Publication Date: 2/5/19
I have recently been enjoying fictionalised non-fiction and have read a fair few corkers in this genre……is it a genre? has it got a better name than my made up ‘fictionalised non-fiction’?….let me know. I recently wrote a post about this very subject here in which I mention Stanley And Elsie by Nicola Upson.
I was drawn to this book just because again it involves a real life figure, painter,Stanley Spencer. I googled a little about him and discovered he had a somewhat difficult marriage and a questionable relationship with another woman. This was enough to pique my interest.
I have to hold my hands up and admit that when this book arrived, I was a little put off by the cover design. I know it isn’t the be all and end all and of course we should never judge a book by it’s cover, but I do! If I had seen this book on the shelf at the library or in a shop I’m afraid I would not have picked it up, which would have been a crying shame because it is an absolute gem of a book!
Stanley And Elsie tells the story of the life of painter Stanley Spencer from the point of him hiring young housekeeper Elsie Munday. Elsie comes from a very close, large family and it the eldest unmarried girl. She takes on the role of housekeeper for the Spencer family, (which consists of Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their young daughter Shirin), to gain some independence.
The books opens with a prologue depicting Stanley leaving to fight in WW1 and picks up in the late 1920’s after he has returned from war with many haunting memories of what he saw there. The appointment of Elsie as housekeeper is seamless and she slots into the Spencer family life with apparent ease. She becomes somewhat of a confidante to both Stanley and Hilda, as they have a fairly tumultuous marriage and find it very difficult to communicate, often resorting to writing each other letters.
Elsie forms a strong connection with both of them for different reasons. In the early days she has a little crush on Stanley, which quickly turns into a strong friendship and Elsie takes on the role of nurturing him whilst he works on a huge piece of commission work in a memorial chapel. Feeding him, talking to him about his marital problems, discussing various aspects of his work with him and being an all round support to him in all areas of his life.
With Hilda, Elsie is a constant support and listening ear for all her woes surrounding Stanley and their rocky marriage. She is the woman who organises the house and the children, tries to inspire Hilda to start painting again after she loses her motivation and keeps things ticking along when Hilda becomes melancholy and introspective.
Stanley has a huge affection for Cookham, the village he was brought up in. It’s on visiting here for a family break that he encounters two aspiring artists Patricia and Dorothy. Stanley very quickly becomes entranced by the beguiling Patricia and embarks on trying to win her affections. This endeavour is not beyond the prying eyes of the village, and Hilda tries and fails to turn a blind eye to his ministrations with Patricia. Elsie is understandably concerned and finds it very difficult to condone Stanley’s seemingly careless and hurtful behaviour and his actions have repercussions for everyone involved, not least Hilda and Dorothy, Patricia’s lover.
What I loved about this book was the many layers and threads of the story which is essentially people’s lives. Not just a tale weaved from an authors imagination. The themes of marriage, love, ambition, the effects of war, jealousy and the relationship between employee and employer were all superbly explored.
I also really enjoyed the fact that the latter part of the book focused more on the relationship between Stanley and Patricia, (who’s intentions were not exactly honourable), and the effects of their relationship not only on Hilda but Patricia’s secret lover Dorothy. Dorothy is understandably heartbroken by watching her lover form a relationship with Stanley, however she loves Patricia so much that she is willing to stay with her in the hope that she can eventually win her back. Patricia for her part has ideas beyond love and uses Stanley as a means to an end with regards to her artistic life, ambitions and future financial security.
This book is 100% a brilliant ‘Google book’ – a book which prior to reading sent me straight to Google. I read a little about Stanley Spencer and saw some of his artwork, however I didn’t read too deeply as I didn’t want to spoil anything for myself. After I closed the book however, I was straight on Google! I brought up pictures of Stanley, Hilda, Patricia and Dorothy. I pored over Stanley’s paintings and gobbled up details about his relationships. I found a stunning picture of the inside of the memorial chapel at Berghcler painted by Stanley, which put the depictions I’d read about into perspective. I make a point of trying not to look at pictures of ‘real life’ people before I read about them (I recently did the same with Graceland by Bethan Roberts, waiting until I’d finished reading it before I googled what Elvis’s mother looked like). There’s a real sense of ‘ah there you are’….when you finally see someone who you have previously only been picturing in your minds eye.
I also found a couple of fascinating articles about the way Stanley had treated his wife and children and a response by Shirin and Unity, now well into their 80’s, responding to the claims. I also found out that Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) drowned whilst trying to rescue Patricia from drowing as a child. There is a passing mention of it in the book but I don’t think I quite realised that it was THE Gilbert!
There is also a lovely afterword, fillin gin some deatails of what had happened after the time period in which the book had ended, which I devoured. The deaths of Hilda and Stanley and notes about Elsie’s grandchildren giving details about their grandmother for the purposes of the book.
This is a story heavy with emotion and full of ‘characters’ – even though it feels wrong to say that. I absolutely adored it!
I am thankful to the author for introducing me to Stanley Spencer and his art, (and his chaotic life!). I am also glad I got to ‘meet’ the lovely Elsie and the long suffering Hilda Carline.
I would thoroughly recommend this book.
Thank you as always to the publisher for the advanced review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xx