My knowledge of English artist Stanley Spencer was sketchy to say the least when I started reading Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson. This is a biographical novel that walks a difficult line between true fact and imagined conversation and walks it with skill, delicacy and drama. Definitely a novel for anyone who loves art.
Upson takes us into the Spencer household at Chapel View, Burghclere after the Great War when Elsie Munday starts work as a housemaid. Stanley Spencer has been commissioned to paint the inside of a chapel; his wife Hilda, also a painter, minds their young daughter Shirin. Through Elsie’s eyes we see the lives of this family, their ups and downs, the artistic differences, the selfishnesses of Stanley and Hilda, smoothed by the tact, diplomacy and efficiency of Elsie. The title could make some people assume Stanley and Elsie were romantically attached but theirs is a master/servant relationship that deepened into mutual respect and friendship. Stanley, selfish, focussed, is a difficult master, a difficult husband, and Elsie finds herself caught in the middle of disputes between husband and wife. Often she is exasperated with both of them. Instead she becomes indispensable to the household.
Upson gives us an insight into the lives of this family, their daily tasks, the squabbles, the unexpected joys. She combines small inconsequential details of painting with, through Elsie’s growing appreciation of art, the big picture destruction, grief and lasting devastation of war on Stanley’s generation of men. Upson is excellent at portraying place; the Spencers move between Burghclere, Cookham and Hampstead Heath as their marriage disintegrates, a separation complicated by Stanley’s obsession with another woman. No one could have forseen the consequences of this obsession. Stanley is selfish and self-absorbed, Hilda also but to a lesser degree; both can be loving with their children one minute and dismissive the next. At times, neither are particularly likeable; Elsie is the one who picks up the pieces.
Elsie is the core of this story. As narrator we not only see the Spencers through her eyes, we also see her grow from young girl to competent, confident young woman.
The ending was under-whelming but I see it must have been difficult to know how and when to end the novel.
A delightful read. I particularly enjoyed picturing the paintings in my mind as I turned the pages. Reading Stanley and Elsie makes me want to visit Sandham Memorial Chapel near Newbury, Hampshire, now a National Trust property, and also to explore Upson’s other novels.
If you like this, try:-
‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain
‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt
‘Life Class’ by Pat Barker
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
STANLEY AND ELSIE by @nicolaupsonbook #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3Zx via @SandraDanby