This section set in 1940
Perry had bought Juliet a new frock for the party. It was a bias-cut satin affair that was rather revealing, a purchase he had encouraged. Indeed he had accompanied her to Selfridges and the saleswoman had whispered to her in the changing-room, ‘What a generous chap. You are a lucky girl,’ and Juliet had said, ‘Well perhaps he’s the lucky one.’ I am a gift. An apple waiting to be plucked. A rose. A pearl…
Sitting beneath the fearsomely hot dryer in a haridresser’s in Knightsbridge while a girl gave her a manicure, Juliet felt not so much like Cinderella as a victim being prepared for sacrifice.
[at the party]
Clarissa … was wearing a gorgeous dress (‘Schiaparelli. Ancient of course. I’ve had nothing new since war was declared, I’ll be in rags soon.’) ‘Tell you what, why don’t you ditch that sherry and we’ll see if the barman can make us a couple of cocktails. Can I tempt you?’
commentary: I looked back on the blog to see what I said about Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – one of my favourite novels of the past ten years. It was ‘superbly clever: inventive, compulsively readable and beautifully worked-out’ and that will do for starters for this one too. I love her books, but find it difficult to describe what it is that’s so good about them.
Let’s see. There is the total believability of the world she creates and the characters within it. The whole book is seen through Juliet Armstrong’s eyes. When WW2 starts she is young, and alone, and longing for life to begin. She is recruited by the secret services – first of all just as a typist: she has to listen into recorded conversations and transcribe them. She is caught up in a very strange and misty – but in fact authentic – part of the fight: UK residents who secretly sympathize with Germany and Hitler (‘Fifth Columnists’) are encouraged to report to Godfrey, whom they think represents the Gestapo. But he is a complete fake, entirely part of the British MI5: he is neutralizing them. (The real-life story of Jack King, the original of Godfrey, is the subject of some interest at the moment.) Then Juliet is asked to go further – to infiltrate the Nazi sympathizers. This is why she is going to the party above.
The book has a triple time scheme: the outermost set of brackets has Juliet in 1981 thinking about her past. Then we follow her life in 1950 – now working for BBC radio, and thinking back to those days of the war and her secret life. Atkinson likes an involved time scheme, and she is one of the few writers who does it perfectly: in this one I never had the slightest doubt as to where and when we were.
She does pages of conversation which are riveting, and funny, and very satirical, yet wholly convincing. This is one of the pro-Nazi society women:
‘We had a very good German maid but, of course, they interned her. She’s on the Isle of Man…. She’s a MAID for goodness sake, how can she be a threat to anyone?’
‘Have you visited her on the Isle of Man?’ Mrs Ambrose asked, perking up suddenly. Perry was always interested in any communication with internees.
‘On the Isle of Man?’ Mrs Scaife asked incredulously. Mrs Ambrose might as well have asked if she’d visited someone on the moon.Juliet is a great character – sometimes naïve, sometimes very sophisticated, always clever and funny, sometimes full of surprises. She tells pointless lies, intriguingly, and is trying to do the best for herself: she knows she is clever and deserves a good life, but still hankers after some of the dreary men around her, or the life they might want to give her. ‘A girl could die of old age’ following her employer’s metaphors, she thinks. Then she worries that ‘she had acquired all the drawbacks of being a mistress and none of the advantages – like sex.’
The plot of the book is labyrinthine and very very clever. There were a few things I didn’t understand (Phyllis?), but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all. It is a very satisfying book.
The research Atkinson has done is not thrust down the reader’s throat, but is admirable. (Though I sometimes think that no real person could have got coffee from that late-night stall on Park Lane because of the mass of fictional characters & memoirists queuing up – I would not object to never hearing about it again, with that fake air of democratic bonhomie, of toffs and taxi drivers enjoying their tea together).
I worked at the BBC 30 years after Juliet (and was shocked to realize I was closer then to that post-War period than to now) and I recognize the back end of those times – the way the organization was run, copying documents on the Roneo, that certain kind of BBC senior woman. And also the dusty London life of refugees and their cafes.
There were probably more hand-knitted twinsets than Atkinson gives credit for – Juliet feels ‘embarrassingly homespun’ in hers, but I think that would be a modern idea. Remember Nancy Mitford’s (undoubtedly very posh) Fanny & Louisa, knitting their own jerseys in colours “to ‘go with’ but not ‘to match’ our coats and skirts” ie tweed suits.
And bias-cut satin is not very 1940, it’s Jean Harlow in the 30s.
But Atkinson is beyond criticism. She is such a great writer: you believe that every word and thought and bit of background has been considered and worked out and picked to be perfect, yet Transcription is so easy to read, and it slides down like the best dessert, but leaving you thinking and thinking afterwards. What a wonderful book.
‘Can I tempt you?’ is a key trope in the book (as in the extract above). Everyone should be tempted to read Transcription.
So many other books on the blog are brought to mind: Matthew Sweet’s wonderful book on wartime London, The West End Front. Charlotte Bingham wrote her memoir MI5 and me this year about her time in the organization fifteen years after Juliet. Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means share a Schiaparelli dress just after the war. Lissa Evans’ Their Finest also follows a young woman through wartime London, as does Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. Eva Ibbotson’s The Morning Gift is a highly enjoyable novel about wartime refugees in London.
The woman clutching a pillar is wearing pre-War Schiaparelli, and Jean Harlow is in bias-cut satin by Adrian – both from Kristin’s photostream.
Two women on the stairs are wearing wartime utility evening dress by Norman Hartnell, from the Imperial War Museum.
Tweed skirt and cardi, 1940, from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.