Stanley and Elsie – Nicola Upson

This book caught my eye, as a novel based on real people and events. I find it fascinating to see how novelists represent the narratives of real lives: blending fact and fiction, the real and the imagined!

Stanley and Elsie is the story of Stanley Spencer, an artist who has returned from World War I. The story opens in Burclough, a small village in Hampshire, where Stanley lives with his wife Hilda and daughter Shirin. Elsie, a young maid who comes to live in the Spencer household at the opening of the novel, is welcomed by he family almost as one of their own, and she becomes embroiled in their lives. In the first part of this novel, we observe Stanley, his work and his family primarily through Elsie’s eyes – Stanley and his wife are both artists, spirited and explosive and have a tempestuous marriage. They are often bickering, and Elsie is put in a strange position as confidante to them both. The rest of the novel takes us deeper into their marital problems, which are exacerbated by new locations and new people entering their lives.

Seeing the artist at work was one of my favourite things about this novel. Stanley has undertaken an epic task of painting a mural in honour of the war in Sandham Memorial Chapel. Stanley’s eccentricity as he worked, his self assurance and his reverence for what he was trying to create, held real magic for me. These are also the moments he was most endearing to me – rushing inside the house to wet his hair or grab props like bacon (both cooked and uncooked rashers!) to recreate exactly. Upson’s descriptions of the artwork itself are also quite spectacular – looking up the works afterwards, I feel she has captured their spirit perfectly.

Location is also very important in the novel, often closely tied to a feeling of ‘belonging’, which gains particular significance in the aftermath of war, as everyone tries to find their place again after terrible disruption. The physical distance between characters is also hugely loaded – what happens when the places we are drawn to aren’t where they should be, or where our loved ones are? When happens when you love someone most, when you are far apart from each other, in different places?

While I found the choice of narrators (who are often characters on the ‘outside’ of the story) interesting, it seemed to me to Stanley was always the central character, often the focus point and driver of the story. Sometimes this bothered me – I wanted things to centre more around Elsie, or Hilda, or other interesting characters around Stanley. I found the second section actually quite difficult to read (from a sort of emotional perspective) – I longed for the charm and spirit of the Spencer family we see at the beginning of the novel. At the time, I found some of these aspects a bit frustrating, but looking back now, I realise that this exasperation is perhaps just what I needed to feel to experience this story, to truly understand Stanley in all his complexity. It is testament to Upson that she was able to place me as a reader within Stanley’s world so completely.

Reading Stanley and Elsie has left me wondering how to approach this type of novel in the future – where real events are fictionalised. Something about reading the afterword and Googling the real life events after reading the book made me feel more connected with the characters. I think this reminder that this was based on real people tugged at my emotions and allowed me to see them in a different light. I’d avoided looking up any details at the beginning of the story, in case it influenced my view of anything (or I came across anything that spoiled the story). But now, I sort of wonder what they experience would have been like, had I read the book with the visuals of Stanley’s artwork in my mind. I’m also very inspired to visit the Sandham Memorial Chapel painted by Stanley, under patronage of Louis and Mary Behrend. You can read more about it here.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book, in exchange for an honest review. Stanley and Elsie, by Nicola Upson is available now, from Duckworth.

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