England’s Lane by Joseph Connolly (Quercus – September, 2012)
Joseph Connolly may recently have lost out on the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction to Howard Jacobson. But that does not mean that his association with that master of the comic novel is also forsaken. For Joseph Connolly has long melded the minute social comedy of Wodehouse with his own, much darker style, resulting in deliciously funny novels, from his debut Poor Souls onwards. England’s Lane is no exception, mixing as it does his usual humorous tone with dark happenings—in the most ordinary of settings. The added interest in this most recent novel is his experimentation with point of view.
England’s Lane is set in the eponymous North London street in the 1950s. Anyone who knows it today might wonder how this short connecting road between Primrose Hill and Belsize Park could be the source of a lengthy novel, never mind a comic one. Yet Connolly skilfully homes in on the relationship between a butcher, an ironmonger, a sweetshop owner, their respective wives, and the odd prostitute. In doing so, he brings out in this microcosm of post-war England the struggles of class, aspiration, and the sexes that were happening across the country. The physical setting may just have been England’s Lane in North London, but Connolly’s territory is the lane along which all of England was travelling at the time. We start with a war-time marriage, and we end with a hint of 1960s liberation.
So where does the humour come from? Largely it derives from Connolly’s games with point of view. Connolly revels in the fact that the same scenario, when viewed from different standpoints, gives rise to the classic comic devices of misunderstanding, comic irony, farce, the amusing segue and heroic self-delusion. Connolly plays the ventriloquist, jumping between one first-person account to another; from the gritty plebeian tone of the ironmonger, to the innocent naivety of his adopted nephew, to the sophisticated aloofness of the butcher and the ironmonger’s wife. Connolly is not doing all this for the sake of variety. Just as Wodehouse derived class satire from the pompous prose of Bertie Wooster, Connolly has a very set point to make about class and the way certain sets of people thought and talked; as the young nephew observes in the novel—some of the adults ‘all sound the same’ whereas others plainly do not.
Add to these games in point of view some escalation to the absurd, cute observation of social manners and the antics of aunts, and we are in classic Wodehouse territory. It should come as no surprise, though, that Connolly verges on the Wodehousian. Connolly has in fact made a study of Wodehouse, along with that other great member of the English comic tradition, Jerome K. Jerome, hence, Connolly’s P.G. Wodehouse—An Illustrated Biography and Jerome K. Jerome—A Critical Biography.
There are two key ways that Connolly departs from Wodehouse though; darkness and volume. Connolly writes in the foreword to his biography of Wodehouse: ‘It is tempting to wonder whether some melancholic skulked behind the clown’s mask,’ before concluding it does not. Connolly’s writing contains much stronger hints of melancholic skulking. In England’s Lane, in a way that is reminiscent of earlier novels from Poor Souls to Summer Things (subsequently turned into a French film), marriage is the main target for this. In Connolly’s world, marriage is a dark and dangerous place, the contempt and lust (rarely for one’s spouse) being ripe for black comedy. There is also a lot of grouchy swearing and malaise in Connolly’s work, as though his characters have a hangover for which there is no Jeeves miracle cure. It sometimes therefore feels more dangerous to laugh, but just as thrilling.
The volume point is slightly less compelling. England’s Lane does at times feel more like a meander than a power walk. No brisk jaunts with a walking cane through Belgravia, but instead lethargic slog up and down the same road, sometimes with no signpost of plot in sight. This does not reduce the pleasure in traversing England’s Lane—one just has to resolve to admire the views along the way, without being certain of the direction of travel. The novel comes together beautifully towards the end with all the strands merging in a party that takes the characters forward into 1960; a new decade for England’s Lane, and for England.