Enter Sherwyn Sexton: charismatic, handsomeif, to his dismay, rather short. He’s an aspiring novelist and editor at Ripple & Co whose greatest love is the (similarly handsome, but taller) protagonist of his thriller series. He also has a penchant for pretty young womensingle and otherwise. Sherwyn is shocked when his boss’s hulking daughter, dressed in a tweed jacket and moth-eaten scarf, strides into his office and asks for his hand in marriage. But his finances are running thin to support his regular dinners on the town, and Vivien’s promise to house him in comfort while he writes is simply too good to refuse. What neither of them know is that she is pregnant by another man, and will die in childbirth in just a few months…
With one eye on the present and one on the past, Fay Weldon offers Vivien’s fate, along with that of London between World Wars I and II: a city fizzing with change, full of flat-chested flappers, shell-shocked soldiers, and aristocrats clinging to history.
Inventive, warm, playful, and full of Weldon’s trademark ironic edge, Before the War is a spellbinding novel from one of the greatest writers of our time.
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Before The War
By Fay Weldon
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
Nine O'clock In The Morning, November 23rd 1922. Dilberne Halt
Consider Vivien in the year 1922. She's waiting for the London train. It's a cold November morning, the station is windswept and rural, the sky is threatening snow, and the train is late. Vivien is single, large, ungainly, five foot eleven inches tall and twenty years old. She has no coat, just a tweed jacket and a long brown woollen scarf to keep her warm. She snatched the scarf from a peg just before she left home for the mile long walk to the station. The scarf is a dreary dusty old thing. Moths have been at it. It's been hanging on its peg by the back door amongst old coats, jackets, hats and caps for years. Not so long ago the scarf would have been noticed, laundered, darned, ironed, folded and put in its appropriate drawer within the hour. But time has passed and wars have happened and these days one just can't find the staff to pay attention to detail.
I'm not asking you, reader, to step back in time. I'm asking you to stay happily where you are in the twenty-first century, looking back. Vivien has seared herself into my mind, this single stooping figure – she tends to stoop, being conscious that she is taller than most women and quite a lot of men – as she waits alone for a train on a crucial day in her life in November 1922. So I offer Vivien and her fate to you, the reader. We like to dream the costume drama of Edwardian times, all fine clothes, glittering jewels and clean sexy profiles – but we are less drawn to the twenty years between the wars. Understandably. Limbless ex-servicemen beg for alms on hard-hearted city streets while hysterical flappers, flat-chested, dance and drink champagne in Mayfair night-clubs. Shell shock, the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse – what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome – still stalks the land. Life expectancy for the poor is forty-five; for the rich, sixty-five.
Vivien is young and rich but no flapper. She is too large and ungainly to look good dancing, and one would certainly never guess she was rich from the frumpy way she dresses. Had she had a more exuberant personality her height would have seemed no great drawback; she could have sparkled and charmed and flung out her chest to the admiration of men and women both, but Vivvie was not like this. She suffered and let it be seen that she suffered. She stooped. For her special day in London she wears the long droopy brown scarf over a tweed jacket (taken also at random from the peg: it is actually her father's); her black skirt is ankle-length and she has rammed a grey felt cloche down over her ears. None of it does the poor girl any favours at all. Nor do her thick, flesh-coloured lisle stockings or her pointy black button-strap shoes (size 9). These clothes quite suit the flat-chested and lithe beauties of the time, a droopy weariness being all the rage, but Vivien is no beauty and has a noticeably large bust which she declines to bandage flat. She is, moreover, mildly Asperger's, though that is a word neither yet in use, nor a syndrome understood. She is often unaware of the impression she is making on other people – which is that she is decidedly odd and sometimes decidedly rude. When she does become aware of it, the understanding can be very painful. She does not mean to offend or upset.
The train is now eleven minutes late, which is not surprising since its driver feels obliged to stop for cows to saunter out of its way, workmen to leave the tracks, and for late-running passengers to reach its doors. Indeed, the 8.45 from Brighton, though it left on time, is not yet even in earshot. All is silent on the Dilberne Halt platform, no huffing and puffing in the distance, no mournful whistle as the steaming iron monster approaches, only the occasional cackle of crows in a dripping winter landscape. Perhaps it isn't coming at all? That sometimes happens. Vivien looks at her little gold watch – too small on her large wrist – but finds it has stopped. She shocks herself. She hates the unexpected. She, usually so careful, has forgotten to wind the thing up. She must be more nervous than she realised. And she so much doesn't want to be late; this is an important day for her.
Woman Proposes, Man Disposes
It is in pursuit of a husband that Vivvie is going to London this morning. She means to propose to Sherwyn Sexton, an attractive and many say charismatic young man, if NSIT (not safe in taxis), who is in her own father's employ as an editor at Ripple & Co. In this she is very unwise indeed; she will suffer and be humiliated, but humiliation is her lot in life, as it is for most plain girls, forget one with an awkward nature. Indeed, it's a marvel any ordinary girl gets married off at all in 1922, the inter-war years being such a buyers' market, so many eligible young men of all nations dead and gone in foreign fields, and so many women left with nothing to do but mourn them.
We may see Vivien as living and dying in the past, before the days of the battery watch, but Vivien believes herself to be living in the present – as one does – and memories of her own past seem more than enough to put up with. You, reader, living now, have the advantage over Vivvie of knowing what will happen next in world affairs – though I can see to some of you that might seem a disadvantage – a mere increase in years of what can only end up, as Tennyson would have it, as 'portions and parcels of the dreadful past'. All times probably seem equally troublesome to those who live through them. Be that as it may, Vivien has had the experience of growing up through four years of a war in which old men found young men expendable, and expended them by the million, thus very much limiting her chance of finding a suitable husband.
Vivvie may be a wealthy young woman in her own right, which certainly helps, but she is seen as very tall in the age she is in, and a man still likes a woman to look up to him, not down on him. He certainly does not want her to loom over him as they stand at the wedding rail. Vivvie is just too large for the normality of the times, when a girl's average measurement is around 31-24-32 and her height five foot two. At the age of twenty, when her mother Adela last measured her and sighed rather loudly, Vivvie found herself 38-34-40, nearly six foot tall and suitor-less. Her height remains a disadvantage when it comes to marriage, even though her mother is Adela Ripple, née Hedleigh, cousin to Arthur, Earl of Dilberne, and wealthy girls of good family usually marry early. But she doesn't smile when she should, utter pleasantries when she ought, has no idea how to flirt, prefers horses to men (in particular her stallion Greystokes) and possibly women to men, though she doesn't like women much either.
But Vivvie is ambitious, intelligent and not without talent. Tucked under her long strong arm as she stands waiting on the station is a portfolio of her illustrations for A Short History of the Georgians: An Outline, to be published by Ripple & Co, her father's publishing firm, in the following spring. They are not bad, if not strikingly good. She is Sir Jeremy's only child and her father is training her up as he would a son to join him in the family firm. He has given up regarding Vivvie as a daughter since she has few feminine graces. He worries far less about this latter than does her mother, his wife Adela.
Woman Proposes, Writer Disposes
But I will not distress you with Vivien for ever. It is not normal in books, films or on TV for much attention to be paid to unattractive women of any age: few films are made, few novels written: the news camera instinctively seeks out the prettiest, youngest women in the street. Why should I break the rules? Vivien is to die before long, leaving girl twins (non-identical) behind, and at least one of them is very beautiful, though the other may be seen as rather plain. Even plainer than her poor dead mama: the kind of girl of whom my own grandmother (born in 1888) would say 'such an unfortunate face. Poor thing!' But that's for the future.
Anyway, here is Vivien: mother-of-twins-to-be. Seared into my mind at the time she is, standing in her shapeless clothes waiting for a late London train, with no idea at all of what I have in store for her. I will give her an easy death. It's the least I can do. She will drift away painlessly from loss of blood giving birth to twin daughters a day after their apparently safe delivery. Ergometrine was not isolated until 1935. Had Vivvie given birth any time thereafter, she could have been saved by a swift dose of the stuff, but so it goes, as Vonnegut was to say in his excellent novel Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes.
Anyway. I haven't yet quite determined whose fault Vivvie's death is going to be, but it is certainly someone's. I will let you know. It's good to have someone to blame, so it's not just happenstance. The purposelessness of real life can get depressing.
A Matter Of Class
For some people a late train is a blessing. 'Oh thank heaven the train's late,' says a voice behind Vivien. It's Mrs Ashton, the widow who keeps the village shop, off to London to buy stock for the winter – the hot water bottles, lozenges, tonics and so forth the village will need as winter settles in. Vivien is glad at least someone else has turned up. The train begins to take on material existence. It may be late but at least someone else has faith in its eventual arrival.
Mrs Ashton, unlike Vivvie, is taking no chances with the weather. She's a wizened rabbit-like creature herself, with a tiny face and a sniffling nose, muffled up in a rabbit fur coat with a fox-fur scarf dangling from her neck as well – little glass eyes staring out of its head one end, little paws, clawing at thin air, the other. Vivvie, who always does what she can to assist small wild creatures, thinks the scarf is gruesome, but wisely keeps her opinion to herself. Such scarves are very fashionable; even her mother Adela owns one, along with a pale mink coat for best and a sable jacket for evenings.
At least Mrs Ashton will be travelling Second or Third Class, thinks Vivvie, so they won't have to travel together. Mrs Ashton is a perfectly pleasant person, apart from her desire to hang her body with dead small animals; but Vivien prefers to travel alone, if only today, to prepare for her coming conversation with Sherwyn Sexton. She herself will of course be travelling First Class.
'Aren't you cold?' Mrs Ashton asks Vivien as at last the train's whistle comes into earshot. It sounds singularly melancholy and forlorn, as if it knows it's just a steam flash in time's pan, that it's not long for this world, and will soon enough be replaced by an electronic wail. 'Shouldn't you have brought a proper coat?'
'I have a good scarf and the cold doesn't bother me anyway,' Vivvie replies as the train wheezes in with flurries of steam, black flecks of soot and motes for the eye, and Vivvie can move away from the one who too familiarly addresses her.
Vivvie comes from the Big House and Mrs Ashton comes from the village and was her mother's maid twenty years ago. It's not just that Vivvie has Asperger's syndrome – always a state more easily forgiven in men than in women, being expected, and one that makes social intercourse difficult – it's that the habit and custom of class distinctions tend to run in the blood of the nation. Vivvie knows that her natural place is in First Class, where the seats are upholstered leather, Mrs Ashton knows hers is in Second Class, where the seats are padded but one step up from Third Class where the seats are wooden slats and most people expect to stand anyway.
And though Vivvie's father Sir Jeremy Ripple, recently knighted by King George V 'for services to literature', is a keen supporter of the Labour Party, and increasingly admiring of the new Soviet Union of Russia, and has brought Vivvie up to believe all men and women are equal, Vivvie finds herself over-aware that Mrs Ashton was once the maid. In theory she, like the rest of her family, are on the side of the people, the proletariat – in practice she finds it difficult to talk to the workers on easy terms. Nor indeed does the cold bother her; though she shivers now, some echo from the future no doubt reaching her, just as it passes from her to me and makes me shiver too even as I write. Let's just leave it that Vivien prefers to travel alone in the eight months left to live that I have allotted her.
As they move together to board the train, Vivvie to the First Class carriage, Mrs Ashton to Second Class, Vivien hears or thinks she hears Mrs Ashton say: 'A lie if ever I heard one. Of course she's cold. She just can't find a coat to fit. Poor thing!' Is it spoken or does Vivvie just hear what she expects to hear? Whatever it is, she is cut to the quick. She can never be like other people. There are tears in her eyes as she finds a seat in First Class, all dark blue plush cushioning, amongst ladies like her, up to London for the day; but for lunch and shopping, not in a desperate attempt to change the pattern of their lives.
A Quarter To Eleven, November 23rd 1922. Ripple & Co Offices, 3 Fleet Street
Would You Marry This Man?
Now consider Sherwyn Sexton, at work in the editorial department of Ripple & Co in November 1922. He is a handsome young man of thirty-three, a Douglas Fairbanks look-alike, many say; that is to say lean, vigorous, muscular and clean-cut of feature, very much in the fashion of the day (but fair-haired and half an inch shorter than Douglas Fairbanks, who in spite of seeming so tall and swashbuckling on camera, was in real life a mere five foot seven). Sherwyn's lack of height greatly perturbs him. He sees his short stature as unfair. Fate gave him so much – looks, charm, wit, talent, a determined heterosexuality, a penis of remarkable strength, length and reliability – why had fate stopped when it came to this last stamp of natural authority – the ability to tower over other men? True, in his short stint at the front as a second lieutenant – 1916, six months – he was known to his command as Napoleon, which has reassured him a little. He may be short but he is recognised as a leader of men. His movements are quick and light. He is a fine dancer. He has bright blue eyes. He is excellent company when in a good mood and knows how to make women laugh. When he is not in a good mood he knows how to make them suffer for it. If you offend him he can sulk for days and days and how you might offend him is never made clear.
He is something of a dandy, in a bohemian kind of way. He wears a red cravat rather than a tie to signal his defiance of office convention. Like so many of his generation he has a small, well-trimmed pencil moustache and no beard – beards are for old men. A generation who saw active service in the trenches – in 1916 the average survival time at the front was a bare six weeks – have turned against beards. Beards interfere with gas masks. At least half way through the months that Sherwyn was at the front the War Office decided to distribute those effective if ugly things – before then a hopeless piece of fabric soaked in urine had to suffice for him. These things, however short-lived, can affect a man's outlook on life for ever. He is a man, not a lad.
Apart from the accident of lacking a few inches in height good fortune is usually on Sherwyn's side, though he rather doubts it at the moment, doomed as he seems to be to scrape a living – but perhaps he should gamble and drink less – in one of his employer's cold and draughty attic offices. Sherwyn is thirty-three and his ambition had been to reach thirty as a published and prosperous literary writer like his father before him. As it is, his life is running behind schedule. He lost a mother to a passing American lover and gained a stepmother whom he does not get on with, and has been thrown out of a comfortable home of his childhood and so has to fend for himself. He is obliged to spend time editing other people's books instead of getting on with his own. This has put his schedule back by at least three years. He doesn't for one minute doubt his genius – it is merely, cruelly, on hold.
Size Isn't Everything. What About His Prospects?
Sherwyn has at least just finished his first novel in the face of financial and personal problems which would have defeated a lesser man. The manuscript has been typed up by the girlfriend with whom he cohabits, but now sits waiting attention in a neat pile of other rivalrous works on the shelf behind Sir Jeremy Ripple's elegant Arts & Crafts rosewood desk. And there it has stayed unread for a full three weeks. Though Ripple & Co does not itself publish fiction, Sir Jeremy is a power in the profession (not yet described as an industry, and very much the preserve of amateur literary gentlemen) and his recommendation will go far. He has promised to recommend the novel – should he like it sufficiently – to Herbert Jenkins, an excellent publisher of popular novels.
Excerpted from Before The War by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 2016 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: The Proposal,
Nine O'clock In The Morning, November 23rd 1922. Dilberne Halt,
A Quarter To Eleven, November 23rd 1922. Ripple & Co Offices, 3 Fleet Street,
Midday, November 23rd 1922. 3 Fleet Street,
June 21st 1947. The Albany, Piccadilly,
Eleven In The Evening, June 21st 1947. An Artist's Studio, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea,
A Quarter Past Midday, Thursday November 23rd 1922. 3 Fleet Street,
Ten To Four, Thursday November 23rd 1922. Dilberne Court Stables,
Five Past Four, Thursday November 23nd 1922. The Editorial Office, Ripple & Co,
Five In The Afternoon, November 23rd 1922. 3 Fleet Street,
In The Afternoon, A Month Earlier. Buckingham Palace,
Five In The Afternoon, November 23rd 1922. 3 Fleet Street,
Six O'Clock In The Evening, Thursday 23rd November 1922. Dilberne Court,
Around Seven O'Clock, November 23rd 1922. Cumberland Market, N.W.,
Part Two: Scenes From Married Life, 1923–39,
A May Afternoon In 1923. Dilberne Court,
A Morning, Later In May 1923. Dilberne Court.,
May & June, 1923. Barscherau, Austria,
The Morning Of Thursday July 3rd 1923. The road to Kufstein,
Lunchtime, Thursday July 3rd 1923. Kiefersfelden,
Teatime, Thursday July 3rd 1923. Kiefersfelden,
Friday July 4th 1923. Barscherau,
Saturday July 5th 1923. Barscherau,
The Morning Of Saturday July 5th 1923. The Road To Keifersfelden,
Later That Morning. Barscherau,
Sunday Morning, July 6th 1923. Barscherau,
Sunday Night, July 6th 1923. Barscherau,
Later On Sunday Night, July 6th 1923. Barscherau,
Sunday Afternoon, July 13th 1923. Barscherau,
Part Three: Lunching,
May 2nd 1926. Simpson's-in-the-Strand,
Midday, September 3rd 1931. 17 Belgrave Square,
February 15th 1937,
Saturday Morning, March 11th 1938,
Saturday Evening, March 11th 1938,
August 29th 1939. Harley Street,
September 1st 1939. Académie St. Augustine, Lausanne,
Also by Fay Weldon,
About the Author,