Nicola Upson’s novel, Stanley and Elsie, covers five years in the lives of the painter, Sir Stanley Spencer, and the young woman who was hired as his housekeeper, while he was painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel.
The First World War is over, and in a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.
When Elsie Munday arrives to take up position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.
As the years pass, Elsie does her best to keep the family together even when love, obsession and temptation seem set to tear them apart…
I have to admit that I didn’t know very much about Sir Stanley Spencer before reading Nicola Upson’s novel which made me reliant on her to bring him alive on the page and draw me in. She certainly achieved this, taking me right into the heart of this household and summoning up all the characters, so that I felt as if they were moving around me while I was reading.
Nicola Upson’s reimagining of this period in Stanley and Elsie’s lives is seen through Elsie’s eyes. We arrive with her for her first day in service, which is also her first time away from home. We join the household when she does and this provides a fresh perspective on the three members of the family, their life together and family dynamic, and how it is organised – or wasn’t, until she arrived.
This also allows Nicola Upson to give more prominence to the women’s stories, those of Hilda, Patricia Preece and Dorothy Hepworth, all artists in their own right but more often footnotes to Sir Stanley’s more public success story. Now we get to see the private man and working artist behind the public image, seen through the women’s eyes. It would be particularly unusual for Elsie’s story to be told, and that’s a shame because she’s quite a character. She knows her own mind, finds happiness and joy in simple pleasures, and provides a good counterbalance to the bohemian storms of discontent that rage around her.
No sooner had I finished reading than I was busy googling Cookham, the Sandham Chapel and other paintings, most notably his portrait of Elsie, which he titled Elise, as well as that painted by his first wife, Hilda Carline. I was struck by how closely they resembled what I had imagined from reading Nicola Upson’s incredibly accurate descriptions of them.
Nicola Upson conjures up the household and the artwork they produce with precise yet playful prose to create a fascinating insight into these people’s lives; Stanley and Elsie is a masterful blend of her research and reimagining that feels as loyal to, and fond of, her subjects as Elsie was towards the family she tended and every bit as vital as she was to them.
Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson is published by Duckworth Books, one of publishing’s oldest independently-owned imprints. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. You can follow Nicola Upson on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.