IT IS the 1920s, and a young woman, Elsie Munday, who has gone into service, is looking for a new position. She is taken on as a maid to an artist and his wife, who are living in the Hampshire village of Burghclere while the artist undertakes a commission.
The artist is Stanley Spencer, and the commission is the Sandham Memorial Chapel, built by Mary and Louis Behrend in memory of Henry Sandham, Mary’s brother, a victim of the First World War. Spencer is to paint the interior of the chapel as a memorial to the fallen. The task is colossal: 16 vast paintings, entirely filling the walls. Combining his own traumatic experiences of war — he served as an orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps — with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will take six years to complete, but will become the masterpiece that he is best remembered for.
What Elsie doesn’t appreciate is that, by joining the Spencer household, she will become deeply entangled in a web of complex relationships — although her parents warn her against the dangers of associating with “artistic” types. Spencer is charming but selfish and irascible; his relationship with his wife, Hilda Carline, arguably a better artist than her husband, is far from straightforward. They have a daughter, Shirin, who is frequently overlooked. But Elsie establishes herself as an essential part of the household. She will also appear in Spencer’s work as the subject of his painting Country Girl.
Stanley and Elsie is a fictionalised retelling of true events. By the time Elsie arrived, Spencer was already well known. Soon after leaving the Slade in 1912, he came to prominence with his paintings depicting biblical scenes reimagined in Cookham — “a village in heaven” — and his home. (He was even nicknamed “Cookham” by his contemporaries at art school because of his devotion for the village.) His fervent Christian faith informed his entire body of work, along with the question whether art can help to heal the wounds inflicted by war.
During the book, the Spencers return to his family home in Cookham. As the artist’s star rises, his marriage begins to founder. The complications are explored: Spencer becomes infatuated with another artist, a strange and manipulative character; after various shenanigans, he and Hilda eventually divorce. When the second relationship goes wrong, he tries and fails to regain Hilda’s affections.
Nicola Upson, author of Stanley and Elsie
So much for the public narrative: the goings-on of the Spencer family were highly unconventional, horribly messy, and scandalised those around them. Elements of the story have been variously retold over the years — in the play Stanley by Pam Gems, for example. What Nicola Upson achieves in her novel Stanley and Elsie is a fresh perspective on the life of a distinguished 20th-century artist by telling the story from a domestic point of view.
She creates a believable world of 1930s life, a household entirely dependent on the labour of servants to function. We discover what it was like for Elsie to arrive in a situation where, even at 22, she knows considerably more than her employers about how to run a house and care for a child. Elsie has to take control and make decisions about what is required. She gradually gains their trust, and both Hilda and Stanley come to rely on her. In time, she becomes the calm centre of stability within all the turmoil.
Nor is she afraid to challenge what she sees around her, or to offer comment on Spencer’s art as it evolves. Indeed, the artist confides in her; they discuss what he is trying to achieve. A sort of friendship evolves. It would have been all too easy to make Spencer entirely unsympathetic, to pit Elsie against him, siding with the other women in his life. Yet Upson’s Elsie develops an affection for the artist, and a sense of loyalty, in spite of his appalling behaviour.
Upson is better known for her period crime fiction, such as An Expert in Murder, where mysteries are investigated by one Josephine Tey. She is familiar, therefore, with weaving together biography with imagination in her fiction. Behind Stanley and Elsie lies painstaking research, including interviews with Elsie’s son, Gordon Beckford, and Shirin Spencer. She knows Spencer’s work inside out. The book is illuminated by his paintings, vividly and skilfully redrawn in the reader’s mind, together with evocative descriptions of rural southern England in the interwar years.
Overall, Upson has created a sensitively imagined picture of the lives of the characters — one widely celebrated, and the other, until now, almost invisible. The result is a highly readable and compelling novel. That said, it is hard to like Spencer as depicted, or defend his selfishness. His was a peculiar life, at best; and, perhaps, one of those occasions where truth is markedly stranger than fiction.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson is published by Duckworth Books at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop, £9.90); 978-0-7156-5368-5.
STANLEY AND ELSIE — SOME QUESTIONS
- In the resurrection painting in the Memorial Chapel, Christ is unusually depicted as a tiny, distant figure at the top of the canvas. Why do you think this is?
- “Except it wasn’t war, not in the sense that she had expected.” How does Stanley memorialise the First World War?
- How might we account for the difference between Stanley’s religious feeling and his ethical practice?
- Stanley is jealous of Elsie’s happiness, which he sees as easy. What different kinds of happiness are there, and how far can we control ours?
- “I’ll sleep with as many women. . . as my art needs.” Why do we often use art as an excuse for bad behaviour?
- Stanley is described as thoughtless rather than intentionally hurtful. Is that any better?
- Why do you think Stanley and Hilda write each other letters rather than communicate in person? How does this change their communication?
- “Isn’t that what peace is sometimes? A succession of bland moments?” Do you agree?
- “The man is never at fault when there’s a woman to blame.” Who is “at fault” in this novel, do you think? Patricia? Stanley? Everyone?
- “How easily he linked love and conflict.” Why do these so often go hand in hand?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 May, we will print extra information about our next book, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. It is published by Corsair at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-4721-5466-8.
Kya Clark, abandoned by her mother and then the rest of her family, is left to grow up alone in the North Carolina coastal marshland. Although not entirely isolated from the townsfolk, the majority of her life lessons come from her observations of surrounding nature and wildlife. She later uses these observations to interpret the behaviour of humans she meets: in particular, that of two young “townies” who find themselves attracted to her. But, as an outsider, “Marsh Girl” is an object of suspicion to the locals. When a body is found in the marsh, she finds herself a suspect.
Born in southern Georgia in 1949, Delia Owens has a degree in zoology from the University of Georgia, and a doctorate in animal behaviour from the University of California, Davis. She and her former husband, Mark Owens, moved to Africa in 1974, and the couple worked for many years as wildlife scientists in North Luangwa National Park, and Mpika, Zambia. She now lives in Boundary County, Idaho. In addition to her novel Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens is the author of several bestselling works of non-fiction, including the award-winning Cry of the Kalahari (co-written with Mark Owens).
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
June: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
July: Honour by Elif Shafak