After The Party ~ Cressida Connolly

In a previous post I mentioned that I had been exploring the short lists for past awards of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and had been amazed to discover just how many of them I had read, despite considering myself as someone who didn’t read much in that genre.  Well, last week the short list for this year’s prize was announced and again, one of the books on my library shelf, Cressida Connolly’s After The Party, is up for consideration.

The novel moves between two time periods, from 1938 through the subsequent war years, as well as 1979.  In the former, Connolly uses a third person narrative to tell the story of Phyllis Forrester and her family, newly returned to England after the contract her husband, Hugh, had with his employers has expired.  In the later period the older Phyllis gives a first person account of her memories of that time to an unnamed interviewer.

Left very much to her own devices and with three children on her hands, Phyllis is persuaded by her sister Nina to join her in arranging summer camps on the South Coast for local youth.  Nina is full of enthusiasm for the organisation she and her husband have become involved with and is particularly hoping that the group’s ‘Leader’ will come down for the day and speak to the campers.  Apparently, the sun always shines on those days when he makes an appearance.  Gradually, in a way that very much echoes the insidious manner in which any form of indoctrination takes place, Connolly drip feeds the reader with enough information for it to become clear that the Leader is Oswald Mosley and the group to which Nina and Eric belong, the British Union.

Over the course of the next few months Phyllis and Hugh, neither of them with enough on their hands to keep them gainfully employed, become more and more involved with Mosley’s circle, largely it seemed to me, as a way of boosting their own self-esteem.  They are neither of them certain of their place in British society any more and being part of a group helps them to find an identity.  They are convinced by Mosley’s politics because it supports the belief in their own entitlement as part of a British ruling elite.  Interestingly, Mosley’s links with the leaders of the Third Reich are never mentioned. Eventually, and I am giving nothing away here because it is made apparent in the novel’s opening pages, both Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and we follow Phyllis through imprisonment in Holloway and then internment on the Isle of Man.  Holloway sounds pretty awful, but given what a lot of people were suffering through the Blitz, internment was a life of comparative luxury.  Like most of the Union members, they are released before the war ends, but not before real damage has been done to their family circumstances.

Connolly skilfully shows how easy it is for someone to become involved in an extremist organisation without being aware either of what is happening to them or what the real ideology behind the group is. She may be writing about the British Union, but she could just as easily be reflecting on twenty-first century youth being lured into terrorism.  It is a salutary reminder that not all extremism develops out of an anti-establishment background.  Mosley played on the need of the class from which Phyllis and Hugh came to feel that they were still a ruling force in a society that was beginning to challenge the old class structure. Their feeling of entitlement was being threatened and it is this which seems to have festered in Phyllis’ mind over the years and which makes itself felt in the attitude she displays in the 1979 interview.  I quite warmed to the 1930s Phyllis; I was definitely alienated by the later version.

However, Connolly also explores a possible reason for the change in Phyllis.  She questions just how effective imprisonment was as a deterrent.  It’s clear that before she was incarcerated Phyllis really had very little understanding of what the British Union stood for, but her time in Holloway serves almost as a university education in the subject and she comes out committed to the cause in a way that she wouldn’t have recognised prior to her sentence.  Again, it is easy to draw parallels with the indoctrination of vulnerable  youth that apparently goes on in our prisons today.  Told by the establishment that you are a threat to society there is always the possibility that that may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After The Party gives the reader a lot to think about, not only in respect of its historical context but also in terms of what it has to say about many current situations.  Connolly is a writer I shall look out for in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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19 thoughts on “After The Party ~ Cressida Connolly

  1. Elle April 10, 2019 / 4:20 pm

    It’s great, isn’t it – I found her ability to make us understand Phyllis without agreeing with her quite impressive.

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    • Café Society April 10, 2019 / 4:29 pm

      Yes, I was really sympathetic about the way in which I felt she had been manipulated right up until the last couple of 1979 chapters which was when I became more aware of the attitude of mind that she had been brought up with which made her ripe Mosley material.

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  2. Helen April 10, 2019 / 7:27 pm

    I’ve just borrowed this book from the library, so should be starting it in the next few days. It hadn’t initially sounded very appealing to me when I saw it on the Walter Scott Prize shortlist, but after reading your review and others, I can see that there’s a lot more to the story than I’d thought.

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    • Café Society April 10, 2019 / 8:01 pm

      I don’t think it’s your usual fare, Helen, but I know you enjoy a well told story and I think you’ll enjoy this.

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  3. Margaret April 10, 2019 / 7:30 pm

    So, a dual time line novel that works well by the sound of it. I know very little about Mosley (or the British Union) and he has never seemed a charismatic character to me – but he obviously was for some people.

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    • Café Society April 10, 2019 / 8:02 pm

      You actually see very little of Mosley himself, Margaret, which somehow makes the insidious nature of his influence even worse.

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  4. Rohan Maitzen April 10, 2019 / 10:46 pm

    Sounds fascinating, especially in the ways you show it resonating with contemporary examples of indoctrination.

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    • Café Society April 11, 2019 / 4:31 pm

      Connolly never actually draws the parallel herself, Rohan, but especially when reading about the children at Summer Camp it would be very hard not to do so yourself.

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  5. FictionFan April 11, 2019 / 12:48 am

    I added this one to my wishlist after reading a previous review so I’m glad it gets your endorsement too. I like the idea of the parallels to radicalisation happening today. The British Fascists always used to seem a bit ridiculous to me, I think because PG Wodehouse mocked them so mercilessly, but it’s frightening to think how easily history could have worked out differently if they’d gained real power.

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    • Café Society April 11, 2019 / 4:34 pm

      I would imagine that one of the things that would have infuriated them would be mockery, FF because they took themselves so seriously. They were so convinced that they were entitled to impose their views. Definitely hard line Brexiteers 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. mlegan April 11, 2019 / 6:49 pm

    I have been waiting for my library copy – it is on order. Sounds like a timely book, as well.

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  7. heavenali April 11, 2019 / 10:32 pm

    Gosh this sounds brilliant. On to my wishlist it goes.

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    • Café Society April 12, 2019 / 8:28 am

      It isn’t your usual fare, Ali, but it is your period and I think you will very much enjoy it.

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  8. Liz April 12, 2019 / 12:56 pm

    I picked this up from the library earlier this week – looking forward to reading it even more now!

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      • Liz April 12, 2019 / 1:43 pm

        *rubs hands with glee* 🙂

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