before, and they are of a gentle nature, so it's no surprise that they have difficulty establishing their roles.  They complain constantly about the poor quality of service, or the amount of money the servants spend on food and other goods, yet cannot bring themselves to take action to bring about change.  Felicity, especially, is good at rationalizing and explaining away any misdoings.  Even when presented with concrete evidence of stealing and conspiring amongst Ellen and Gertrude, the Fosters are not able to agree on a course of action.  Their inactivity is, in small doses, comical and entertaining, but as it continues repeatedly throughout the rest of the novel, becomes almost infuriating.  Yet, knowing the characters and their temperaments, it cannot be completely surprising.

It also gently illustrates the class divides in English society at the time.  The fact that little time was spent with the servants indicates that the newlyweds were not concerned with them a great deal.  There was no particular concern for their lives and goings-on; they were the servants, and as long as they were performing the prescribed duties no one paid them any mind.  They were almost like furniture of other background features of the home, despite the fact that they were just as much human as the Fosters.

As I read, I began wondering more about the servants themselves.  All we know of them are their first names.  Who were they before they came to work at 23 Greenery Street?  What did they do with themselves when Felicity and Ian were not paying attention?  We learned, at least, that The Murderess was involved with the grocery man, but how did that relationship come to be?  What I've discovered is that I would greatly enjoy reading a companion novel, if one were to be written, about the lives of the two servants in Greenery Street.  To explore their lives and independent voices would give more depth and interest to a story that is much like the Fosters themselves: Polite, reserved, and quite measured in its emotion. 

In addition to the conflict with their household staff, there are other problems that arise for the two main characters.  Most of these are quite petty and all of them resolve themselves nicely and neatly by the end of the story.  Such is not the case, however, for many of the minor characters with whom the Fosters interact.  There are marital problems between Felicity's elder sister and her husband, which cloud parts of the story and are left mostly unresolved.  The manager of Ian's fund passes away in a train accident. Felicity's father becomes seriously ill with influenza.  Although Greenery Street is most definitely a story of the happy beginnings of a joyful marriage, almost as seen through rose colored glasses in a sweet fog, it is not so twee as to completely ignore life's realities.

I found Greenery Street to be a sweet, comfortable story.  There is such a strong bond between Ian and Felicity that none of the more common, external pressures of the world weigh much on them.  There are no temptations of infidelity, nor particular dissatisfactions from one towards the other.  Being that this work is encompassing the first few months of their marriage, one wonders how the rest of their relationship will play out.  What financial woes, estrangements, or other problems might work themselves into this happy arrangement in the years to come?

The Fosters are learning what it means to be adults: Marriage, budgeting, social and familial obligations, and developing self-confidence and fortitude.  It's not always easy living with another person, figuring out how to manage a household, or succeed at an office job.  Felicity has difficulty with even the most basic math, and runs into trouble with purchasing more than her account has funds to cover.  This hints at the type of education that females of her social class received - mostly social graces, and very little science or math.  Yet, she and Ian are so well suited that, despite their occasional quarrels, hurt feelings, and secrets, they forge ahead together in love.  And it is love which is at the core of Greenery Street, and what makes it such a joy to read.  A rare thing indeed.

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