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.