Wednesday, 6 May 2015

'Vain Shadow' by Jane Hervey

There’s something about Jane Hervey’s 1963 novel Vain Shadow (Persephone Books) that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. While Waugh elegantly satirised the jobbing journalists chasing a story and caught their eccentricities and quirks down to a sharp point, Hervey does similar… except with the subject of death.

Now I’ll admit that I had a few reservations about how enjoyable a novel following a family in the four days following the patriarch’s death could be. But Vain Shadow quickly proved me wrong.

The Winthorpe family is not particularly likeable. They are a well-to-do upper middle-class British family who all convene in the family’s large house upon the death of the husband, father and grandfather. It’s a claustrophobic novel of intense proportions, made all the more extraordinary because of the fine balance everyone treads between their outward display of mourning and their inward relief that the bullying old sod has finally left them in peace.

The strongest character in Vain Shadow is granddaughter Joanna, who was raised by the Winthorps from a baby after the death of her mother – their daughter. Like her mother, she married in haste at the age of 20 and now bitterly regrets her abusive, manipulative and controlling marriage. Her elder uncles fear she will bring shame on them by being the first in the family to divorce, and so as executors of their father’s will they construct a clause disinheriting her should she leave her husband – whose abuse they choose not to see.

The details in all of the character’s relationships – less so with each other, but more with their romantic partners – is fascinating. For a repressed family so seemingly incapable of expressing emotion of understanding a fellow human’s need, they all appear grotesquely inward looking and deeply selfish.

I realise the above may now have sold Vain Shadow to you. To which I would add that the book is weirdly compelling – I read it in only three or four sittings, and on two evenings stayed up into the wee hours as I kept compulsively rifling through the pages to find out more about this mean bunch. 

In many ways, the scenes in the Winthorps' library after the funeral and when the will is read called to my mind Jonathan Coe's satire What A Carve Up!: where the greedy Winshaws all ultimately combine in the country house desperate to find out what they will inherit and how they can best stitch up their long-lost siblings before meeting a grisly fate.

It’s hard to explain why a novel such as Vain Shadow about the sombre subject of death should be so invigorating, but perhaps it is because the preface by Celia Robertson explains so well how the miseries induced on Mrs Winthorp and Joanna by their cruel husbands echoes so closely the romantic misfortunes of Hervey herself. It makes Vain Shadow a convincing and compelling read.

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