My journey back to 1956 continues this week with the wonderful Tea at Four O’Clock written by Janet McNeill.
In this quiet but penetrating and often heartbreaking novel, the question of familial guilt and duty, and particularly how it impacts on women, is beautifully explored against the backdrop of Belfast in the 1950s.
Tea at Four O’Clock centres on the Percival family and in particular Laura, the middle of three siblings. As the book opens, eldest sister Mildred has died after years of illness through which Laura has nursed her. On the day of Mildred’s funeral, Laura’s younger brother George reappears at Marathon, the large family home in the Belfast hills. The black sheep of the family, he has not contacted his family in twenty years, but sees Mildred’s death as an opportunity to raise his own family out of the working class life that he so resents.
Laura’s life, to this point, has been one of dutiful obedience – first to her strict father and then to her tyrannical sister. She has nursed Mildred through the final years of her illness and her world has shrunk to such an extent that she takes inordinate pleasure from the words of the minister at Mildred’s funeral who praises Laura for being ‘the sister who with exemplary devotion did not spare herself in the long months of nursing’.
Now, as sole heir to Marathon and to the family fortune, Laura has no idea what direction her life will take.
Suddenly the big clock in the hall struck four. Four o’clock! Four o’clock and she was late. Panic gripped her, and she started to the door. How could she be here idling in her room while the tea-tray was waiting in the pantry, and in the drawing room – then a tide of recollection poured hotly over her. No, no-one was waiting for the tea tray today.
Everyone around her has plenty of ideas of how Laura should live now, but they mostly benefit themselves. Through Laura, George sees a way to regain what he feels is his rightful ownership of Marathon and sets about trying to convince Laura to let his family move in with her.
Miss Parks, a friend of Mildred, who has lost her position at her brother’s church, is trying to make herself invaluable to the Marathon household in order that she might stay there indefinitely. Mr McAlister, the family lawyer and friend of Laura’s father, warns her about both George and Miss Parks and urges her to make her own decisions, but he has his own, not entirely unselfish wish for Laura’s future.
In order to try and make plans for a future of her own, Laura feels the need to make sense of the past and in particular a difficult time in her life when happiness seemed within her grasp. George’s return has sparked memories of Tom, a friend of his whom Laura loved and through a series of flashbacks, McNeill describes the small twists and turns of fate that have blighted Laura’s life and left her with feelings of inadequacy and responsibility.
Janet McNeill is a very subtle writer, exploring ideas and themes in a complex but interesting way. She seems to have affection for her characters, but is not averse to showing them in an unpleasant light. Everyone in this novel has a hidden agenda and no one says what they mean. McNeill is particularly good at having her characters talk at cross-purposes and exploring how, under these circumstances, true communication and connection is impossible. She explores the psychological workings of her character’s minds with wit and subtlety and probes issues of class and society with a particular insight.
Laura is the heart of the novel and McNeill beautifully depicts a promising life that has been derailed, both by the actions of others and by her own feelings of propriety and duty.
“Oh George, looking back on it all now, I feel – I feel as if I’d been in prison as long as I could remember.”
“Well, the door’s open now, and you just walk out.”
“Is it as easy as that?”
“Just as easy as that.”
But Laura finds that moving on is not as easy as that and as the extent of what has been done to Laura in the past comes to light, she finds it even harder to escape the prison that is mostly in her mind and one that she has been almost complicit in creating.
Tea at Four O’Clock is to some extent, a profoundly sad book, depicting as it does, a life cut short, stunted rather than tended to. Yet it is beautifully written, at times amusing, and is a perceptive exploration of the complexity of family life.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!