A PIN TO SEE THE PEEPSHOW by F Tennyson Jesse
Virago ISBN: 086068 0843
Julia Almond, born to drab suburban life in Edwardian London, longs for more. Short-sighted and vain, she sees the world in an astigmatic blur, and yearns for the romantic fairy-tale she once glimpsed in a toy peepshow. We meet her at sixteen, an incurably romantic child-woman, careless of others, yet with a spirit and charm which is compelling.
The opening chapter reminded me of Katharine Mansfield, capturing the vivacious, joyful, if rather heedless preoccupations of a girl on the threshold of womanhood. Julia is insightful, but lacks empathy; she is energetic and intelligent, but lacks the self-control to apply herself to her studies. Her cleverness and good business mind do, however, allow her to rise in status at the ladies’ fashion house where she works, and she dares to aspire to more. But her ambitions are unrealistic for a lower middle-class woman of the time, and she dangerously oversteps the narrow path that her class, sex and education has laid out for her.
A growing, uneasy sense of inevitability overshadows Julia’s actions as the story progresses, and ultimately, she pays a terrible price for wanting more than the sexual prejudice and social restrictions of the time would afford to women. First published in 1934, the novel was inspired by Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the notorious ‘Ilford Murder’ of 1922, and this witty, insightful, seductive novel was considered shocking at the time. It retains that power to shock – and is recognised as a modern classic. I highly commend it.