In a recent episode of ‘Tea or Books?’, Rachel and I pitted Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont against Paul Bailey’s At the Jerusalem. While we both preferred Taylor’s novel, I also thought Bailey’s slightly earlier novel (1967) was fantastic – really unusual, and possibly even an inspiration for Mrs Palfrey (c.f. Bailey’s introduction to the Virago reprint).
Bailey’s novel (which I have in a very sweet pocket-sized edition, apparently part of a Bloomsbury series in the 1990s) is about an old people’s home – called the Jerusalem – where Faith Gadny has been dispatched by her stepson Henry and his brightly indifferent wife Thelma. Here, she is torn from a comfortable world that has started to close in on her with its new discomforts – and placed, instead, in a world of interfering and disturbed women on a communal ward that she cannot escape.
Faith does not try to ingratiate herself. She is unresponsive to overtures of friendship, says few words to anybody, and is pretty closed off. This has the effect of making her closed off to the reader too – unlike Mrs Palfrey, this is not a book to turn to for a warm or empathetic character. But it is, perhaps, for a sympathetic character – for who would wish themselves in her position, at a place as steriley unpleasant as the Jerusalem? Other residents have either lost their faculties or are far too keen to make friendships that Faith does not want – and there is always, always the recurring motif of the woman who once hanged herself in the toilets.
Stylistically, At the Jerusalem will either impress or irk. Rachel was irked; I was impressed. A lot of the novel is in sparse dialogue – often crossing over each other as several conversations whirl around. The talent of Bailey is that it’s always obvious what’s going on, though at first glance it doesn’t seem like it (and you might need some context!) – and I found it darkly funny, even with hardly any words on the page. For example…
Another page. “More relations. That one there with the eyes is Cousin Charlie. He ended up in Africa. Nothing more was heard.”
“Who’s a good girl? Who’s finished her junket?”
“He could have been eaten, for all anybody knew. Stewed in a pot.”
When did Miss Burns sleep?
“He had enough meat on him.”
At every hour of the day she sat upright, staring.
Wouldn’t a meal have made her sleepy?
“My wedding, Faith?”
“My wedding. Don’t I look fetching?”
“I was thirty.”
“He was a fair bit older. Harry Capes. Handsome Harry.” She laughed, winked. “Oh, he was too. And I loved him. At the time.” She paused. “It was on a Sunday, it was the June of 1921; he’d been in the war, he’d come out of it in one piece.”
Tom had a scar to show.
The novel starts in the home, flashes back to Henry and Thelma’s house for the second section, and returns to the Jerusalem in the third. In each, the coherence of the writing echoes the stage of Faith’s mind – getting more traditional in the flashback section. It’s never unreadable or even particularly experimental, but Bailey cleverly puts enough fragility into his prose that you can see the patterns.
Overall, what impressed me with Bailey was the sparseness of his writing, and how much he conveys with so little. Quite a few of the minor characters aren’t well delineated, and I had a tendency to get them a bit confused, but there are four or five at the forefront of the novel (including Faith) who are incredibly nuanced, given how little we hear from or about them. And there are a couple pivotal moments which are handled very well – without being unduly sensationalist. It’s certainly not a harrowing book, but it is often poignant in a slightly dark way – while also being amusing. I liked this moment in which Bailey mocks the redundancy of much speech – but it is a melancholy humour:
“Her Majesty sends telegrams to all her centenarians. The Mayor and Mayoress sent a very thoughtful message today.”
“Did they, Matron?”
“Shall I read it out?”
“What one is it? Ah, yes. ‘Mrs Hibbs, The Jerusalem Home. Greetings on reaching your great age. Mayor and Mayoress Ernest and Sylvia Marsh.'”
“It is thoughtful.”
“Thoughtful. As Matron says.”
At The Jerusalem isn’t the achievement that Mrs Palfrey is, but it’s astonishing for a debut novel by a 30 year old. And, I learned after I finished it, Bailey is still alive and possibly still writing. I can see that I’ve got some catching up to do!