The Chaplet of Pearls by Harriet Waugh

WEDNESDAY'S book

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

    £35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'