After the Party: A Novel
“How did three upper-class English sisters become ardent Fascists just before World War II?”
The premise of After the Party—award-winning British author Cressida Connolly’s American debut—is fascinating as well as important: How did three upper-class English sisters become ardent Fascists just before World War II? Indeed, the first half of the novel is a page-turner, as Phyllis Forrester, the youngest sister, is increasingly drawn into the notorious British Union of Fascists even as she brushes away signs of trouble in her marriage.
It’s clear from page one that Phyllis was imprisoned for something related to her extremist politics, a situation that has (understandably) alienated her three children even 36 years later.
Unfortunately, the second half of the novel, after Phyllis and her husband, Hugh, are arrested, fails to live up to the premise. Portentous narrative hints from the first half are dropped, and Phyllis is too passive and superficial to carry the story.
When meeting Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union, at a dinner given by her friend Venetia Gordon-Canning, Phyllis muses, “She’d heard he was a champion fencer and wondered if this was why he made her think of Errol Flynn, a resemblance increased by his narrow moustache and pomaded hair.” And what about his chumminess with Hitler? His anti-Semitism? “Phyllis wasn’t seated next to him at Venetia’s dinner, of which she was glad: for what would she be able to find to talk about with such a powerful and important man?” So much for Phyllis’s interest in fascist politics.
The three sisters in After the Party are presumably modeled in part on the six real-life, aristocratic Mitford sisters, of whom two were outright fascists (including Diana, who married Mosley), another was a sympathizer, and a fourth was a card-carrying Communist. In this novel, the eldest sister, Patricia, is more of a snob than a Nazi, while middle sister Nina is the most avid Party member, recruiting her extended family and organizing a summer camp.
Phyllis seems to follow Nina from a combination of loneliness and inertia. “It was nice to be of use, part of a community,” she realizes, as she helps Nina at the camp. “It had never occurred to her before how isolated she had been living abroad,” having spent three years in Belgium and Argentina because of Hugh’s job with British Rubber.
But why did Nina herself sign on to fascism? Well, many of her neighbors—the landed gentry in the Sussex countryside—thrill to speeches by Mosley that sound chillingly similar to the words of white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe today. “From the ashes of the past shall rise a Merrie England of gay and serene manhood and adorned by the miracle of the modern age,” Mosley declares at one point. Later, Nina lectures Phyllis that “It’s abundantly clear that the Jews and their financiers have a vested interest in trying to goad us into another war against Germany.”
In one example of their decadence, Phyllis and her friends decide to host a White Ball, with ermine and grosgrain ribbons, to celebrate the 1938 Munich pact, in which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain handed over large sections of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in return for “peace for our time.”
Yet there’s not nearly enough politics in a novel that hinges on Phyllis’s devotion to Mosley and his cause. For instance, there are no serious debates with people who challenge fascist ideas.
Author Connolly raises an important question: Where does free speech end and treason begin when a nation is at war?, but merely repeats it several times instead of probing it.
Even the betrayal that leads to Phyllis and Hugh’s arrest is barely touched on, and their stay in jail is just plain dull.
From time to time, Connolly enriches her serviceable prose with some wonderful vivid descriptions. When Phyllis and Hugh first return to England from Belgium, “the cliffs at Dover had looked so dingy, like the cut side of a stale loaf of bread.”
Overall, though, the world that Connolly tries to evoke deserves a better book and a more penetrating look than this one.