Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
“After the Party” by Cressida Connolly
July 16, 2019
“England feels so reassuring and safe to me.
I couldn’t stand the thought of another war.”
Phyllis Forrester on her return to England after years abroad
After the Party, Cressida Connolly
Penguin Random House, UK, 2018
The story Ms. Connolly tells is one of how easy it is to be subsumed by innocuous-seeming decisions that have long term negative consequences. From the perspective of several decades, we know the evil done by Sir Oswald Mosely and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) – that he (and his followers) wittingly, or unwittingly, supported the monstrous programs of Adolph Hitler. But this story is best understood if the reader is able to divorce him or herself from the knowledge we have today and to place ones’ self into that time, twenty years after the Great War in which 700,000 British soldiers lost their lives.Ms. Connolly writes aboutmothers of children who attend the BUF camp run by Nina and Eric, sister and brother-in-law to the heroine Phyllis Forrester: “Their conviction and commitment to the cause of peace was very real. Many women would already have lost brothers, uncles, fathers – even, among the older generation, sweethearts – to the dreadful toll of the 1914-18 War. Another such conflict simply could not be countenanced.”
Ms. Connolly begins her novel with a rubric, a line from Iris Murdoch’sA Word Childabout how a wrong turn taken and persisted in – a single mistake – can wreck the rest of one’s life. This story, which bounces back and forth between 1938 and 1979, opens in 1979, with Phyllis reflecting on why her life turned out so miserably. She recalls her release from prison in the fall of 1943. She had been imprisoned in late spring 1940, along with her husband Hugh, for being a member of Mosely’s BUF Party. In March of 1940, two months before she was taken to Holloway Prison, Phyllis thinks: her justification and her naivetéare exposed, “…people outside the Party were apt to mistake the Peace Campaign for a lack of patriotism, little understanding that those within it felt a passionate loyalty to very notion of Great Britain.”
In 1938, Phyllis and her much-older husband, a former Commander in the British Navy during World War II and now retired from the rubber business, return to England after many years abroad. They go to Sussex in England’s southeast where Phyllis’ two married sisters, Patricia and Nina live. Nina and her husband manage a BUF camp about which Nina is discrete, describing it as educational, promoting peace and a place where the children will have fun and meet others. “Phyllis found it electrifying to be among such a number of fellow souls, all united in in their passion for the cause. It was a wonderful feeling to belong. When Sir Oswald took to the stage to address them, she joined others in giving him a standing ovation.” Most of these women were not political, nor were they aware of the evil Fascism and Nazism represented. It was the memory of the last war that was fresh in their minds and that dictated their actions.
By spring 1940, the war had been underway for eight months, in what was called the “Phoney War” – so-called because all was quiet along the western front. Nevertheless, English lives had been lost in naval encounters. Mrs. Manville, who takes care of the mother of Phyllis and her sisters (their father recently died), suffered the loss of her sister’s nephew when HMS Courageous was torpedoed off Ireland in September 1939. She knows Mosely for what he is and calls out Phyllis and her sister Nina for “your salutes and uniforms and speechifying…,” but Phyllis is not traitorous, though one could not say the same about others in the organization, including her sister Nina and brother-in-law Eric. She is, however, naïve. She tells Mrs. Manville: “If ourPeace Campaign had been put into operation, this calamity might have been averted.” Mrs. Manville’s response: “That’s balderdash!”
Phyllis and her husband are imprisoned. Through Ms. Connolly’s telling, we learn how families turn on one another. We read of a single incident in December 1938 that happened to Phyllis, for which she was not to blame, but that will nag her for the rest of her life, as she believes it led to her best friend’s death. We learn of the emotional strings of women like Phyllis on which Mosely played so adeptly. We come to better understand why so many wanted to believe that a second war could and should be averted; thus, were willing to follow Mosely down his path toward sedition. On a lighter note, this being a book by a British author writing of events eighty years ago, we meet new words, at least new to me, like “trug,” “jibbed,” secateurs” and “fug.” We learn about Holloway Prison and the Isle of Man and of the fact that those imprisoned were without recourse to habeas corpus or even to lawyers. Phyllis and her husband are separated and there are rumors of executions. “Phyllis didn’t really believe that her husband had been executed; yet if she could be taken from her home, locked up without trial, without committing any crime, without explanation, perhaps anything was possible after all.” She questions British justice.
Life rarely turns out as expected when we are young and dream of the future. Luck plays a role, but actions we take, decisions we make, the people with whom we associate have long term consequences, thus a word of caution permeates the story. When well-researched, historical fiction has advantages, which straight history does not. It allows the reader to get inside the minds of people portrayed. The title is a “double entendre,” in that it could refer to Mosely’s BUF Party, or it could refer to the party in December 1938 that held such consequences for Phyllis. What makes this story so compelling, though, is it could happen to anyone. The reader who sanctimoniously concludes that it was either Phyllis’ stupidity or deliberate complicity that caused this tragedy misreads the author’s interpretation of how decisions are made, without benefit of hindsight. Retrospectively, we are all wise. Prospectively, few of us are.