Reading so often means judging. Not only do we determine whether or not we like a book, we also judge the characters. Do we enjoy their company? Do we agree with their thoughts and actions? These questions were at the forefront of my mind as I read Cressida Connolly’s After the Party. I judged everyone in this book (and not just because of historical hindsight or my own socialist leanings). Even though I disliked all of the major characters, I was fascinated at this glimpse into the lives of privileged Britons just before World War II as they become entangled with the British Union of Fascists.
Phyllis Forrester has returned to England in 1938 after years abroad. Her husband worked for British Rubber and now they plan to retire in Sussex to raise their children. From the first, I was exasperated with Phyllis and annoyed by her husband, Hugh. Phyllis is ineffectual. Her children are poorly behaved because she’s always had staff to take care of them. She has been steamrollered by her husband and siblings for most of her life. (In fact, there were so many times in this book where Phyllis is cut off by someone else that I lost count.) Hugh is pompous and incapable of seeing any of his flaws. I would have felt more sorry for Phyllis if it weren’t for the way she and Hugh not just drift into but fully join Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists after an open invitation from Phyllis’ sister, Nina. At first, it’s just a way for Phyllis to give her children something to do before they’re shipped off to boarding school. Before long (and even long after, in Phyllis’ reminisces of the time from 1979), it’s clear that she and Hugh agree with Mosley and the fascists’ nationalistic politics. Oh, Phyllis is a little upset about the anti-Semitism, but not enough to really do anything about it.
After the Party follows Phyllis from 1938 to 1943, with brief jumps to 1979. We know from the first that Phyllis will be sent to prison for her membership in the British Union under Defense Regulation 18B, but it was hard for me to see just how that would happen to someone who, at first, seems barely to have any real personality. Even when I learned more about her, it was hard to see Phyllis as an out-and-out fascist. She’s just a hapless mother, a lonely woman with few if any real friends, who always goes along with others because it’s easier to not make a fuss. Then it dawned on me that not all fascists have to be like Mosley, Hitler and his ilk, or Mussolini. It’s almost more frightening to realize that fascists can be otherwise “decent” people on the outside—at least until they start to reveal how they feel about “those people” or you see their voting record or discover that they fail to have any compassion whatsoever for people outside of their thin slice of society. It seems that all these people want is to preserve their unearned privileges and continue to amuse themselves forever.
After the Party is the kind of interwar story we haven’t seen before. So many of the ones I’ve read or seen, like Gosford Park or The Remains of the Day, are bathed in nostalgia about the elegance and manners of a lost world. This novel contains all of the beautiful clothing, days filled with nothing but tea and polite conversation, and so on, but it also portrays the people living those lives in such a way that we see their narrow-mindedness, lack of empathy, and cluelessness about the world outside of garden parties in Sussex. Before this book, I might have wanted an invitation to one of their glittering dinners. After, however, I don’t know if I would be able to attend without unleashing my inner proletarian and telling all of the guests exactly what I thought of their casual cruelty and delusions of superiority before dramatically exiting. I realize this makes it sound like I hate these characters. I kind of do, but it’s more that I hate what they represent. While I might dislike the characters (a lot), I absolutely enjoyed reading about them. After the Party is a very good book, with a richly realized setting, that offers plenty of fodder for discussion.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.