by Juliet Nicolson
Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter crafts a workmanlike tour of 1936, the year of the abdication of Edward VIII. This is a pleasant and agreeable book, and the character of May – a chauffeur from Barbados whose cousin married an East End Jew – is a walking personification of post-colonial Britain. Evangeline Nettlefold, a portly American schoolfriend of Wallis Simpson, gives us access to scenes to which even the endlessly resourceful May cannot gain access.
A lesbian subplot is clumsy and unsympathetic, and one of the central issues – the appeal of Mosely’s fascists – gets lost in sentiment. A writer who can acknowledge the assistance of a dowager duchess by thanking “Debo Devonshire” might find a way to explain what those fascists were thinking; they were wrong but they were not all idiots, and it does us little good to pretend that we ourselves are inherently too good for that. Debo’s sister killed herself for love of Hitler when war was declared, and there’s a lost opportunity here to try to understand what was happening. (For a better shot, see Jo Walton’s Farthing.)
Thorough editing would have helped here, both avoiding some apparent blunders (surely those risky jokes were risqué, and surely Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter must be familiar with that word) and perhaps finding a better solution to all the exposition that surrounds May’s backstory. Nonetheless, a pleasant summer read.