Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson Duckworth May 2nd 2019
It’s 1928 and Stanley Spencer arrives in a quiet Hampshire village ready to create the commission of a lifetime. Hired as his housekeeper, Elsie quickly becomes so much more: a muse and a friend for whom he develops a deep, lifelong affection. A joy in the ordinary things bonds them, a simple love of life which is crucial to Spencer’s art but which his wartime experiences and growing celebrity have all but destroyed.
Elsie becomes a vital part of the Spencer family, sharing in the creation of Spencer’s masterpieces and the daily dramas of his life: his marriage to the painter Hilda Carline and the artistic rivalry between husband and wife; the continuing impact of the First World War on all their lives, and the scandal over Spencer’s personal and artistic attitudes toward sex. As the years pass, Elsie does her best to keep the family together even when love, obsession and temptation seem set to tear them apart…
Spencer painted the women in his life with a combination of ruthless honesty and nostalgic idealism, but their voices are tantalisingly absent from history. Stanley and Elsie turns the tables and gives full lives to the women who shaped Stanley
Who was Stanley Spencer, what drove his art, what made him the man he was? Having not read or known too much about Spencer I was delighted to be invited to participate in Nicola Upson’s Stanley and Elsie blogtour a novel that was steeped in the nuances of a man at odds with himself and society.
It wasn’t Spencer who told his story but his maid Elsie, a young woman from a traditional farming background, who had seen little of the wider world.
You expected naivety in the face of what she witnessed and what she became part of, and yes there was that but there was something else. Elsie had that ability to see beyond the surface, to rationalise and indeed provide clear advise and wisdom that seemed so far beyond her years.
She was our eyes on the day to day minutiae of Spencer and Hilda’s marriage, the confident to both, the straight talker who battled to drum sense into each of them when their marriage and themselves began to fall apart.
Upson’s interpretation of her relationship with Spencer was wonderfully done. You could sense the mutual respect, Elsie’s willingness to learn but offer Spencer an alternative view not only of himself but of his paintings. It was often hard to believe that she was the paid help so bold was Elsie in her plain talking, her ease in which she fitted perfectly into their family.
Yet we know that life is never plain sailing and Upson skilfully used Elsie to show us the breakdown of the family, the scandal and shock that rocked the community of Cookham. You also felt her disappointment not only in Spencer but also in Hilda, their unwillingness to compromise, to put their children first. I did wonder how Elsie stayed with them for so long, perhaps she hoped that Spencer and Hilda would relent, would work it out and come back together.
If Upson showcased her wonderful ability to bring her characters to life then she was equally adept at bringing the complexities of Spencers’ war paintings to life. Her narrative was wonderfully vivid and I could clearly picture the chapel in which he worked, the painstaking way in which he sought to bring his own experiences of war to life. Upson did such a wonderful job that I spent a couple of hours googling Spencers paintings and his history.
That was what was so wonderful about Stanley and Else, the authors ability to engage the reader, to fully immerse them in her subject. She didn’t bog us down with needless information but cleverly wove it into the story, into the interactions between the characters.
It was a novel that I enjoyed immensely and would highly recommend to anyone Wether they have an interest in the world of art and Sir Stanley Spencer or not.
I would like to thank Duck Books for a copy of Stanley and Elsie to read and review and for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author
Nicola Upson was born in Suffolk and read English at Downing College, Cambridge. She has worked in theatre and as a freelance journalist, and is a regular arts
contributor to a number of radio networks. Nicola’s debut fiction, An Expert in Murder, was the first in a series of novels to feature the real-life author and playwright Josephine Tey, one of the leading figures of the Golden Age of crime writing. The book has been dramatised by BBC Scotland for BBC Radio 4, and was praised by PD James as marking ‘the arrival of a new and assured talent’. Nine Lessons, Nicola’s most recent novel, was shortlisted for the 2018 CWA Historical Dagger. Nicola lives with her partner in Cambridge and Cornwall.