After reading Simon’s celebration of Persephone Books over at Vulpes Libris a couple of weeks ago, I realised a) how long it had been since I read one of those lovely dove-grey books and b) how much longer it had been since I actually reviewed one. Determined to remedy both these lapses, I picked up Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton.
On the Persephone website, there is a sidebar with all the different categories that their books can be classed under. Looking for a book about Career Women? About Country Life? About London, or Mothers, or Suffragettes? They have you covered. But out of the more than one hundred books they have published, only nine of the titles fall under the category of Books about Men. Bricks and Mortar is one of these and follows the career and family life of a London architect over the course of forty years.
We meet aspiring architect Martin Lovell in Rome in 1892. Young and awkward, he is no match for Lady Stapleford, an impoverished widow on the lookout for a respectable husband for her beautiful daughter, Letty. It is a tiresome courtship for young Letty, being dragged around Rome to marvel at ruins when she would much rather escape the heat or enjoy a picnic, but soon enough matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion: Martin, amazed at his good luck, finds himself married to the most beautiful girl in the world and Lady Stapleford finds herself rid of the expense of bringing her daughter out in society. Letty, perhaps, is not so happy as the others but she is at least free of the mother who bullied and abused her.
The young Lovells head back to England and begin building their life together: Martin throws himself into his work, which he loves, and the small family grows to include first a daughter, Stacy, and then a son, Aubrey. It does not take long for Martin to realise that his wife is not the kind of partner he would have hoped for – she shares none of his interests, is petty and fickle, and spoils her son while berating her daughter – but he makes the best of his life, delighting in his work and, eventually, in the company of his daughter.
Though Martin is doubtlessly our hero, he is a solid, steady man and the drama of the book comes from Stacy’s struggles to claim some independence and then happiness for herself. A lively, intelligent girl, Stacy spends her childhood and young adulthood at war with her mother; much as her father may love her, he is too timid to be any sort of buffer between them. She has dreams and passions that it takes her father years to recognize and at times it seems that her life may be destined to be an unhappy one.
I loved seeing Stacy through Martin’s eyes. She is as close as he comes to having a soul mate, someone who understands him, loves him, and shares his interests, and yet, despite his affection for her and their closeness, he is still that rather simple man who Lady Stapleford seized on in Rome all those years ago, oblivious to people’s private struggles and motivations. There is no one in the world he loves so well as Stacy and yet her actions come as a shock to him, though not perhaps to the reader.
The most steadfast relationship in Martin’s life is with his work and this passion is the source of most of the book’s best passages. From his twenties until his sixties, his interest in architecture never fades. He is always able to take pleasure in a well-designed structure, in taking over and fixing up homes of his own, and in travelling and seeing foreign styles of buildings. He knows he will never be famous, never design anything that will be remembered, but that does not lessen his enthusiasm. He has left his mark on the world and, what’s more, enjoyed every minute of it.
I found Bricks and Mortar both slyly funny and rather touching. The male perspective is a refreshing change from Persephone’s usual female-centred offerings and an enjoyable addition to their catalogue of middlebrow domestic fiction. After years of having it sit neglected on my shelf, I’m so glad that I finally read it.