The First World War is over, and in a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.
When Elsie Munday arrives to take up position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.
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…
A vivid picture of the life of painter Stanley Spencer, Stanley and Elsie re-imagines real people and events, giving new insight from the perspective of a charismatic female lead.
I love Nicola’s books and have read many of her Josephine Tey novels over the last few years, so was delighted when I saw on twitter that she was due to release a new book, and a standalone book too.
Based on the life of the artist Stanley Spencer, it covers the time of his marriage to Hilda during the 1920s and beyond in a superb blend of fact and fiction.
Stanley has moved his young family to Burghclere, a quiet village in Hampshire, as he is working on a long term commission from Mary and Louis Behrend to paint the inside of an entire chapel in memory of Mary Behrend’s brother, who had died at the end of the first world war. They hire a housekeeper/maid called Elsie and the book follows this family through the next few years.
I loved the story of this family. The writing is warm and tender with each character coming to life for the reader immediately. The feel and atmosphere of the novel in its time and place is wonderful and you really get a feel for the home and its surroundings, especially the first house, Chapel View.
All the characters mentioned in the book are real, and the author works her magic in portraying actual events and truths whilst feeling in the gaps with fictional conversations etc that fit perfectly. I knew nothing of this artist and his wife so found myself looking up details as I went along. However this was probably something that would have been best left till the end of the book. The author had clearly done her research as one may have guessed and left little out. Although it was nice to look up some of his paintings, especially those from the chapel, to get a feel for his style to imagine the parts in the book relevant to his painting.
Elsie was a fabulous character and without going to much into the story and spoiling it clearly played and enormous part in the family’s lives. The details and attention giving to her character and daily life made her into a warm and fully form person and I got a wonderful feel for her and her daily tasks especially when working in her kitchen at Chapel View.
Her relationship with her two employers was very interesting to read and I enjoyed the way she gained their trust and became such an important part of their lives. Stanley seemed to be a very complex character and there were times that he wasn’t very likeable as he often only seemed to think of himself, yet everyone around him seemed to forgive his mistakes. I’m not sure if I feel quiet the same.
This book is a lovely portrait of a family and a beautifully written book.
I would like to thank the publisher for an advanced copy of the book.
Published by Duckworth on May 2nd.