Charlotte Moore

The actress and the orphan

Ask Alice, by D. J. Taylor

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Ask Alice

D. J. Taylor

Chatto & Windus, pp. 342, £

Ask Alice combines two narratives, one beginning in 1904 in the emptiness of the American Midwest, the other in the muffled stasis of Edwardian rural England. The first follows the swift trajectory of Alice, a pretty orphan from Kansas who thinks ‘it must be fun to go places’. Alice, on the train shuttling between one set of backwoods relations and another, is waylaid by a predatory travelling salesman named Drouett; before long she really is ‘going places’.

Alice is an adventuress, a red-haired opportunist, a Becky Sharp without the wit. Her heart is set on the stage; the endless prairies of Dakota don’t augur well for such ambitions, so when Drouett abandons her there she latches onto a Lutheran missionary who at least takes her as far as Chicago, whence she soon escapes to New York.

From New York it is but a short hop to London and a new life. Alice is the mistress of re-invention, but she has a baby to cramp her style. Even though Asa is the most obliging baby ever born, never making a sound or needing a nappy change, Alice finds his presence incompatible with a stage career. She makes arrangements; without Asa, the sky’s the limit.

The second narrative concerns an English boy called Ralph Bentley; not his real name, but he knows nothing about his parentage. In childhood he is enclosed first in a crumbling Sussex mansion in the care and company of servants, then in bachelor squalor in a Norfolk cottage with a shambolic eccentric he knows as ‘uncle’. Uncle is always trying to invent things. Against the odds he succeeds, triumphantly, with the recipe for a new colour, ‘an amalgam of crimson and gentian’, which he names ‘hogpen’. The virulent brilliance of hogpen appeals to the post-Great War generation seeking relief from drab austerity. Uncle and ‘nephew’ abandon Norfolk for London, where the glamour of their new-minted wealth causes high society to overlook the older man’s gaucherie, the young man’s obscure origins. They fall within the orbit of Alice, now a rich widow and fashionable hostess, her acting days firmly behind her. The two narratives dovetail.

Taylor is good on period detail; he efficiently captures the sense of social upheaval that characterised 1920s Britain. Bright Young Things, social climbers, boom-or-bust businessmen, parade colourfully through the pages. But the central mystery is no mystery at all; only the most dull-witted reader can remain unaware of the truth of Ralph’s birth beyond the first few chapters. When Drouett the salesman re-enters the story we know that Alice’s house of cards will topple; the question is when, not if or how. The impetus to read on would be stronger if the characters were complex or engaging, but Ralph is a cipher, ‘uncle’ a caricature, and Alice a creature without an inner life.

Ask Alice would make a good television play. Taylor has provided carefully constructed sets and a convincing commentary on social change; a good director and a strong cast could breathe life into characters who on the page are too psychologically stunted to sustain our interest.