As promised when I wrote about E.M. Delafield’s novel Messalina of the Suburbs, I also wanted to write a review of the other book we discussed in our recent podcast episode (check out Rachel’s review) – two novels based on the same murder. F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin To See The Peepshow was published ten years later than Delafield’s novel – and 12 years after the murder itself – and is, in many ways, strikingly different. It’s also extremely good.
Julia Almond is the name that Jesse adopts for the Edith Thompson character (despite a peculiarly disingenuous note at outset suggesting that ‘every character in this book is entirely fictitious, and no reference whatever is intended to any living person’). She lives with her mother in a working-class area, and is poor and a little neglected. Here the similarities with Delafield’s treatment of the character end – for Julia is entirely out of place in her background.
She is very intelligent and sensitive, artistically-minded and the prize of her class. If Delafield’s character spoke like the woman behind the tea counter in Brief Encounter, Julia is every atom Celia Johnson. Throughout the whole novel, people speak of her as being extremely special and unusual; a butterfly who should not be crushed on a wheel. It’s a curious decision on Jesse’s part – it works, but it lionises the Thompson/Bywater case into something that perhaps it was not.
For the same pathway is trod in this book as in the other – in essentials, at least. Julia marries older, respectable, boring Herbert. It is partly for security, partly to get away from home (which her interfering female cousin has invaded), and partly because she has already felt the pain of love when it is dashed: Jesse invents a beau who is killed in war. But where Delafield made the husband an ogre, Herbert is much harder to dislike. Julia does not find him interesting or attractive, and makes this clear to him – not wanting to hurt him, but holding him to an agreement they made before, that they needn’t share a bed when married. Once the ring is on her finger, he thinks this was a silliness that they needn’t keep to. Both are realistic, relatively sympathetic portraits of people locked in an unhappy marriage.
Parallel with this storyline is one I found equally interesting – Julia’s rise in the shop world. The real Edith did work in a shop, and it was really captivating to see how Julia’s affinity for style and design found a home in this world. Jesse does a great job of giving all the different staff members fully-realised characters, and if Julia’s rise through the ranks is a little Cinderella-esque, then it also gives us the chance to travel with her to Paris catwalks.
And along comes Leonard. It’s not actually the first time we meet him (more on that later), but he comes back into her life: a younger, handsome, beguiling man. It isn’t long before Julia and Leonard are having an affair – and Julia has given her heart to him, writing him letters which reveal too much, and planning out a future for the two of them that cannot happen while Herbert is still married to her. Leonard is drawn brilliantly – making the reader uneasy and suspicious even while we see him through Julia’s loved-up rose-tinted glasses.
And, of course… Herbert is killed by Leonard, in a drunken rage. Like Delafield, Jesse paints an innocent portrait of Julia – innocent of murder at least. But, where Delafield finishes her novel before the story is over, Jesse takes us to prison with Julia – through the appeals and the desperation and to the final denouement – though I shan’t spoil what this is. By carrying on in this way, Jesse builds a really complex psychological portrait. Her novel isn’t quite the page-turner that Delafield’s is, but it is much more nuanced – Jesse has put far more emphasis on depiction of character, though there is still plenty of drama and sensation too. It’s rather a masterclass in how to take a real story and turn into a novel – one which must include plenty of supposition and elaboration, but with such bravado that you don’t feel you can question it without damaging a beautiful construction.
And Leonard? He first turns up as a child at school, where Julia is a slightly older child. He has a toy peepshow that she is intrigued to see (slightly ashamed, for she might be too old for that); she must give a pin in payment to look at it, because the children have started ‘a purely arbitrary rite decreed by fashion’ of collecting pins.
And at once, sixteen-year-old, worldly-wise London Julia ceased to be, and a child – an enchanted child – was looking into a fairyland.
The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance. This little rose-tinted snow scene was at once amazingly real and utterly unearthly. Everything was just the wrong size – a child was larger than a grown man, a duck was larger than a horse; a bird, hanging from the sky on a thread, loomed like a cloud. It was a mad world, compact of insane proportions, but lit by a strange glamour. The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.
Firstly – what a great paragraph. Secondly – it’s interesting that Jesse chose this image for the title of her novel. It’s a curious novel, and presumably this moment is supposed to illustrate much more. It could be lots of things – showing Julia’s rich sense of fantasy life? Her blurring of reality and illusion? Her own eventual status as a spectacle for the watching world? I’m not sure – perhaps all. It’s an element of mystery that seems to sew the novel together – into a rich, enticing, and detailed portrait of a person who (fittingly) can’t quite reflect the real Edith Thompson. Jesse, too, has overlapped fantasy and reality until you can no longer see the seams,