‘Vain Shadow’ by Jane Hervey ****

The 112th book on the marvellous Persephone list, and one of the new additions for Spring 2015, is Jane Hervey’s only published novel, Vain Shadow.  Hervey wrote it during the 1950s and stored it away in a drawer for a decade; it was not until 1963 that the novel, which is centered around ‘the portrait of a family funeral and its repercussions’, was published.  Even then, the ‘obvious portrayal’ of some of Hervey’s family members within Vain Shadow offended them, to the extent that they did not speak to her for years.

Celia Robertson’s preface to the volume has been wonderfully written and thoughtfully constructed.  Robertson writes that ‘as a needle on the historical compass of the previous decade, it quivers with the anticipation of change, poised at the very end of what had gone before’, and that Hervey’s ‘take on a death in the family is unique, astute and very funny’. She goes on to say that ‘Vain Shadow is quietly successful…  It shows us – in the most undramatic but knowing way – how tyranny and casual violence exist in the most civilised of settings; how far – legally, at least – women have come since the 1950s, and how death remains impossible to get right’.

The structure of Vain Shadow is fitting; Hervey has split it into four parts, each of which corresponds to a particular day.  ‘The weight of the novel’, writes Robertson, ‘lies in the relationships between the old man’s surviving wife and adult children as they begin to realise what his death will mean’.  Other themes come across strongly too, particularly with regard to class – the hired staff seem to be far more in control of the situation than the Winthorpe family themselves – and the position of women.  The omniscient perspective has been marvellously utilised, as have the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of each character, which unfold simultaneously alongside the action.  Mrs Winthorpe, the deceased Colonel’s widow, rejoices, for instance, that after fifty-three years, she will no longer have to kiss him.  She then busies herself playing a secretive game of patience just an hour after she has been informed of his death.  Her one wish, which is mentioned several times within the story, is to finally have the peach bathroom which she has, up until now, been denied.

One gets a feel for Vain Shadow‘s characters almost as immediately as they are introduced, as well as of their dreams, desires, and darkest thoughts.  Different characters who inhabit different corners of the house as the story goes on are followed; we learn about how they walk, how they stand their ground in a given disagreement, and how they view their own positions within the realm of the family.  In the novel, Hervey presents herself as the family’s granddaughter, Joanna, whom Robertson believes is ‘the one character who reveals a capacity for love’.  Every person within Vain Shadow‘s pages is flawed in some way, be it within their character, or their negative thoughts of others.  This makes it most refreshing to read.

Whilst we never meet the Colonel himself, we learn a lot about him; he comes across as a tyrant, cruel and standoffish, and belligerent, and it is clear as to why the majority of his family were frightened of him.  He is cleverly ever-present – whilst discussing funeral arrangements, for instance, ‘It was just as though Grandfather was still there, perhaps always would be there, somewhere… waiting to pounce’.

Throughout, Hervey also exemplifies how one’s outer facade rarely reflects their innermost feelings and persona; all of the protagonists here are very focused upon fitting in and appearing to behave properly in any given situation, despite the anguish they invariably feel within.  Over breakfast, for instance, ‘They all paused to regard, through Nurse’s eyes, the old man whom alive they had known fierce, intolerant, ever-battling, consecrated now in dying, humble and saintly.  Which was the true man; which the shadow?’  The protagonists’ preoccupations with the trivial also come to the fore – Jack, worried about balding; a moment of shared thought about how much the Colonel disliked competition; Harry’s egg not quite cooked to his liking.  These thoughts can sometimes overshadow the bigger picture for them all; they continually have to remind one another of the reason as to why they have been brought together, and of the sadness which they should be feeling. The hierarchy within the family shows itself too, particularly with regard to the sons.  Brian, who lives nearby, flits in and out of the action, believing himself head and shoulders above his brothers: he ‘looked down on them all from the height of his superior knowledge.  They really knew very little about Father’.

The Derbyshire setting has been well evoked, and a dark edge is occasionally introduced to the whole: ‘The house, built three hundred years ago, of stone and slate, stood halfway up a hill, facing undisturbed the fierce gales that from time to time attacked it from the valley, battering at its windows and tearing at the old wisteria which twisted across the front of it like a long, grey snake’.

Vain Shadow is so engaging.  Rather than just an overseer, it feels as though the reader is an intrinsic being within the family; we are brought into the thick of conversations, and bouts of important decision-making.  Hervey is an incredibly perceptive author; there are swathes of realism here, particularly with regard to the complex familial relationship which exists for the Winthorpe clan.  Sharp, surprising and so well written, Vain Shadow is a most fitting addition to the Persephone list.  One can only hope that more of Hervey’s work will be published soon.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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