Before the War

Written by Fay Weldon
Review by Helene Williams

Weldon’s fans are in for a treat with her latest: a catty, chatty look at a family that from the outside may seem all Downton Abbey, but which, behind the façade, is full of characters who are anything but the post-Edwardian ideal. Readers of Long Live the King (2013) will remember Adela as young and beautiful; in 1922, she’s aged, but still sexually precocious. She and her publisher husband, the recently-knighted Sir Jeremy Ripple, have one daughter, Vivvie, who has been a disappointment in the catch-a-rich-husband department. At 24, Vivvie is tall, ungainly, and pregnant after an encounter in the stables. She’s also uncommonly smart, and knows she needs to get married, given the social mores of the time.

She narrows down her options to one of her father’s editors, would-be novelist Sherwyn Sexton, a known womanizer who is in debt. A mutually agreeable deal is struck, and the two head off to Bavaria for what outsiders are supposed to think is a long honeymoon but is of course Vivvie’s lying-in time. Events both obstetrical and farcical occur which leave Vivvie dead (that’s not a spoiler; the writer-as-narrator reveals this fact early in the first chapter), non-identical twins without a mother, and Sherwyn free to roam a slightly higher quality of dance hall, as he will now forever be Sir Jeremy’s son-in-law.

The author talks to the reader often, about the creation and actions of the characters as well as painful choices that have to be made in forming a coherent story. Some readers may feel intruded-upon at first, but this extra character, or perhaps vocal deus ex machina, is very much a part of the story, pointing out cultural, historical, and even medical facts that provide valuable context for this eminently readable inter-generational, inter-war-years saga.