Stanley and Elsie

Written by Nicola Upson
Review by Karen Warren

Stanley and Elsie is the story of the artist Stanley Spencer, told mostly through the eyes of his housekeeper, Elsie Munday. It focuses on the period in the 1920s when he was painting the interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel, a massive project which took almost ten years to complete. It also tells of Stanley’s complex personal life: his love for his wife, the painter Hilda Carline, and his obsession with another artist, Patricia Preece. Elsie herself is confidante to both husband and wife. She becomes a friend but as she matures she is increasingly outspoken in her views.

Stanley’s conversations with Elsie give the reader an insight into his thought processes, both as a man and as a painter. The seventeen paintings that he paints in the chapel are designed as a memorial to one man who died in the First World War, but in Stanley’s hands they become a commentary on the War itself. They honour all who served, in whatever capacity (Stanley himself spent much of the War working as a medical orderly). The pictures are also a celebration of work as a valuable part of life. This is a continuing theme of the book – whether it is Stanley’s painting, Hilda’s gardening, or Elsie’s housework.

But really this is a story of human frailties and the fragility of relationships. It is set against a background of postwar tension, in a world that has been stripped of all certainty. And it is told with a vivid sense of time and place that will stay with me for a long time. A recommended read.