The street consists of thirty-six narrow little houses – all, at a first glance, exactly the same: and a mental picture of it generally includes a large pantechnicon van, backed against the pavement and collecting or discharging household goods. For though every young married couple that comes to Greenery Street does so with the intention of staying there for life, there are few streets where in actual fact the population is more constantly changing. And the first sign of this change is in almost every case the same. It is seen in the arrival of a brand-new perambulator.
This is Greenery Street, off Paradise Square, in the heart of London. And Greenery Street has a starring role in Denis Mackail’s novel of the same name. For Greenery Street has a life of its own. It lures young couples into its confines, wooing them with its sheer perfection, charming and beguiling them with a vision of domestic bliss. But the dream is shattered by the arrival of children: at this point houses seem to shrink, corridors are narrower, rooms smaller, and there is never enough space… so the happy couple reluctantly move on to a larger, better house, and another set of newly-weds take their place in Greenery Street.
|Walpole Street: The road which inspired Greenery Street
(courtesy of rightmoves.com.uk).
Apparently, the road was based on Walpole Street, where Mackail lived with his wife Diana when they were first married, and where he was blissfully happy – it was a time he never forgot, and he incorporated elements from it into this novel, which was written in 1925, and is very much of its period. He was the younger brother of Angela Thirkell and, like her, wrote about what he knew. I haven’t read his other novels, but this one seems to be written from the heart, following the first year in the marriage of Ian and Felicity Foster.
The couple are like children let loose in a sweet shop, and their joy at being together in their own home is infectious, as is their delight with each new thing (decorations, possessions, a pet dog). But it’s not quite as sweet and light as the early chapters led me to think. Ian and Felicity struggle to keep their heads above water financially: they start married life owing a huge sum to the builder/decorator for work carried out on the house, and the situation is not improved by Felicity’s inability to understand her accounts book. Given how impecunious they are, it seems extraordinary that they should live in some style, in a five-storey house (including the basement) with two servants (a cook and a housemaid, who seem to live and work in the basement).
They are scared of the servants, who are rude and inefficient, and their neighbours take advantage of them, borrowing things which are never returned. In some ways they remind me of David Copperfield and Dora, and are just as ill-equipped to cope with the demands of adult life.
But gradually they grow up and take control, and they are able to seize the initiative and avert scandal when Felicity’s sister plans to leave her husband for another man. Hard on the heels of that comes another crisis, as they return to their beloved home, to discover the servants have run away, and there has been a break-in, though one of the policemen at the scene is more than a little dismissive about the incident. “You wouldn’t hardly call it a burglary, not in a house like this,” he tells Ian. The couple are surprisingly resilient about the disaster, a sign perhaps of their growing maturity, and we leave them preparing for the birth of their first child.
I enjoyed Greenery Street. It’s warm and humorous without ever being cruel, a kind of jubilant, joyful hymn of praise to married life, which nevertheless manages to poke gentle fun at the institution of marriage, home improvements, parenthood, servants, tradesmen, families, and middle class society in general. And I rather like Ian and Felicity, who are a bit dim really, and sometimes irritating, but are quite prepared to admit their faults and beg forgiveness. Once married they find they have to get to know each other – which is often what happens in real life. And, just like real life again, they quarrel about small things of little consequence, then kiss and make-up, so I found myself hoping that their love endures, and that their relationship will grow and develop in the years ahead.
In fact, when it comes to relationships I thought it was fascinating to see how the Fosters’ marriage differs to that of other couples in the novel, such as their neighbours the Lamberts, Felicity’s parents, and her sister Daphne who is married to kindly, generous Bruce, a shy but fabulously wealthy businessman. I would like to have seen more of Daphne, with her odd looks and odder behaviour. She may only have played a small part in the novel, but I thought she was most complex and interesting character, who deserved a book to herself – I ended up writing stories about her inside my head! On the face of it she has everything she could want, but she and her husband don’t seem to be a couple at all, and she can be unexpectedly cynical, as well as revealing moments of deep sadness and unhappiness.
|The endpapers and bookmark are from a 1925 block printed
cretonne by George H Willis for the Silver Studio.