Friday, January 25

A Sensible Life – Mary Wesley

Despised by her father and a burden to her mother, ten-year-old Flora Trevelyan has never known anything else until she comes across a group of middle-class British families holidaying in France for Easter. Starved for warmth and affection, Flora falls hopelessly in love with them all, particularly the boys – Felix, Cosmo and Hubert. Bundled off to boarding school when her self-absorbed, egotistical parents move to India, her memories of that oasis are the only respite from institutionalism, and girls who inexplicably love and miss their families.
Wesley carries us over the next four decades, as we watch Flora – who grows from an awkward child into a self-possessed and beautiful woman – resolve her relationships with the three young men. A less subtle writer would have forcefully emphasised the shabby and distressing treatment of Flora, by both her parents and by the other adults in her life; set in contemporary times Flora may well have become a victim or a sociopath. But Wesley draws the novel in pastel, allowing the impact of events to gently permeate the writing, and her heroine is buoyed by her experiences of a different kind of family - Flora gains strength and resolve that would otherwise have been determinedly squashed by her resentful parents and makes her own way in the world.
As she always does, Wesley manages to imbue the novel with a sensibility of the changing times (the opening scenes take place in 1926), weaving in concerns about socialism, the General Strike, pre-war perceptions of Hitler, and the mores of that particular class. Although Flora is the centre of the novel, the secondary characters are equally well drawn – over the rest of the novel we drop in on the indolent and self-obsessed Denys and Vita Trevelyan in India and see how the British families cross over with one another in the UK. The result is a gentle, satisfying novel that resonates after the book is put down. – Alex

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