Susanna Johnston’s Lettice and Victoria

Sophie Waugh reviewed Lettice and Victoria for The Spectator, January 4, 2014:  “This utterly charming , totally bonkers short novel is something from another age.”

Lettice and VictoriaSusanna Johnston’s black comedy, Lettice and Victoria, is a light hearted romp through the prickly and mischievous rivalry between a powerful and jealous matriarch, Lettice Halliday, and her seemingly naive  daughter-in-law, Victoria, for the attentions and affections of their ‘sons and lovers.’

We meet Victoria, aged 20, returning to her job as amanuensis to Laurence Bland at his beautiful villa in Italy. Her daily chores include reading the English papers to this  eccentric, blind poet, ex-pat, and man of letters, who has retired to self imposed seclusion by the sea in Northern Italy.  Laurence is over eighty and basks in the glory of his letters from Henry James who addressed him ‘carissimo regazzo.‘ Victoria seems too unworldly to cope with this garrulous, gay, demanding patrone  who only eats eggs, sits with belly exposed  in his silk dressing gown with his podgy mauve feet in velvet slippers, and expects the slave-ish devotion of his staff, day and night.  However, she rises to the challenge and manages to spar with Laurence’s grumy repartee.  After Laurence is confined to one floor of the villa, soufflés begin to collaspe as they are carried up for lunch from the kitchens to this odd couple on the terrace.  Few guests are allowed into the daily pattern of this marbled exile, and Victoria’s spirits collaspe like the soufflés, and she becomes restless.

Her luck changes and Edgar Halliday, handsome and eligible, comes to visit at Laurence’s villa. Before you know it,  Victoria and Edgar are married and return to live in England. Thus begins a liason dangereuse between Victoria and her mother-in-law, Lettice.  Victoria has a baby just as Edgar draws his last breath and dies.  This leaves Victoria and her daughter Maudie to be drawn into her new family’s web at The Old Keep, a medieval tower in Devon.  Victoria’s prettiness and freshness are threats to Lettice, who has reigned as the ‘fairest of them all’, like a wicked queen, in this kingdom.  Victoria soon finds herself in various relationships, often scandalous and always hilarious, with Archie and Harold, Cambridge academics and Lettice’s old friends.

Lettice and Victoria plays out as Victoria learns to survive the snares and pitfalls of Lettice’s  dilettante orbit of art, dwindling assets, and academia.   Susanna Johnston makes us care about this colourful duo, who are engaged in a subtle duel.   We wish them well, although everything does not always ‘work out for the best.’

– Mrs. M

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