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The Angel of Twickenham
Ursula Bentley

The Angel of Twickenham
Ursula Bentley
London 1996

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Ursula Bentley’s The Angel of Twickenham is a mildly amusing, occasionally clever social satire on Britain in the last years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. It is also a complete failure as a work of fiction. Centred on the chaotic breakdown of a family, it is too flippant to be deemed a serious work, yet lacks any of the human warmth necessary for a genuine comedy.

Its heroine Harriet Flunkel is a middle-aged actress and mother who spends her time trying to juggle the conflicting commitments of work and family from within the confines of a cosily liberal, middle-class existence. This is a common enough situation, and as George Eliot said, ‘let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things’. Bentley seems to follow this dictate to the letter, and her novel is crammed with the minutiae of life in Thatcher’s Britain: West End musicals, the Daily Mail, Torville and Dean, the unreliability of British Rail, and so on. Her talent for period detail is impeccable. However, Eliot’s statement continues: ‘Let us always have… men who see beauty in these commonplace things.’ And this is where Bentley fails. She sees, or at least portrays, beauty in nothing. Her perspective is jaded and snobbish and her characters are devoid of all warmth and sympathy. Harriet, rather than seeming confused and divided, comes across as merely selfish and slightly unbalanced. Her husband has been given no distinguishing features whatsoever (apart from the fact that he is American), and one is at pains to work out exactly what is his place in the novel. All too often Bentley takes refuge in stereotypes. For example, Harriet’s lazy, beautiful and hysterical French au pair girl, or Adelina Viper, the skinny, highbrow vamp of a novelist. Or the ‘charismatic’ evangelical priest turned seducer. These characters go little beyond the realms of sketchy cliché.

Technically, Ursula Bentley is not an altogether bad writer. Her prose is sophisticated, even sometimes elegant, and her satire can be sharp. She continually frustrates, however, as whenever the narrative moves close to a potentially complex and interesting situation or a relationship threatens to become emotionally involving, she slams on the brakes and reverts hastily back to superficiality and cheap jokes. When the novel finally does reach the climax of its action, it comes too late. The reader has lost interest, and the interaction between the characters has not been sufficiently strong for it to sustain the shock of the novel’s somewhat bizarre conclusion.

In The Angel of Twickenham, Bentley presents Thatcherite Britain as soulless, selfish, jingoistic, anti-aesthetic and vehemently anti-intellectual. This will be seen by many as an accurate portrayal. However, much as those values might have made up the ethos of Thatcher’s reign, they cannot be seen as representative of the people that lived under it. Bentley’s book contains none of the basic humanist values that make a study of ordinary life worth reading. In allowing her fondness for acerbic wit to dominate this book, she has created something that is both cynical and dull. Perhaps something that resembles the culture of Thatcherism more than she might have intended.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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