First published in October 2016.
Denis Mackail’s Greenery Street (1925) brings something a little different to the female-dominated Persephone list, in that is one of the few novels they have chosen to publish which was penned by a man. I knew nothing about Mackail before I began to read – not even that he was the brother of celebrated author Angela Thirkell, whose works are currently being reprinted by Virago – but the introduction was fascinating, and I was left with the impression that he was a man I would have enjoyed spending time in the company of. He sounds like an awfully humble fellow; of his writing, he said, ‘I was just trying to tell stories, to get bits of life on to paper, and, I suppose, to express myself. Where does all that gaiety and kindness come from when in real life I am a cynic and frequently a wet blanket as well?’
The Greenery Street of the novel’s title is based on Mackail’s Walpole Street, in which he lived; it ‘consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at first glance, exactly the same’. Mackail sets the scene immediately, and one feels utterly familiar with the street and its inhabitants, despite never setting foot in the locale: ‘For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing. And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same. It is seen in the arrival of a brand new perambulator’. On this seemingly inevitable point of leaving the street – or, rather, of being ‘forced out’ of one’s five-storey home as it is simply not big enough to house a child – the house itself is personified: ‘For all the happy memories which the little house holds, it has already become his enemy. He knows this, and yet he can never hate it in return. Neither, though, can he allow it to see how much, how terribly, he minds.’
We are introduced to Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster at the outset of the second chapter. The pair have been officially engaged for ‘very nearly a fortnight’. The difference between them is vast – Felicity is frivolous and naive, and Ian is far more level-headed and pragmatic – but this makes the relationship between the two, and the way in which they interact, all the more interesting.
Every single one of Mackail’s characters, whether protagonists or not, feel incredibly realistic. One could be forgiven for holding the opinion that a novel written entirely about the day-to-day lives of a married couple in the 1920s could be rather dull. Greenery Street does busy itself with such things as budgeting, ordering meals, and decorating, but it is rendered in such a way that mundane is one thing it is not. The details which he picks out are surprising in both his descriptions and perceptiveness: ‘His heart melted to the consistence of a hard-boiled egg. His principles and scruples trickled out of the heels of his shoes. He loved this maddeningly unbusinesslike creature [of Felicity], more than anyone had loved anybody in the whole history of the world… What did anything matter so long as she clung to him like this, so long as her eyelashes flickered against his cheeks, and her heart beat so comfortably against his own?’
With regard to the novel’s prose, Mackail is witty, presenting little wink-wink nudge-nudge asides to the reader at intervals. These additions to the main story are refreshing, and it is almost as though the reader is taken into his confidence: ‘We haven’t had much space for descriptions of people in this record so far; we have rather had to take them as they come; but we must try and squeeze in a paragraph for Mr and Mrs Foster’s brother-in-law – if only because he was so shy that we should never get to know him if we waited for him to make the first move’.
As an author, Mackail is shrewd and acerbic; the Foster’s maid, Ellen, is referred to throughout as ‘the Murderess’, for instance. Greenery Street is also filled with humorous details; when visiting the next-door neighbours for a dinner party of sorts, both Ian and Felicity are presented with drinks which they do not particularly want: ‘Felicity, afraid of provoking him [Mr Lambert] again, took the glass which he offered her and managed, a little later, to hide it behind a photograph-frame on the mantelpiece. Ian – after a sip which came near choking him – found sanctuary for his on the floor under his chair. Mr and Mrs Lambert emptied their beakers with appreciative relish’.
There are interesting elements to the prose at points; some of the dialogue is rendered in play format, for example. The itemisation of Felicity’s small library, along with details pertaining to any damage on each particular tome, was both simple and clever: ‘Item. Shakespeare’s plays in three volumes – one slightly damaged by water, the result of the owner’s attempt to read Romeo and Juliet while having a bath. Damage occurred when owner was fifteen’. We are shown many of Felicity’s inner thoughts too, which works wonderfully as it unfolds against her speech and actions.
Almost every book which gets Persephone’s stamp of approval is a firm favourite of mine. Greenery Street is no exception. It is a perfectly compelling read, and one which I am going to be recommending as highly as I possibly can.