Small Pleasures is a novel that grows on you, slowly drawing you in until you feel deeply invested in the characters and their lives. It is the story of Jean Swinney, a journalist for a local paper, who sets out to uncover the truth behind another woman (Gretchen Tilbury’s) claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. Set in 1957 in the South East London suburbs, we stay with Jean as she goes to work, cares for her neurotic, housebound mother and lives her independent, if solitary, life. The nature of her investigation turns her world upside down piece by piece as she breaks away from her mundane and safe existence into a life of excitement, turmoil and love.
If you are drawn to this book by the story of an immaculate conception (actually based on true events of the time), then I fear you might not stick around until the end. The outcome of that storyline bears no real twist, as we are sadly so conditioned now to be unsurprised by acts of violence against women. This book is about Jean, a woman who has been raised to behave dutifully, not to complain and keep her real, authentic self small and hidden behind a veil of conservatism and respectability. We see the same struggle in Gretchen, another woman predisposed to deny her true desires and feelings. Both are in stark contrast to Margaret, Gretchen’s free-spirited young daughter, whose youthful exuberance is a balm for the troubles faced by the adults.
Jean is a woman longing to burst out of her self-imposed, self-controlled carapace. At work she is respected by her all-male colleagues but confined to housekeeping articles on subjects such as the benefits of sawdust for carpet cleaning. Her life is shaped by small pleasures that occur throughout the day: smoking a cigarette alone on the sofa, a newly published library book or a small glass of sherry before lunch.
She then meets the Tilbury family and with that encounter comes the realisation that life cannot be made from small pleasures alone. Life becomes richer: a new dress, a summer’s evening spent playing badminton in the garden, the company of a man who makes her feel seen and understood, for the first time. This all comes at a cost and she slowly realises that to go back to her small, sheltered pre-existence will become impossible.
I felt very invested in Jean and it gave me great satisfaction to see her (to use a term Jean would never use) living her best life. Her relationship with Howard was meaningful and true and both deserved the happiness it brought them. Gretchen’s story was less binary and yet she was by far the most tragic character in the novel, forced to choose between her sexuality and her family.
Speaking of tragedy, much has been made of the last chapter. A quick search showed me that the contributors of GoodReads were not happy, not happy at all. The Hayes train disaster was alluded to by way of a press clipping at the beginning of the book, which did mean that there was an expectation of disaster towards the end. I do understand the criticism, why include it at all? Why kill off a character and Jean’s happiness just as her future seemed bright and promising? I shall simply do what I always do with sad endings and just pretend they didn’t happen. As such, I shall always remember this book fondly for its characters and its post-war housekeeping 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”.