I spend a lot of my time reading other people’s letters. Researching the lives and work of the women who moved to Cambridge as its first female students and university wives in the 1870s and 1880s means that I have to read their private diaries and correspondence to family and friends. It’s the only way to find out more about them, but sometimes I feel like a spy.
In my spare time I read fiction as well as biography, so I was interested in the journalist and campaigner Natasha Walter’s first novel. She is the author of two excellent nonfiction books, The New Feminism (1998) and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010). Her novel A Quiet Life tells the story of the fictional Laura Last, who moves to England in 1939, falls in love with an upper middle-class Englishman and becomes deeply involved in his dangerous world of spying. It is loosely based on the life of the American Melinda Marling, ‘the communist in the Schiaparelli coat’ as she was known, who was married to the Cambridge spy, Donald Maclean.
There is no evidence that the real Melinda ever took part in, or knew about, her husband’s treacherous activities. She followed him to the East in 1953, taking their children and her secrets with her. A Quiet Life is, Walter says, ‘not a history book’ but an edge-of-the seat spy thriller about an extraordinary woman who is fatally underestimated by everyone around her. Laura, the chief protagonist of this novel, is able to take enormous risks for her work precisely because she seems so conventional. She is adept at presenting a perfectly made-up face to the world, but it comes at a personal cost.
Her story is mainly replayed in flashback, from the moment when, as a socially awkward young woman, she boards an ocean liner taking her from New York to London on the eve of war in 1939. She is drawn to Florence, a young Communist, both for her principles and her innate self-confidence:
Laura realised that she was one of the first women she had ever met who appeared to have no physical uncertainty. Her dress was shabby, her hair unwaved and her eyebrows unplucked, but her gestures were expansive and her voice determined. Laura had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.
The friendship with Florence triggers a series of events: Laura’s growing political awareness, meeting and falling in love with Edward, taking up work as a photographer and a spy. Walter cleverly intertwines a gripping plot with perceptive insights into the other aspects of her life that Laura, like every woman of her time, has to conceal, to maintain the illusion of ‘her own work of femininity’.
A little while ago there was a fuss about whether the actor who plays the next James Bond incarnation could be a woman. He is now to be scripted (at least in part) by the acclaimed writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Historically, women have always been rather good at keeping secrets. What secrets did our own mothers and grandmothers keep? There may be much more beneath the surface of every ‘quiet life’ than we suspect.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 8 June 2019 (all rights reserved)
This is an edited version of a review first published on the Shiny New Books website. Natasha Walter campaigns for Women for Refugee Women, which ‘aims to give a voice to women who are all too often unheard and unseen’: http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/