Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

First published 1934; cover shown is the 1952 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition. 380p.

This was one of those completely satisfying books that come along once every 15 books or so - a book that took longer than usual to read and digest, but one I almost didn't want to finish, simply because the pleasure of reading it would then be over.

Set before, during and after WWI in London, this is the detailed, almost moment-by-moment story of Julia Almond, who grows from a girl into a woman yet never loses her naivety; her complete lack of understanding of the realities of life. She sweeps through her school years, knowing she has that 'something' that makes all others look up to her, and then begins work at an exclusive fashion boutique, quickly gaining confidence in her looks, her style and herself.

When her father dies and she is forced to share a bedroom with her much younger cousin, she marries Herbert, a family friend and a man 15 years her senior, simply as an escape. While the Great War rages outside of the country, and her husband is stationed overseas, Julia is free to live the life she has always wanted - the life she has always lived in her daydreams. In fact, much of Julia's life is based on dreams and imagination, with reality to simply be ignored.

By the time Herbert returns, Julia knows she has made a mistake. Her solution is to force Herbert to sleep in the back bedroom, or to lie passive and unresponsive if he forces his 'rights' on her. When she is 27 years old, and having been married to Herbert for some seven years, a much younger man named Leo comes into her life. She once oversaw Leo's school class, and paid a pin to look into his peepshow, a children's craze at the time. Now, she sees in him someone that can finally give her what she thinks she deserves: 'real' love - primarily of the physical type. Frustrated with the strict British class system that enables women of the higher classes to have affairs and gain divorces - and yet looks with censure upon women of her lower class who do the same thing - Julia decides to break a few rules.

Leo becomes the sole focus of her life, her thoughts. Herbert is forgotten, left to seethe with jealousy and disbelief as Julia grows more confident, happier than she has ever been before. As Leo is in the navy and often away, Julia makes do with Herbert, pretending it is Leo touching her instead. When she becomes pregnant as a result, Leo arranges an abortion. Julia, as usual, is thinking only of herself - as the baby isn't Leo's, she doesn't want it. Meanwhile, Leo is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their clandestine relationship, which primarily consists of letters and the occasional stolen moment. When Julia begins to suggest that Herbert's death would be the answer to their dilemma, Leo takes it seriously - while Julia, as always, is simply spinning more daydreams.

Julia's life begins its final chapter the night Leo brutally and fatally attacks Herbert in the dark street near their home. Her letters to Leo are discovered, and they are both arrested and put on trial for the murder. Julia had no idea Leo was going to do what he did, but as far as the class-conscious jury of her London peers are concerned, her crimes of adultery and abortion have signed her death warrant.

While 'A Pin to See the Peepshow' is classed as crime fiction, it is so much more than that. Julia's buying trips in Paris for the boutique, the descriptions of wartime London, the cold realities of poverty, social status, male/female dynamics and the terrible price Julia pays for never mentally growing up all combine to make an absorbing read.

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