We all have our crosses to bear, our own personal sorrows. Mine is that the people who should be dearest to me, my own children, my sisters, consider me a bad woman. The grandchildren have been taught to be wary. I think I’m a disgrace to them, really. After the war when the newsreel film was shown of what had gone on in Germany and Poland, those places, the horrors . . . It all got tangled up in their minds, as if we’d stood for such barbarism.
Reading Cressida Connolly’s After the Party I kept waiting for the storm to burst–for some twist or spin or revelation to up-end the unnervingly sedate account of an upper-crust family’s entanglement with Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. It never really happened, and as I finished the novel I felt disappointed, but then as I sat and thought about it for a while I started to wonder if the easy slide of the whole story was in fact the point. For Phyllis, the main character, “the party” is just another political option. She is baffled and offended when her ailing mother’s caretaker tells her off: “I’ve no quarrel with her,” she says;
She doesn’t parade about the streets in uniform, like your children and your sister Nina. It’s you two that need to look to your consciences, following that wicked man … You with your salutes and uniforms and speechifying: you’re nothing better than a bunch of traitors. Thugs they are, most of them. Just because you don’t bring your flags and banners here, don’t think word doesn’t spread.
“Our politics are no concern of yours; nor yours of ours,” Phyllis replies huffily; “We vote by secret ballot in these islands for this very reason, so that neighbours and friends shall not be divided by their beliefs.”
Even after her long imprisonment Phyllis remains indignant that her commitment to Mosley’s cause has cost her anything at all and especially that it has led to people concluding she is not a good person. It would be at once pathetic and laughable if it weren’t also plausible and unhappily timely: Phyllis insists that she and her fascist friends were very fine people. The novel approaches them with sly delicacy, never presenting them as outright villains but allowing the us to experience their moral corruption through the lens of Phyllis’s own self-justifications. It also focuses on the personal relationships that naturalize and sanitize the fascist cause for those directly involved, keeping the political context just vague enough that the reader almost has to shake herself to remember that what they stand for is not acceptable, that fascism isn’t just one reasonable choice among many no matter how elegantly its proponents are dressed or how preoccupied they are with their families, lovers, and friends.
There’s something sly about the way the novel mimics a different kind of country-house saga, just as there’s something quietly insidious about the ease with which, once introduced to it by her sister Nina, Phyllis and her husband Hugh embrace the Party and come to admire “the Leader.” They aren’t coerced or bullied; they aren’t suffering from economic anxiety or facing any deprivation or threat; they just go to luncheons and picnics and summer camps and dinner parties … with Oswald Mosley. It’s all superficially very civilized–but under this influence their daughter Julia vandalizes a local theater with the slogan “PJ” (for “Perish Judah”). Phyllis is initially uneasy. “Surely that’s taking things rather too far,” she says to Nina; “I don’t suppose any of them have ever even seen a Jew,” to which Nina knowingly replies, “You’re not quite up to speed with it all.” Hugh, too, is unconcerned: the theatre troupe is made up of “frightful people” who refused to rent their space to the Party when “the Leader himself was coming down to give a talk”: “the theatre people were quite rude. Said our views were against the principles of common decency, anathema, that sort of thing.” When Phyllis argues that “we don’t want anyone to perish,” Hugh urges her not to “overreact.” And so Phyllis slips ever further into the abyss.
“So much for a free country,” Phyllis complains as she looks back on the disgrace she and Hugh faced after their release; “You may have the freedom to express your views, but they’ll still damn you for them.” Anti-semitic violence, apologists for fascism, self-righteous hostility about deplatforming “controversial” speakers, willfully ignorant both-sides arguments, and over it all a veneer of civility that smugly insists protest and confrontation are more offensive than the loathsome ideology being protested against: it’s a good thing After the Party is a historical novel–we wouldn’t want to see anything like that going on today!