Book Review : Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

Stanley and Elsie is a retelling of the relationships of artist Stanley Spencer. Spencer, who painted in the early to mid 20th Century, was married twice, first to artist Hilda Carline and secondly to Patrica Preece, also a Slade art school graduate. Both marriages were complex, turbulent and overlapping. It is these intriguing, unconventional and sometimes maddening relationships which provide the backdrop to the book.

When the novel begins Stanley is engaged in one of his most ambitious and beautiful projects. Commissioned by wealthy patrons John and Mary Behrend, Stanley is painting a purpose build chapel as a WW1 memorial to Harry Sandham , brother of Mary, whose death from malaria, caught whilst on active service, was refused memorial on the village monument. Whilst Stanley is immersed physically, spiritually and emotionally in his work, Hilda is working her way through the fog of post natal depression, struggling to paint and manage her household.  

Enter Elsie Munday, the Spencer’s maid, who, over time becomes so much more. Her presence as the voice of reason, domesticity and unswerving honesty and loyalty is the glue which holds the Spencer family together for many difficult years. Indeed it is through the portrayal of stoic and unflappable Elise that the reader is offered insight to the marriage of Stanley and Hilda.

And so begins unrestricted access to a quite brilliant but damaged pair of artists. Moving trusted and almost unnoticed through the Spencer household Elsie provides us with unique perspective of a complex and always evolving situation.

Both Hilda and Stanley are fighting ghosts of their own. Stanley is talented but arrogant; art is his world and he has little patience with the domestic restraints and battles his wife is contending with. Encouraging her to paint, but having little success, he becomes arrogant, bullish and down right cruel. Through clever use of character and dialogue Upson allows the players to tell their own story and there is little for the reader to do but stand back and watch them slowly destroy their marriage. With heartbreaking clarity and sometimes disbelief Upson skilfully charts one of the most complex artistic realtionships. This is the familiar tale of art enhancing life but the artistic temperament being too hard to contain. Unwilling, maybe unable to compromise Stanley is chasing artistic perfection, looking to higher places and missing what is right before him.

Throughout Elsie remains the constant character, a stalwart, the yard stick by which the reader can judge how strange and chaotic the Spencer’s relationship becomes. Upson’s strategic use of Elsie helps to remind us just how far Stanley’s behaviour moves from socially accepted norms. It is no accident that it is through Elise’s eyes that we are encouraged to assess the elegant but ruthless Patricia Preece. It is Elsie who tells us what we should think and feel about this cuckoo in the nest.

There is no doubt that this novel is very much driven by the strength of the characters within. That is not to say there isn’t a plot, but it is a plot with it’s very being in the dialogue and emotion of it’s characters. And within in the emotion it provokes in the reader.

This novel is peppered with facts, revelations and, crucially, beautiful descriptions of art. The dropping of famous names such as Henry Tonks, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf had me firing up the search engines time and after time. It was this element of the book which for me was it’s defining characteristic and strength. I love historical fiction; I love the journey it takes you on, the meandering path of discovery, leading you to new places and texts. And in that respect this novel represents historical fiction at it’s best.

Thank you to Prelude Books who have provided me with a digital copy of Stanley and Elsie, by Nicola Upson, in exchange for an honest review.

Paintings by Stanley Spencer at Sandham Memorial Chapel, Burghclere.