The Chaplet of Pearls by Harriet Waugh

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Harriet Waugh is a curiously kindly satirist. A fine instinct guides her straight to the soft and rotting places in the human psyche, but she lacks either the surgeon's slicing confidence or the stiletto savagery of the paid-up misanthrope. Her new novel is a reproach to moral coarseness, yet this fair-minded author seems reluctant to apportion blame. In a cast of flawed characters, no clear villain emerges.

The eponymous Chaplet of Pearls is a literary appreciation society devoted to the Victorian lady novelist Charlotte M Yonge, whose improving works (including the seminal Abbeychurch; or Self-Control and Self-Conceit) preached a life of exalted self-abnegation. The "Pearls" themselves, a dwindling group of well-to-do elderly ladies whose idea of self-denial is shop-bought smoked salmon, are none the less staunchly supportive of their heroine's moral strictures. So when Hilary Greep, a feminist critic, proposes Yonge as the subject of a revisionist biography heaving with incest and lesbianism, the Pearls are roused to revenge.

"Hilary Greep has developed out of completely different culture. She could come from Mars," explains Katharine, the murderous Pearl-in-Chief. "Although only around fifty years divide us from her, the cultural gulf is greater than that which divides us from the Ancient Greeks."

This, rather than her literary proclivities, is the real reason why Hilary Greep must die. As their legs and wits begin to fail them, the Pearls find themselves besieged by moral Goths with slippery subjective truths threatening to undermine the certainties of their upbringing.

Waugh is excellent on the creeping menace of old age: "Katharine invariably thought that things she could not find had been stolen but never mentioned the possibility as she suspected it might be a sign of incipient madness in herself." As funerals clutter up their diaries, the Pearls develop a desperado mentality which, the author argues, fits their station: "Nobody thinks of the old as reckless, but they should. Like the young, but for opposite reasons, they have nothing to lose."

Waugh moves too often into manifesto mode for The Chaplet of Pearls to be classed as a comedy. She hovers between the sitcom of Tom Sharpe and the subtler social observations of her family tradition. The reader is never quite sure whether to laugh or to nod sagely. Laughing sagely is not an option.

Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99