Julia Almond, as a character says towards the end, ‘isn’t an ordinary woman.’ But she is a very recognisable woman in literature– a woman who uses whatever skills she has to better her existence, who craves nicer things, and who possessively guards her own room so she can sometimes be alone. She isn’t one of Woolf’s heroines, but that room of her own is a defence against first the tedium of a dull childhood, then a bad marriage, and is a space where she can romanticise about her future.
Julia’s optimism, or myopic refusal to look at reality, is what makes her such a vivid character. From the outset, we’re aware of her need for an audience – she amuses her schoolmates by appearing fleetingly in her beloved Miss Tracey’s gown and cap (more about dressing up later) – and her need for adoration. Later, she has a brief fling with a young man destined to die in the war and discovers her need for physical intimacy. All this is building towards her marriage to Herbert Starling, a heavy-set man many years her senior, as a means of escaping an increasingly-fraught home life where she has been forced to share her beloved bedroom with her younger cousin. Running throughout the novel is a sense of impending entrapment and a need to flee, either to Paris later on or to the clothes shop Julia works to help make successful. Yes, Julia is highly flawed in her desires and inability, or refusal, to see the reality of her situation, but she is also a character who does not accept the limitations placed on a woman of her class (hers is a bind peculiar to the lower middle class of the time – she literally cannot afford scandal and she also cannot abandon respectability altogether). She questions the roles available to her and seeks solace in romantic fantasies (there’s an interesting juxtaposition made with Anne, who pursues a career as a doctor as the alternative to marriage). Clothes, and dressing up, play a key role in the novel (including the final home for the Italian cape…) but there is a marvellous moment where Julia strips naked and I’ll confess that I cheered out loud, wanting as I did any happiness possible for the character by this stage. Clothes become Julia’s means of independence and her way of projecting her ambitions. This isn’t a new idea, obviously, but it’s a fascinating strand in female narratives.
This book is one of those excellent reads which has you lost in the author’s world, and any interruption is unwelcome. The blurb tells you that this is based on the Thompson and Bywaters murder trial in the 1920s, but by the time you get to the point where Julia Almond finds herself mired in danger, you’ve spent so long with this brilliant woman that you’ve forgotten this. You’ve come to see the world through Julia’s rather myopic eyes and you’re rooting for her. I’d enjoyed Jill Dawson’s Fred & Edie (2000) – which also takes the same case as its focus – but this republished novel of 1934 moved me far more, because of Tennyson Jesse’s utterly believable protagonist. It’s fair to say that this is one of the most affecting reads of the year for me.