Also going under the title of Thunder on the Right (and inexplicably as Toasted English in the US), this 1940s British political satire by the versatile writer Marghanita Laski has finally been rescued from its long-out-of-print status by Persephone Books.
Laski will be no stranger to regular Persephone readers, because the publisher has reprinted four of her other novels prior to Tory Heaven - which is published in April 2018 (and for which I was fortunate to receive an advance copy). From the haunting ghost/horror story The Victorian Chaise Longue to the wartime social commentary of To Bed With Grand Music, it is clear that Laski was a writer who was more than capable of turning her pen to whatever genre she preferred… and then layering it with nuance.
Tory Heaven was first published in 1949 and is a satire of the British class system. It follows a British refugee, James, who is rescued from a South Sea island in 1945. Our hero makes his way back to Britain where he is met by a very different country to the one he left several years previously: the class system has now been reinforced with a rigidly enforced categorisation of people into As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Es. With As being entitled to every luxury and privilege known to mankind, and Es being treated as barely human.
Fortunately for James, his public schooling and charmed upbringing has him designated as an A - but he quickly realises that for all the good food, comfortable lodgings, obsequious staff and available women thrown at him, he has lost his right to independent thought and action in this Conservative utopia. Upon visiting his family (who are also As), James is horrified to see them uncomfortably dressing formally for dinner and ploughing their way through endless courses of stodgy British fare because this is what their servants expect… and if they veer away from tradition then spies may well report them to the authorities who will strip them of their status.
In this way, it is easy to make a topical comparison to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, where every home in the new kingdom of Gilead is at risk of housing a secret ‘eye’ for the government who can report back on regimental slips in the home and cause the offender’s hand to be amputated… or an even worse punishment. The class battles in Tory Heaven also reminded me of Henry Green’s 1939 realist/modernist novel Party Going, which claustrophobically hones in on a group of toffs who are stranded at Waterloo Station after fog shuts down the transport system, so they decamp to the railway hotel and behave abysmally as their entitlement and self-perceived authority over one another comes to the fore. In both cases, the upper classes are shown, as in Tory Heaven, to indulge only their own needs and to see the lower classes as nothing more than animate objects that exist to serve their whims. It also called to mind Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (also reprinted by Persephone), where our once shero returns to an England in the grip of WW2 and finds it an utterly alien existence.
In Tory Heaven, James realises he is in a waking nightmare because his every action is monitored and there is a script he is expected to follow for both his words and actions… and woe betide anyone who falls out of line with the expectation for their class.
The gender roles are also rather horrifying in Tory Heaven, just as they are in The Handmaid’s Tale. When James first arrives in London, he stays in a plush hotel and finds that along with hot water, fresh linen and delicious food, he is also supplied with a beautiful naked woman in his bed to cater to his desires. The Ministry of Social Security (ironically, a far cry from our contemporary understanding of social security) is keen to source bachelor James an eligible debutante for his wife… rather than allow him to marry his own choice of bride, Penelope, who, despite being an A, is also over 30 and therefore not marriage material. And conversely, while men and women who are As lead a luxurious if stifling life, their counterparts in the E class are degraded beyond belief: the only profession deemed suitable for E class women is prostitution.
Laski’s light-hearted style of writing make this an easy and enjoyable read but this certainly doesn’t detract from the message she wants to make. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that Persephone has chosen 2018 in which to reprint this class satire, with its roots in the effect war has on the surviving nation. The parallels readers can make between the Britain of 1949 that Laski writes about and the Britain of 2018 that we inhabit today are, sadly, plentiful. And remain shameful.