Tuesday, October 26, 2021

A Pin to See the Peepshow - F. Tennyson Jesse

As I write this the Women Writers series edition is delayed, I managed to find a copy of the Virago edition, (first reprinted in 1979) which seemed preferable to reading it via PDF. It meant I read this rather faster than I think did it justice - in an ideal world it might have worked better for me if I could have spread it out over a week and thought about it a bit more.

'A Pin to see the Peepshow' has been one of those old Virago books that you keep an eye out for. If you don't have it yourself the chances are that you know somebody who wants it and online copies had got expensive, so it's excellent news that The British Library has managed to negotiate the rights for it and give it another chance at a wider audience.

It's a curious book - widely accepted to be a fictionalised account of the Thompson - Bywaters case, a murder trial notorious in its day, and still vaguely familiar to anyone who reads around the period. I decided not to look up the details whilst reading, but I'm interested to see what the introduction/afterword of the new edition has to say about it. There might well be spoilers to follow but as F. Tennyson Jesse wrote this book only a decade after Thompson and Bywaters were hung we can assume that the majority of her readers would have been aware of it and have recognised how closely what she wrote corresponded to life. It's maybe a harder book to stick with if you don't know what's coming.

We meet Julia Almond when she's 16 and on her way to school where she's a personality. She's not strictly speaking beautiful, but she's attractive and a considerable personality within the school. Julia comes from a lower middle-class background where the appearance of respectability is everything and the rules of conduct are strict. Her father is not especially prosperous and when he dies he leaves his family with few resources.

Julia by this point is working in a dress shop, good at her job, ambitious, and sure as she's always been that she's somebody special destined for something wonderful. Unfortunately, her economic reality is that she can continue to live in cramped and uncongenial surroundings with her family, or she can marry an older man who offers financial stability. Julia makes the choice that most of us might in her circumstances. She marries the man she doesn't much care about and hopes for the best - it is after all wartime and anything might happen. Nothing does happen except that the marriage is a failure that makes her deeply unhappy. When love, or what she assumes to be love does come along it's a shortcut to tragedy.

Tennyson Jesse spends a long time building us a picture of Julia - far from perfect, vain, uneducated despite her intelligence, and very much a dreamer - but also vital, generous, hard-working, and an excellent business woman - she could be any woman who has dreamed of and worked for something better than she has, and has dreamed of being happy and loved. The continual message from the author is that Julias's downfall isn't because of what she wants, but because of her social position.

A richer woman from a higher social class could obtain a divorce with no real difficulty and no significant social disgrace, had she come from a rung or two further down on the social ladder nobody would have much cared what she did either. As it stands Julia's husband won't consider divorce, her family would consider it an absolute disgrace, and so would her lover's so there wouldn't be much of a happy ending. Just as crucially Julia would consider it a loss of respectability too, and that's important to her. 

It's hard to imagine how rigid that social code must have been now - although heaven knows there's enough detective fiction based around the need to murder an unwanted spouse to give some idea of how unrealistic an option divorce was. Even so, I'm more convinced by the misogyny that makes the world so hostile to Julia, older than her lover by some 7 years. He must have been led astray, she must be a wicked woman - it's still too easy to imagine this narrative.

There's no doubt at all by the end of the book about where Tennyson Jesse stands on Julia's fate, or how she feels about capital punishment. There's a lot to unpack in this book, which is why I feel I've rushed through reading it a bit. Ideas about justice and morality have changed somewhat - there are repeated suggestions that Julia would have thrived as a kept woman which are distasteful to me now for entirely different reasons (I think) to those a reader might have had in 1934. There's a section on back street abortions which has become unexpectedly relevant again given what's happening in America, and there's a lot to think about on the general subjects of romance, love, and marriage. 

The most remarkable thing about this book though is the sustained insight it offers into a woman's life and way of thinking, and how convincing the portrait of Julia is. We have to be able to relate to Julia and sympathise with her, to do that Tennyson Jesse bares her soul to us (both Julia's, maybe a bit of her own, and perhaps some of the readers too). The result is deeply compelling and a heartfelt cry about how hard it is to be a woman. It really is an excellent thing to have this book back in print. 


  1. Lovely review - there's such a lot in this book, isn't there? I wonder what it would be like to read it without knowing that it's based on the real case. My afterword is largely comparing it to the reality, and it was really interesting to see what FTJ kept the same and what she changed.

    1. Now I've finished it, and written about it I've started reading about the case - the physical description of Julia is surprisingly close to pictures of Edith, and it's really interesting to see what's stayed the same and what has been altered. I wondered about mentioning the case, but I don't think you can separate the book from it's history, and as contemporary readers would absolutely have known about the connection it seemed okay to do it. If I didn't know it was based on life I'd say it was 50 - 75 pages too long, and that the pacing was all off. Knowing, it works.

  2. I have the BL copy of this waiting to be read. I'm really looking forward to it - thanks for your helpful review.