Review of After the Party, by Cressida Connolly

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Sometime in the mid ‘60s, I watched an interview with Diana Mosley on television and found her disarmingly gracious and charming. At that time Britain was not part of the European Economic Community (as it then was), but I was struck by her remarking that her husband Sir Oswald had been ahead of his time in advocating European unity. Makes one reflect, as now much political commentary would associate Mosley’s followers with the Brexiteers, not with the Remainers. In After the Party, Cressida Connolly offers us what might be labelled the softer face of the British Union Party. (Fascist had been dropped from the name, though hardly from the programme.) We see them from the point of view of three sisters, Phyllis, Nina, and Patricia. One thinks of the Mitford sisters, of course, but these women aren’t aristocrats, though fairly well off, their father a gentleman with a country estate where he lives with their mother, now a dementia patient from a riding mishap. Phyllis’ husband Hugh is a retired RN officer some twenty years older than her; they’ve recently returned to England from South America, where he has been employed by a rubber company. They have three children, Julia, Frances, and the youngest, Edwin. The reader senses that Phyllis was drawn to the party by a mixture of family pressure—Nina is much more active in the movement—a sincere desire for peace, and not having enough to do in a neighbourhood, the Sussex coast, where they have few connexions. We know from the very beginning—some of the story is told in first person by Phyllis in 1979—that Phyllis and Hugh will be imprisoned and interned when war breaks out. The second half of the book, which gives the title of the book a double meaning, describes her experiences in Holloway prison and the Isle of Man.

As I was simultaneously listening to Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück on Audible, I could not help but be struck by the difference between the way that Nazi Germany treated her political prisoners, and Great Britain hers. It’s like the difference between hell on earth and a really bad holiday camp. One might add the American (and Canadian) internment of the Japanese during the Second World War. And this novel gives us only the pleasant face of the movement. There is little anti-Semitism and only the most passing allusions to London East End brawls. Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding-Heart Square should be added to the reading list for balance. All in all, though, readers should find Phyllis an attractive and sympathetic character, though naïve and for half the book, very sheltered.

I expect this novel will be my best historical read of the year. I noticed only one anachronism: no English speaker in 1940 would have referred to someone’s being ‘brainwashed’. (We owe that one to the Chinese Communists, about 1950.) There are also some appalling typos: when I first saw “Basham” I thought my memory had gone. And some errors that I can only account for as the creations of an optical scanner, unlikely as that seems. (See my highlights on Goodreads.) Fortunately, Kindle is good about giving us corrected versions. This book deserves to become a classic.

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