Monday, 19 July 2010

To Bed With Grand Music - Book Review

It has taken me five cups of tea to ponder this book and reach any sort of conclusion as to what I think of it. I was left totally bemused and one of my first thoughts was 'this isn't the wartime that my granny remembers so fondly'. You know the sort of thing, dashing young officers asking girls to dance whilst only expecting a peck on the cheek goodbye at the end of the night. This novel suggests very different wartime behaviour.

The novel opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband, Graham; a portent of what is to come. Deborah promises Graham that she will remain faithful to him as he is being posted to Cairo. Graham, however is a little more hesitant as he knows he cannot do without sex for three or four years. Instead, he promises not to fall in love with anyone else. Deborah is horrified that he cannot commit to her and eventually gets him to concede to be faithful.

As soon as Graham has left, Deborah tries to turn her attention to their baby son, Timmy. However, it soon transpires that Deborah is not interested in being a housewife and even less interested in being a mother. The weeks go on and Deborah leaves Timmy more and more in the care of her housekeeper, Mrs Chalmers. When Deborah's mother arrives for a visit, she can see that Deborah is bored and upsetting Timmy as a result. She suggests that Deborah try to find a job. In fact, Deborah's mother is well aware that her daughter is not suited to the roles of wife and mother so she actively encourages Deborah to go to London in search of something to occupy her time whilst Graham is away.

When Deborah visits her friend, Madeleine, in London she is swept away by the freedom and glamour of Madeleine's life. Instead of search for a job Deborah goes for dinner with Madeleine and two male friends, and she ends up in bed with one of the men. Deborah's fall into infidelity is swift and seemingly without a thought for Graham or Timmy. Until the morning after when she skulks home and promises herself that she will stay in the country and look after Timmy until Graham's return.

As you can probably predict, Deborah does not stay in the country and await her husbands' return. Instead she moves in with Madeleine and embarks upon a wartime career of working her way around the male members of the armed forces in return for gifts, expensive nights out and, ultimately, excitement.

There are moments during which Deborah has doubts and wonders about her behaviour, but these are swiftly cast aside with self-justification and a total failure to realise the fact that she has become, in essence, a prostitute. Her male friends pass her around each other; she obviously gains a reputation as being available. She acquires jewels, stockings, make up, expensive dinners at fancy restaurants, perfume and a myriad of other gifts which are her payment.

Deborah is a character that I totally despised. It wasn't so much her behaviour as her refusal to think realistically about her actions and their consequences. She is a weak personality, easily led astray by Madeleine and seemingly incapable of refusing temptation. Towards the end of her novel her relationship with her son is redundant as he clings on to Mrs Chalmers for love and attention. And instead of thinking proactively about Graham's impending return she just turns away and pursues her current course, which in the light of peace takes her into the arms of businessmen as the armed forces are all returning home.

I disliked Deborah immensely - the very fact that at the end of the novel she showed no remorse, just resentment that her life would inevitably return to its pre-war state, only made me dislike her even more. Deborah's desire for Madeleine's life is farcical as we clearly realise that Madeleine is envious of Deborah's husband and baby. Instead of realising this and appreciating her life, Deborah pursues a life of glamour and hedonism with an underlying streak of bitterness about her marriage and child.

To Bed With Grand Music is a great read as it strips all sense of nostalgia from your thoughts of the second world war. Instead you realise that human nature was, of course, the same and people took advantage of the unique circumstances to please themselves.

In direct contrast to the portrayal of war by Marghanita Laski, I watched a documentary on Channel 4 called Time Warp Wives. Now, this was a piece of trash tv that I slumped in front of last week but it was quite an interesting programme as some modern women are retreating into the past to escape modern life. The majority of women featured in this programme had decided to live in the 1940s and 1950s; before women's liberation one might add. Anyway, they are under the impression that manners were impeccable, there were no social problems and every woman was faithful and dutiful to her husband. Perhaps they should all read To Bed With Grand Music to cure their ailment of acute nostalgia.

These women are totally delusional but it is interesting that they all revert to fantasy to avoid the pressures of modern life. What they don't seem to realise though is that throughout history 'modern life' has always been stressful, uncertain and, crucially, perceived to be worse than any period that has gone before. Deborah escaped her life into a fantasy that cannot be sustained - as have the women on the tv programme. I think I would rather face up to the grit of everyday life - even if that means I have to forget about sepia wartime dances leading to a mere peck on the cheek.


  1. Brilliant review, and perfectly true about today's rose tinted nostalgia about the past. Look at Cath Kidston; do we really think that in the 1950's everyone's houses were beautiful visions of floral prints and fluffy eiderdowns? I think not. I want to borrow this! But I know I'll have no time to read it. I am so intrigued by this book, as it is refreshing to have an account of the war that isn't all cheerful elbow grease and queueing up for rations.

  2. I saw that programme but it was half finished by the time I noticed so didn't watch it - sounds weird. To bed was such an intriguing novel - it was strange to be so gripped by such an intensely unlikeable character. Excellent review.

  3. What a wonderful review and your thoughts about wartime nostalgic reminiscence (aagh, spelling!) are so thought-provoking. I didn't see the program but I totally agree that some of the 'vintage' mindset is a little confusing and just plain inaccurate - unsustainable fantasy indeed. I do love some of the dresses though! Must read this book...

  4. I didnt see this programme but I remember watching More4s Love and War programmes which interviewed women from that time who were getting up to alsorts. Some stories were incredabily sad though with American servicemen going back home or being posted elsewhere and th women having to give their child up for adoption as they were unmarried.

  5. I've heard so much about this book and can't wait to read it someday. Like in any period of time, there's always going to be a clash of nostalgia vs. reality, right? People always look back in history with rose-tinted glasses (I am as guilty as the rest) but if you really think about it, the harsh bits are probably much worse than we think...

  6. I am looking forward to this one hugely - thank you for an insightful review. Like your other readers, I am attracted by a book which provides a corrective to a nostalgic view of the war years.

    thanks indeed


  7. Great review - thank you for sharing your thoughts on what is a very interesting subject. It just goes to show that nothing changes - even the most difficult and traumatic times can be viewed through rose-tinted glasses and the mist of nostalgia. Human nature doesn't change and there will always be people (men and women) who are self-serving and pleasure seeking. It sounds as if the brilliance of this book is it's ability to make the reader dislike Deborah and see through the 'glamour' and excitement of the life she craves and see the sordid and gritty truth.


  8. I'm not surprised Margharita Laski wrote such a complicated, grim(ish) book about wartime England. I read Little Boy Lost, and even though it had hopeful parts, I noticed overall that Laski didn't have the tendency to sentimentalize that a lot of writers do. I didn't know Persephone had released this--I really want to read it now!

  9. Reviews of this have been popping up everywhere on the blog'o'sphere, and I really want to read it! Yes, the protagonist sounds quite dislikable, but the story still sounds utterly gripping.

    I'm really looking forward to reading this!