“EAST MOLE — if there ever was a West Mole it had long vanished into obscurity — was one of those small middle-English country towns whose reputation rests on an understanding that it has known better days.
Back in the late nineteenth century the town had been blessed by the patronage of the Tillotson sisters, teetotal spinsters from a branch of a local family who had made their fortune in gin. The sisters had chosen to purge any alcoholic taint in the family blood with a substantial legacy to East Mole, a charitable act which had produced the Town Hall, the Assembly Rooms and the library.”
And it is the library that provides the catalyst for this witty and perceptive portrait of English small-town life in the 1950s. Or, rather, it is Sylvia Blackwell, the newly arrived young librarian with a vision to revive the local library’s children’s section, who is the centre of attention.
Salley Vickers makes no secret of the fact that it was, indeed, a Miss Blackwell in the library that she visited as a child who stimulated her own love of books, and so contributed to her formation as one of our best-loved novelists. To that extent, this is an autobiographical tale, but that is not its primary purpose.
Sometimes, a novel can hit targets that non-fiction can obscure in a haze of mere facts and figures. The wholesale closure of local libraries is well documented, but the statistics cannot convey the social, cultural, and educational costs consequent on denying to communities and individuals, particularly children and young people, the benefits of easy access to books and the worlds that they invite us to explore. She is determined to use her proven storytelling skills to expose a misbegotten and shortsighted policy.
Salley Vickers, the author of the best-selling Miss Garnet’s Angel.
East Mole is just large enough to provide a roster of colourful characters, each in his or her own way coming to terms with emergence into the New Elizabethan Age of post-austerity Britain — but small enough to magnify the significance of apparently inconsequential events and interpersonal relationships.
Miss Blackwell settles into “a redbrick terrace which sat oddly amid the green of the surrounding meadows and petered out at No. 5”. She soon becomes attached to the three children of a neighbour, but manages to alienate another who takes exception to her new ideas for the library — and he has it in for her from day one.
The head librarian is equally unimpressed by her ideas, but salt-of-the-earth Dee, a volunteer library assistant, is up for anything that might subvert the status quo.
Soon Sylvia’s policies are bearing fruit: erstwhile unpromising schoolchildren pass the 11-plus (another of Vickers’s targets), and acquire a taste for the same classics of children’s literature as had inspired Sylvia (and Vickers) in their own younger days.
But, almost inevitably, there is trouble in paradise. Extramarital affairs, children absconding, gossipmongers — and the theft of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer from the top-security adults-only section conspire to put at risk both Miss Blackwell’s good character and the future of the children’s library itself.
Vickers has a gift for brilliant characterisation, and those of us of a certain age will have no trouble recollecting them from our own adolescence. She also succeeds in evoking an era with well-chosen product placements — Teasmades, Wolseley cars, Babycham, etc. — and taken-for-granted facts of life, such as smoking and corporal punishment, which are now infra dig.
Sylvia is a compelling but complex character whose loneliness leads her to lose herself in books, and especially children’s books, because they speak of magic and another reality beyond the everyday world. Her exposure to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in Salisbury Cathedral reinforces this transcendental tendency in her character, which, as so often in Vickers’s novels, ensures that Christian spirituality unobtrusively informs the plot.
Finally, we fast forward 70 years to discover what happened to those inhabitants of East Mole — and to the library under threat from the 21st-century philistines at the gates.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Librarian by Salley Vickers is published by Penguin Books at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-241-33023-4.
THE LIBRARIAN — SOME QUESTIONS
- Mr Booth is concerned that “gypsies” should not be included in an “All Welcome” to the library. How difficult is it truly to find a welcome for all?
- “She’s in 4B. They go to the Secondary Modern.” How are the children categorised in the novel? Did The Librarian affect the way you think about education policy?
- Cyril’s routine child-abuse seems something of an open secret with the villagers. Why do you think it is ignored?
- How does Vickers portray the relationship between Sylvia and her parents? Why does Sylvia find it so difficult to get along with her mother?
- “Like most seducers, he’s a misogynist.” Do you agree with Miss Crake that “most seducers” are misogynists? Do you agree with Sylvia that Hugh Bell might be?
- The Vicar suggests that Mr Booth appears to hate Sylvia because her work in the library is “a perpetual reproach”. What other reasons for hatred are found in the novel?
- “What happened back then, in the past, changes all the time.” What did you understand Lizzie to mean by this? Do you agree with her?
- What did you make of the epilogue? To what extent did the events in the main part of the novel actually affect the rest of the characters’ lives?
- What is the importance of the library in the novel? Are libraries still needed today?
- Sylvia “always enjoyed a book more if she knew how it would end”. Do you agree?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 March, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes. It is published by Urbane Publications at £8.99 ; 978-1-910692-66-0.
Mildred Holland is a woman of opinions, a fact that sometimes frustrates and confuses her rector husband. After eight years travelling the Continent, her husband is happy to settle down, but Mildred finds herself listless and unhappy, stifled in the small Suffolk village that is her husband’s parish. With no children to take up her time, Mildred finds herself drifting, until one day she is inspired to take on an enormous project. She will paint the ceiling of their whitewashed parish church. Inspired by the real-life St Mary’s, Huntingfield, The Huntingfield Paintress is an extraordinary fictional story of the woman who painted its ceiling.
Born in South Carolina, Pamela Holmes has lived in England from the age of eight. As an adult, she has lived on a communal farm in Somerset, studied for a degree in nursing, worked as a health journalist and an on-screen reporter, and brought up two children. She currently works for a dementia charity, and is the lead singer in a rock group, the Scratch Band. The Huntingfield Paintress (2016) was Holmes’s first novel; her second, Wyld Dreamers, was published in late 2018. Holmes lives in London with her husband, Kipper Williams, a cartoonist.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
April: With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix
May: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor