Recommendations

Clare Chambers: Five Favourite Books Set in the Fifties

Clare Chambers has been longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction with Small Pleasures, about a bored local reporter investigating a potential Virgin birth set in 1950s South East London.

We caught up with Clare to ask her about some of her favourite novels set in the fifties.

1) The Bell by Iris Murdoch this short, perfectly formed novel takes a well-worn theme – the arrival of a stranger in a closed community – and creates a masterpiece of character and plot. The community in question is Imber Court, a lay religious fellowship, and the agent of chaos is Dora, the mischievous, restless wife of a pompous and controlling academic. The discovery of a ruined bell in the lake of an adjacent abbey is the engine of the plot and a symbol of the various submerged and destructive passions troubling the brethren. A prank instigated by Dora and the newest member of the commune misfires terribly and unworldly idealism is not the only casualty. I first read this when I was in my teens and it made me want to be a novelist, urgently.

2) The Women in Black by the Booker-shortlisted Australian writer Madeleine St John is set in the Ladies’ Frocks department of a Sydney department store in the 1950s and concerns the domestic and professional tribulations of a quartet of saleswomen during a long, hot Christmas season. There is no condescension towards the characters and, at 130 pages, there is not a word out of place in this warm, witty novel of female friendship, fortitude and transformation.

“Beneath the wit and polish there is an undercurrent of frustration at the wasted female potential.”

3) Excellent Women is Barbara Pym’s masterpiece and needs no endorsement from me, but A Glass of Blessings is less often cited, but equally funny, charming and full of the author’s trademark sidelong observations. Instead of the micro-humiliations of downtrodden spinsters, A Glass of Blessings has a more elegant and confident heroine in Wilmet Forsyth – a comfortable 1950s housewife with too much time on her capable hands and no outlet for her talents other than perfunctory ‘good works’, matchmaking and ill-advised flirtations. Beneath the wit and polish there is an undercurrent of frustration at the wasted female potential.

4) Maya Angelou’s ground-breaking seven-volume autobiography would be an adornment to any Best Books list. For the purposes of this selection, though, I must confine myself to Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, which covers the first half of the 1950s. The author’s stint as a performer at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco leads to a role in the touring production of Porgy and Bess across Europe and North Africa but, as usual, the sacrifices demanded of a working mother take their toll. Whether she is describing the ‘cantankerous plumbing’ of her San Francisco building, or the disintegration of a marriage, Angelou’s supple prose, both rich and precise, is a delight to read.

5) Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker takes place over the course of a June weekend in California as the eponymous heroine drives home from Berkeley, where she is at college, to attend – or rather prevent – her twin sister’s wedding. Until recently, the girls’ relationship has been intense and co-dependent, and one of them is not ready to move on. The battle of wills that ensues between clingy, manipulative Cassandra and independent, level-headed Judith is positively Shakespearian in its dramatic intensity.

Discover more wonderful women’s fiction, including Clare’s novel Small Pleasures on the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist here.

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