This utterly charming, totally bonkers short novel is something from another age. There are elements of A Handful of Dust (the young girl trapped reading Dickens), of Rebecca (the undervalued companion of a cantankerous employer), of fable and fairy tale and even of Restoration comedy.
Victoria, young, pretty, big-bosomed, is the companion of a blind man of letters who lives in considerable style in a house in Italy. Her mother is drunk, her employer eats only eggs and dislikes women. Escape she must, and she does so via a vapid young man who falls swiftly in love with her, marries her and conveniently dies. Enter Lettice, a mother-in-law direct from Hades. On Lettice’s coat-tails comes an ageing academic and his ‘companion’, and the relationship between them all develops into a fine comedy of manners.
Johnston’s strength is in her ability to draw a character, sneer or laugh or just comment in the fewest number of words. This really is a novel at which the reader will chuckle, even though the story is negligible and the denouement ridiculous. Johnston’s eye for detail is wonderful, and she uses it to good effect. Lettice’s meanness, her affectation, her jealousy, are all captured in the lightest but blackest of brushstrokes. The protagonists’ complicated affairs — let’s not use the word ‘love’, although there is some affection there — keep the reader amused, but it is the brain rather than the heart that is engaged.