Attempting to mix the historical tenor of television’s Foyle’s War with the darkly romantic yearnings of Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, Wilhide (Ashenden, 2013) follows the travails of an upper-middle-class British housewife whose comfortable life is shattered by the combination of World War II and her adulterous affair.
Despite the growing likelihood of war, in the summer of 1939 Julia Compton lives in relative contentment with her handsome solicitor husband, Richard, and beloved 9-year-old son, Peter, from whom she maintains a reserved distance while dreading his imminent return to boarding school. Thanks to a trusty housekeeper, Julia has few responsibilities and spends her days shopping, visiting her widowed friend Fiona, and playing the piano. Then a film crew arrives in the Comptons’ small coastal town to film a documentary on fishing. When Julia meets the director, Dougie Birdsall, who puts her in the film, she immediately feels a connection: “New and jolting. Both at the same time.” Passion overrides her sense of propriety and most of her sense of responsibility as she and Dougie carry on an intense affair that is both physical attraction and “a meeting of minds.” Inevitably, Richard finds out and kicks her out. Dougie is also married, but his wife (inured to his philandering tendencies) is conveniently spending the war, which has formally broken out, in Canada with their daughters. Julia moves into his London flat and more bohemian lifestyle. While the follow-the-dots romantic melodrama of the initial affair grows wearisome, the novel’s energy picks up once Julia’s in London. As her relationship with Dougie begins to sour and the trials of war intensify, she slowly learns to stand on her own and to understand what matters most in life. As an aside, the rendering of Peter’s reaction to his belated discovery of his parents’ split is particularly heart-wrenching.
Despite a slow start, Wilhide creates a closely detailed, finely shaded portrayal of love and war that is anti-romantic but far from cynical.