Angela Fytton, heroine of Mavis Cheek’s Mrs Fytton’s Country Life, is an intelligent, liberated woman, she’s enough of a feminist to want partnership and equality in a relationship, and she has no intention of ever becoming a doormat. She certainly doesn’t become that, but in her determination to keep husband Ian happy and worry free (or, perhaps, just to keep him), she turns herself into the kind of Superwoman who does everything, and does it all superbly well. She’s the perfect wife and mother, frighteningly capable and efficient. She helps build Ian’s business, listens to what he has to say, runs the home faultlessly (she can cook and decorate with equal ease), never loses her figure or her looks, and is always good in bed.
The thing that keeps her going is the thought that one day, when the children leave home, there will be enough cash for Ian to take a back seat at work, so they can travel the world together, and do the things they’ve always wanted to do. But Fate has a nasty trick to play…
For just as Angela’s cherished dream of the future seems within grasp, Ian falls for the charms of pretty, helpless Binnie who slips on her too-high heels and falls at his feet. Soon he is married to Binnie, and looks after her and new baby Tristan just as Angela once cared for him.
Angela (or Mrs Fytton, as she continues to think of herself), is determined to win back her husband, but in the meantime she moves into centuries-old Church Ale House in the wilds of Somerset and settles down to county life in, with bees, chickens, vegetables and herbs. And a mulberry tree which looks like the back view of a naked man – the front has been mutilated by the husband of the previous owner.
Gradually she gets to know the villagers, and find that life is completely different to anything she has ever known, but she has old Sammy the Pigman to offer advice and help, and a 300-year-old book of household tips, recipes and remedies for inspiration. Gradually she gets to know the villagers and country customs, and there’s a witchy kind of feel to many of her activities.
We are in classic Cheek territory here, with an abandoned wife, exploration of women’s roles and the growth of feminism and self-awareness. And there’s some some sharp social satire, not only on the battle between the sexes, but on family life and the aspirations and pretensions of the middle classes. Like all her work, it’s a comedy of manners, and it’s very, very funny – I defy anyone not to laugh at the nightmare meal where Angela tells her family about her planned move, and the way she manoeuvres her teenage children, by appearing to insist that they must live with her, but at the same time ensuring they make their home with Ian and Binnie where, of course, they create chaos (as she knows they will).
And the Somerset villagers are wonderful, especially Dave the Bread, an escape from London who buys out of date speciality bread from the supermarket, removes the wrappers, and whacks it in the oven before selling it, still warm and smelling of fresh baking. And his wife Wanda is every bit as canny, using props like fresh woad growing in the garden and a loom to fool people into thinking she makes and dyes jumpers, when in actual fact she buys jumpers from charity shops and boils them up in blue Dylon!
By the end of the novel Angela has learned a lot about herself, including the fact that she doesn’t have to be perfect, that she can mistakes, and it’s OK to show that she is just as vulnerable as anyone else, but it’s not until she shows that vulnerability that she’s able to reach any kind of satisfactory resolution with her ex-husband – and whilst she doesn’t exactly win him back, she doesn’t exactly lose him either.
It’s difficult to know how to categorise Mavis Cheek (and anyway, should we be trying to classify authors?). She’s definitely not chick-lit or romantic fiction, but she’s not writing cutting edge novels which take language and literature in new directions. There are those who compare Mavis Cheek to Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, or even Jane Austen because, like them, she writes about a small, circumscribed world, and her work is driven by character, not plot. Personally I don’t think she’s as restrained as those three writers, and although she is more satiric, she is nowhere near as ascerbic as Muriel Spark or Beryl Bainbridge, and lacks their dark edge.
I don’t think I could put a label on her work, but I always enjoy reading her (with the exception of ‘Getting Back Brahms’, which irritated me beyond measure) and she can be very thought provoking about relationships, and the way our perceptions of people can be very different to the way they actually are – and how our perception of ourselves can also change as we learn more about our own identity. If you’ve never read any Mavis Cheek give a her a try: ‘Mrs Fytton’s Country Life’ is excellent, but my favourite is ‘Amenable Women’ where a modern-day woman unravels a mystery about Anne of Cleves and in so doing regains a belief in herself.