Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson; a story that captured my heart

Every now and again a book comes along that totally captures your heart; Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson is most certainly one of these.

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I’ve been a huge fan of Upson’s Josephine Tey crime series for years (which deserves a blog post all of its own) so when the proof for this book popped up on my twitter feed, I was immediately intrigued to see where this standalone with a very different sounding direction would take me.

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{I was incredibly lucky to receive a proof copy  from Duckworth Publishers}

So, what is Stanley and Elsie about? It is the story of artist Stanley Spencer and his unique friendship with his housemaid Elsie, who comes to live with Spencer and his young family after World War I. We meet Stanley as he is in the process of working on a commission to paint the interior of a memorial chapel for those lost at war and we accompany the years it takes to create his masterpiece of  trauma, loss and redemption. We also follow his complex marriage to fellow artist Hilda, his tangled relationship with his daughters and later on how he navigates temptation and obsession. At the heart of the Spencer family is Elsie, who does her utmost to keep them all together, offering care, wisdom and friendship.

Carline, Hilda Anne, 1889-1950; Elsie

{I need an Elsie in my life. This is a painting of Elsie by Hilda Carline}

Spencer was a real artist, as was his wife Hilda, who later signed her work as Hilda Carline. I knew Stanley and Elsie was based on real people and on their artwork but that was pretty much all the background knowledge I had going in. And what a discovery this book was – it opened my eyes to incredible art that I didn’t know existed. What struck me in particular as I researched Spencer afterwards, was how Upson has taken a character, who is so often portrayed as a great artist but a pretty awful human being, and has dismantled this polarised image with such skill to reveal a complex man, who lost his sense of self during the war and spent most of his life trying to work out who he actually was – through his art and also through his relationship with women. A man who was capable of great kindness but who could be equally self-centred and hurtful, who could be charming and grounded in life but also naive, manipulative and detached from reality.brusha7.png

Whilst I’ve started with Stanley, it is the women in this novel who shine through for me. Upson writes each character with so much depth that I felt incredibly invested in their development:  The absolutely lovely, observant and vibrant Elsie, who I wish I could be friends with. Hilda, who struggles with finding her own identity as an artist, who struggles with being a mother and is so consumed by loneliness and her love for a man who cannot give her what she needs. Stanley’s sister, a side character but a striking one, who gave up her art to look after her parents and lost her sense of self in the process, her mental health deeply affected. And of course, Patricia and Dorothy – who I can’t say to much about as it would spoil your reading experience – who I wanted to hate but just couldn’t as they were battling their own personal and societal demons too.

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And then there’s the very special relationship between Stanley and Elsie, which felt so real, so genuine and which I still think about now. It is a friendship which navigates both social and gender divides – it is messy and frustrating and warm and at times very sad; I felt all the emotions!brushA7

Alongside Upson’s wonderful characters is the equally wonderful interweaving of Stanley and Hilda’s art. I absolutely loved how the plot was shaped around the artwork, crafted with such care and detail; Upson must have done an immense amount of research for this. The description of the different parts of the chapel are stunning, enabling me to visualise each piece in such detail that when I came to look up the chapel paintings online, it was like I was returning to something I had already seen before. The chapel is a National Trust property now and can be visited – of course I have a road trip planned for the summer.brushA5

I can’t finish without mentioning how brilliantly Nicola Upson captures those seemingly small, ordinary moments, which hold so much more. There were several times I annotated a page with “ such beautiful sadness” and I was left in tears at several points towards the end because of how an interaction or an observation was written. As I said, this book left a mark on heart.paint-set

 

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