Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Pamela Hart is the respected author of The Soldier’s Wife, The War Bride, A Letter from Italy, and The Desert Nurse – all stories set in war time and all immensely popular. Fine writing, combined with the sentimental climate that stories about service life attract, produced stories that the public found more than acceptable. Never demanding more than a comfortable, light-weight tale of tortured love that righted itself by the final pages, readers were ready for Hart’s stories but equally ready for the author herself. Pamela Hart’s image is that of a genuine storyteller.
This review will not provide a great deal of analysis of Hart’s latest work The Charleston Scandal. As soon becomes known, the story features Kit Scott, a dancer from Sydney [‘from the colonies, m’lud!’], who is photographed in London, dancing the Charleston alongside the Prince of Wales. The Royal Family is apoplectic with rage, contamination must be contained, and Kit is banished to a distant relative, one hedonist Lord Henry Carleton. Here Kit has some sorting out of the heart to do – her former boyfriend Zeke or the sophisticated Lord Carleton.
The story, well-constructed with believable dialogue, a convincing yarn no less, does not interest me farther. I do not need to tell Pamela Hart how to write a novel. However, the views of some of the critics vary widely. One describes it as an immersive novel set at a time when women began to realise they could be more than decorative and utilitarian. The comment is made that status is everything and parties are prevalent. Another argued that in a light-hearted tale, Hart shone the light on issues such as the role of women, LGBT clubs, alcoholism and domestic abuse and the fictional likelihood of living the life of royalty and landed gentry.
These very sensible, and sensitive, comments are most likely true but not necessarily relevant to Hart’s book. It is an immersive novel but not set at a time of any great social awakening. Nor were the 1920s consumed by status and partying. The so-called issues that supposedly distinguish Hart’s book, if they existed at all, were confined to a small clique of moneyed people who were never concerned with making a living as the great bulk of English people were doing. Review after review accepts that “Kit’s journey…illustrates life in the 1920s.” This is misleading and misinterprets Hart’s book.
Hart depicts a specific group of largely senseless fools who can see only a narrow vision of the life going on around them. Her vision of the 1920s in her latest book goes no wider than that. I have no doubt that she knows more about the 1920s than all of us but has chosen to exclude all except that which suited her purpose.
She could have written that, in the 1920s, women did gain more personal freedom, because rising real wages for the employed reinvigorated consumer culture and provided new leisure opportunities. Chain stores, cinemas and dance halls became popular. New technologies of photography, cinema and newsreels ensured the place of the flapper in today’s imagination.
But this was largely a veneer. The Great War’s ongoing demands were inescapable. They were partly about the process of remembering and memorialising the dead, providing for the physical and psychological needs of the traumatised living, and understanding the war through novels and autobiographies. War lived on in anxious discussions of what it meant to be British and modern. This was a traumatised and unnerved world. Eventually, enduring social problems and bitter industrial conflicts coalesced in the General Strike in 1926, and the emergence of a radical politics that demanded the profits of peace be shared equitably.
To talk of LGBT clubs and shift Hart’s own emphases to topics not found in the author’s book, to ascribe twenty-first century issues of concern to a period one hundred years before, weakens Hart’s original work.
By Pamela Hart
$32.99; 400 pp