(All Persephone Books are in grey jackets, where they differ is the end papers which feature designs from the year of publication or thereabouts. This is the 1930 design of a block-printed linen furnishing fabric called ‘Welwyn Garden City’ which is used for Bricks and Mortar.)
Category: Fiction – Paperback: 304 pages – Publisher: Persephone Books – Source: Independent subscription library
First Published: 1932
Counts towards my Classics Club challenge
I’m actually doing a Classics Club related readathon today (reading classics for 24 hours, bliss!) and I thought it would be nice to schedule a CC-related review for today as well…
Bricks and Mortar is one of the less well-known Persephone titles but appealed to me because of it’s unusual protagonist – Martin Lovell, a London-based architect. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction architecture and city design books but I can only think of one or two fictional efforts that had an architect at their heart so I happily took it home with me from the library and decided it would be my last completed read of 2012.
Starting off in 1892 with a young, tongue-tied Martin delirious with joy in Rome as he absorbs all the architectural wonders, we get to see to see the very pushy Lady Stapleford throw her daughter, Letty, at him and reel him in as a son-in-law before he can really blink. Recently qualified as an architect, Martin is far more book-smart than people-smart and dreams of building grand cathedrals and making his mark on the world.
Letty, who is spoilt, pushy and ruinously disorganised with money and running the household, is not a good match but they settle down to wedded life and she’s soon pregnant with their first child. Martin, meanwhile, spends his days working as a partner to a man with gothic tastes very different to his own and begins the hard business of learning the practicalities of his trade.
The book then follows Martin, Letty and their children through till 1931 when Martin at last hangs up his set square.
As Thomas at My Porch points out in his own review (link below), the architectural ideas woven through the book and the way Martin talks about buildings and plans (both in England and the places in Europe he travels to) ring true. There’s nothing patronising or over-simplified in the descriptions and yet it’s very easy to follow as a casual reader.
‘Bruges was his first and clearest recollection; the towns that he visited later were never quite so brightly illuminated in his mind, but this may have been due to changes in the autumn weather. He persistently recollected Ghent as a medieval and lowering collection of black towers and spires, a grimy castle, a stagnant river belching myriad black bubbles and a ring of factory chimneys pouring out smoke under a heavy sky; the moulded brick front of the Byloke Abbey, then unreclaimed and difficult to discover, became as irrelevant in his memory of the town as a red rose dropped into an ash-cart. Brussels, on a wet day, was only a square paved with glistening cobbles, some pigeon-grey houses whose gilt ornamentation blinked through the sluicing rain, a flutter of pigeons’ wings, and an autumnal blaze of brown and gold in the transept windows of Ste. Gudule. Antwerp was a wilderness of sea-fog, haunted by ship’s sirens. He recollected a superb, indigestible picture-gallery, another smaller and somehow rather endearing little castle, which he would have liked to take home to his children, a fantastically ornamented, seven-aisle cathedral, of a type which had already fatigued him, and some more of the sixteenth-century guild-houses, which pleased him better than any church.’
(page 71, Martin goes on holiday alone in bad spirits, unsurprisingly his entire fortnight in Belgium is wet and depressing! He’s more cheerful the rest of the time, honest, I just thought this was a rather nice quote to show how Ashton writes when she’s just quickly sketching an outline rather than filling in detail.)
The problem, rather oddly, comes from the storylines dealing with Martin’s family. Ashton is clearly good at setting up unusual scenarios, loves architecture and loves London; where Ashton fails is creating believable characters. They all, even Martin, seemed to be missing some vital element of internal logic which meant I couldn’t connect and didn’t much care for what happened to them. It’s the Breakfast Room Door problem – when the author said ‘X left the breakfast room’ I didn’t believe they went through the door and did something else or grew or connected with other characters… they just vanished until they were needed in another scene. Very emotionally unsatisfying if you’re following this group of people around for almost 40 years.
You might be asking at this point why I finished the book given how unbelievable I found the characters. There were two reasons really. The first was the architectural element and the fascinating glimpse into inter-war views of the city being remade after WWI. There’s not really much coverage of the war itself in the book (the focus is far more on the Lovell family) but you get a feel for how London’s progress stopped, the changes created by the loss of all those young, hopeful men in the war and the women and children lost to influenza and then the sudden, determined efforts to rebuild everything.There’s a sense that building a better London is some sort of security against the madness of war. Most interwar books seem so tied to their main character’s issues it was interesting to see this longer-term, city-focused angle along with the personal.
The second things that kept me reading was a secondary character who really should have been the focus of the book and kept stealing the limelight. Martin’s daughter Stacy is shown as going through a late Victorian childhood, an Edwardian coming out season, working as an ambulance driver in the war, marrying an airman, being widowed, being single through most of the 1920s when men were scarce and becoming an architect – something that a decade before her father was horrified at the prospect of. I was disappointed that such a promising character only spoke at length twice in the entire novel but there’s enough there to make her an interesting case study of women’s changing expectations and opportunities between 1910-1930.
Overall I can see why Persephone put this book back into print because it does add a very different text back to the conversation about inter-war novels and changing gender roles. I *am* glad I read it. I just wish an editor had been a bit more ruthless with the red ink and advice on characterisation in 1932 though.
Rating: 6/10 (Book Review Scale)