IN THE 1950s, a group of British scientists began to give serious consideration to the possibility of single-sex reproduction in human beings. A biologist, Dr Helen Spurway, from the University of London wrote a paper in which she observed both that a particular species of fish was capable of parthenogenesis, and also that it was possible to induce spontaneous conception in rabbits by freezing their fallopian tubes. What were the implications for humans?
That might have been that, had not some bright spark on a Sunday paper picked up the hypothesis and launched a Christmas competition to find a woman who had experienced a virgin birth. Most of the candidates who came forward were swiftly discounted, apparently confused by the definition of virginity, but one woman, a German named Emmimarie Jones, reported having conceived a child while bed-bound in a sanatorium. Extensive investigations left the scientific community divided on the case.
It is this true story that inspired the author Clare Chambers, when she heard a discussion of the case on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. The heroine of Small Pleasures is Jean Swinney, a frumpy woman who lives an unfulfilled life with her elderly mother in the suburbs of London, while working on the North Kent Echo. Her days are spent writing “women’s stories” and dispensing household tips (“To keep your fingers white and soft, dig your nails into the pith of an old lemon skin after completing any dirty jobs at the kitchen sink,” and “Never throw away an old plastic mackintosh. The hood cut off will make a useful toilet bag. The large back panel may be used to line a suitcase to ensure safety from damp should the case get wet when travelling”).
Jean’s world is drab. Her mother is stiflingly dependent and impossible to please. Money is always tight, and meals consist of “liver and onions. . . pudding of tinned pears with evaporated milk”. Jean’s evenings are spent playing gin rummy or picking through a basket of mending in a room where the lamps give out “a grudging yellowing light behind their brown shades”. Her mother embroiders “porridge coloured” doilies: “They had dozens of these . . . little puddles of string under every vase, lamp and ornament.”
The only excitement is the occasional breezy letter from Jean’s married sister Dorrie, who lives in Kenya, leaving Jean seething with resentment. (“‘She writes a super letter,’ Jean’s mother said. ‘Well that’s because she has a super life to write about,’ Jean retorted.”)
© Anna McCarthy PhotographyThe British author, Clare Chambers. Described by critics as the 21st-century heir to Barbara Pym
Otherwise, her days pass “without great peaks and troughs of emotion”. The relentless routine is broken only by the annual holiday with her mother, which she dreads. Repressing all her longings, Jean finds solace in the “small pleasures” of the title. “The first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer…”
One day Jean’s editor suggests that she investigate the case of “Our Lady of Sidcup”, a woman, Gretchen Tilbury, who claims to have given birth to her daughter Margaret without the involvement of a man. Gretchen’s story is that she became pregnant in a nursing home while being treated for rheumatoid arthritis. The novel follows Jean’s attempts to uncover the truth.
The investigation involves extensive hospital tests — serum samples, saliva analysis, and a skin graft — at Charing Cross Hospital. It entails Jean’s tracking down the matron of the hospital, now retired, and the other former patients to corroborate Gretchen’s story. In the process, Jean finds herself charmed by Gretchen, and equally by Margaret, who reawakens a longing in Jean for children of her own. Jean finds herself increasingly drawn into the Tilbury fold, becoming an honorary aunt to Margaret. The evolving relationship is life-changing, bringing Jean both great joy and extreme emotional turmoil.
At one level, this is a whodunnit, intricately plotted with twists and turns as Jean delves deeper in her quest for truth. The outcome of the investigation — which would never have been in doubt had DNA testing been available — is far from straightforward in its ramifications. At another level, it is the story of one woman’s passionate awakening to possibilities outside her stifling orbit and her moral tussle between pursuing pleasure and doing her duty.
Yet the power of the book lies as much in its evocation of an era as in its solving the presenting mystery. The author recreates the 1950s with great deftness. She has justly been compared to Barbara Pym: her writing is spare and precise, and her observational powers are razor-sharp.
Then there’s the timing. It is unsurprising that a story about someone trying to escape a claustrophobic world should become a word-of-mouth sensation during the year when life was so constrained for most of us.
If I have a quibble, it is about the ending; readers will make up their own minds. But, overall, this is a gripping, tender, and powerful novel that lingers long in the memory.
Sarah Meyrick is a freelance writer and novelist.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers is published by Orion at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-4746-1390-3.
SMALL PLEASURES — SOME QUESTIONS
- How does the concept of “duty” affect the characters in the novel?
- How do the “men of science” feature? How is power ascribed to science?
- “Why do women lie? To protect themselves, of course.” How is the society described punitive towards women? Have things changed?
- Who, if anyone, was to blame for Jean’s experience of abortion? Are things better today?
- Why does Jean feel so trapped in her life with her mother?
- Is “Vicky” a villain? Who should take responsibility for the events at St Cecilia’s?
- Much of Jean’s life is taken up with the realities of shopping, domestic tasks, and meal-planning. How does this take its toll on her?
- How does the Lewisham train disaster feature in the novel? What effect does the novel’s ending have, for you?
- “The urge to tell him was unstoppable.” What drives us to tell our secrets?
- What are the “small pleasures” of the title? Are these pleasures?
IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 7 January, we will print extra information about our next book, A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell. It is published by Penguin at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-14-118465-4.
Published in 1935, A Clergyman’s Daughter is often described as Orwell’s most experimental novel. Dorothy Hare, the obedient daughter of the Rector of Knype Hill, East Anglia, is concerned about spinsterhood, tight household finances, visiting parishioners, and making costumes for charity events. When she suffers from a serious bout of amnesia and finds herself homeless in London, life changes dramatically, and she experiences a new social world of hardship, including manual labour, vagrancy, and a night in police custody. All this builds her awareness of the divergence between the ideals of Christianity and the reality of 1930s society, increasingly testing her faith.
Born in East India in 1903, Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) was an English novelist, poet, critic, and journalist. He is best known for his socialist and anti-totalitarian views and for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. Blair studied at Eton before working briefly for the Indian Imperial Police. After resigning, Blair spent periods immersing himself in the lives of the English and Parisian poor, living in slums and working as a hop-picker and dishwasher. In 1936, he travelled to Spain, where he fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and was seriously injured. He died in London in 1950.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
February: Pew by Catherine Lacey
March: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen