Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A Pin To See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

In the history of the world it is only we -- we who are young now -- who are really going to know about life. 

I bought this Virago Modern Classic more than five years ago, after Simon and Rachel discussed it in the wonderful podcast Tea or Books? I was going to say "I can't believe I've waited so long to read this" but who am I kidding? I have more than 150 unread books and the pile never seems to grow any smaller. But I recently joined a Goodreads book group that discusses middlebrow books and it was their June pick! (The group has also caused me to buy more books, so I don't know if it's really a win. I'm really enjoying the books though).

It took me awhile to get started, but I zoomed through this book in only three days -- pretty good since it's just over 400 pages. It's one of several books inspired by the Thompson/Bywaters murder trial in the 1920s. I knew nothing about the case other than what I'd heard on the podcast several years ago, and I remembered none of it -- I couldn't even recall who the murder victim was though I had my suspicions. 

I really liked this book but I was surprised at how long it took to get to the actual crime, more than 300 pages. It's really a character study of a young lower-class woman growing up in the Edwardian/WWI period. The protagonist is renamed Julia Almond and the story begins when she's off to school, aged about 16. As one of the upper-level pupils, she's tasked one day with briefly overseeing some younger students, one of whom has a tiny peepshow, a sort of mini-diorama you peer into through a tiny hole. This peepshow acts as a metaphor for Julia's life -- over the next ten years she's observing what she wants and will never have, due to circumstances beyond her control.

I think this is the original dustjacket.
Nice illustration but it doesn't even give a hint about the story.


Julia soon leaves school and studies fashion drawing and French, which leads her to a minor job at a fashion house in London. She's a quick study is working her way up in the business when the Great War begins. People are spending money like there's no tomorrow (and for some, there won't be) and she makes fashionable friends and hopes for a better, more exciting life. 

However, her father dies suddenly leaving Julia and her mother without enough to live on, and they are forced to combine households with her uncle and his family, including a younger cousin Elsa. It's tight quarters and they're obliged to share a room, which overwhelms Julia, and she makes the rash decision to marry an older friend of her father's, Herbert Starling, just to get out of the house. Having had a taste of independence, Julia isn't satisfied as the compliant little wife by the hearth that Herbert has envisioned, and the marriage is doomed from the start. Julia isn't a particularly likable character, but I absolutely sympathized with her frustration and lack of choices for women in the time period, particularly middle-class women who were judged by a much higher standard than lower or upper-class women of that era.  A Pin To See the Peepshow was published in 1934, about twelve years after the murder, and I wonder if it was quite shocking for its time as it covers some topics that are still pretty divisive today.

This book is very character-driven and Jesse takes a long time on developing Julia. Most of the other characters are also well drawn. The murder portion of the book is really only the last 100 pages or so and did feel a bit rushed in parts. The author does spend a good bit of time on Julia's thoughts during and after her trial, and thankfully leaves out a scene at the end which is probably best left to the imagination. My Virago edition also includes an excellent epilogue by the writer who adapted it as a 1973 mini series. (There's also a new British Library Women Writers edition which includes an introduction by Simon!) I was hoping someone had uploaded it to YouTube or other streaming service but I haven't been able to find it. It starred Francesca Annis who I can perfectly imagine as Julia. 

This is book #7 for the TBR Pile Challenge.

6 comments:

  1. It seems as you say a book right up your alley. Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. It was me commenting, Silvia

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  2. I will be reading this soon as it's on both my Classics Club list and 20 Books of Summer list! I'm glad you enjoyed it - a few years ago I read another book inspired by the same trial (The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters) and have wanted to read this one ever since.

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    1. I completely forgot about The Paying Guests! I've read it but it's been several years. There's also one by E. M. Delafield called Messalina of the Suburbs, which is much shorter. I have it on ebooks but naturally haven't gotten around to it yet.

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  3. I've always wanted to read this one. Great review! :)

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    1. It starts out a bit slowly but it's definitely worth reading.

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