by Ursula Orange
Publication Date: March 20, 1944
Project: a century of women, furrowed middlebrow
Of all the unhappiness my divorce has brought upon me, loneliness has never been in the least a part. Lack of company in the evening is to me an absolute luxury.
Thus does Vicky, a young divorcée in London with a small daughter to support, reassure herself.
But as the plucky courage of the early days of World War II gives way to the fatigue and deprivations of its middle, company in the evening is just what she gets. To the chagrin of her housekeeper, Vicky agrees to take in a pregnant, widowed sister-in-law (“Talking to her is like walking through a bog—squash, squash, squash—never, just never do you really crunch on to anything solid”). As she is adapting to this change and the tensions it creates, and dealing with an impossible client at work at a literary agency, she happens to meet ex-husband Raymond one night…
Told in a first-person confessional style ahead of its time, and featuring Ursula Orange’s trademark humour, Company in the Evening is a charming evocation of wartime life, snobbishness in many forms, and the difficulties of being a woman on her own.
I actually wanted to like this book more than I ended up liking it, although I expect that it will stick with me for a while. This is the first book that I’ve read by Ursula Orange – she has two others published by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint: Begin Again and Tom Tiddler’s Ground. I am sure that I will read both of them eventually.
Company in the Evening was published in 1944, and is set in around 1941, during the early days of WWII and during the blitz. I’ve been reading a lot of this books recently – this time period is like catnip for me right now. Vicky, the narrator character, is a 24 year old divorcee living in London. Her marriage fell apart approximately 5 years prior to the start of the book, after her former husband, Raymond, had an affair. Vicky learned that she was pregnant after she had filed for divorce, and kept the secret of her pregnancy until the divorce was final, understanding that it would potentially derail the proceedings. Raymond had indicated during their marriage that he didn’t want children, and once she learned she was pregnant, she decided that it wouldn’t be fair play to inflict parenting on him. He knows about his daughter, Antonia, but so far he has had no interactions with her. Vicky supports herself and Antonia quite ably on her own, with a job in the publishing industry.
Vicky is a hard character to like – she is pragmatic and independent, but she is also a bit of a snob, and has a judgmental side. Some of this, I think, is her defense mechanism – Raymond’s affair was emotionally devastating to her, but she is part of a breezy, monogamy-is-for-squares social class that takes in pride in their bohemian approach to relationships, love, marriage and friendships. In response to this, she has sort of decided to just forgo romance.
The title of the book refers to Vicky’s decision to take in her brother’s pregnant widow, Rene. If Vicky is self-sufficient and independent, Rene is the opposite – utterly helpless. Someone is going to need to care for her, now that her brother has died in combat, and that someone is, apparently, going to be Vicky. This creates drama all around. Vicky manifestly doesn’t really want Rene there, although she is kind to her, and Rene knows this. Her ill-tempered servant, Blakey, who helps Vicky care for Antonia on her own, is thoroughly annoyed by Rene.
While Vicky can be a little bit difficult to like, I admired her, and I think that it’s fascinating that this book was written about a young woman in the thick of WWII. Vicky is carving out independence for herself during a time when that is no easy task for a young woman raising a child as a single mother. There were elements that I liked, but overall, it didn’t quite hit the mark for me, which is why I gave it 3 1/2 stars.