Since publication of The Glass Room, a novel based less on people than a modernist villa in Czechoslovakia, Simon Mawer has had a loyal readership.
In his latest Ancestry he recounts the stories of Abraham Block, who goes to sea from the Suffolk village of Kessingland, and Corporal George Mawer who fights in the Crimean War leaving, behind his wife Annie and three children.
The family connection between the two is revealed at the end of the novel.
It is fiction based on historical fact.
I found the subject matter – namely the research into Mawer’s forebears – a tad indulgent.
Every writer – even an established one like Mawer – has a problem as they write away in isolation: how can they know if their book is of interest?
I found the description of the Crimean War more engaging – if gruesome – than the travails of Annie Mawer.
When I thought of the Crimean War I thought of Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade epitomised by Alfred Tennyson’s poem.
The former is not mentioned and the latter regarded as rather insignificant.
The Crimean War, for the foot soldier like Mawer, was characterised by extreme cold, hunger, cholera and dysentery, fear and incompetent generalship.
The heroine is Ann Mawer.
Ill-educated and illiterate she is subject to abuse by a churchman.
Made pregnant by a local worthy, a snobbish solicitor called Edmund Bromehead, and unaided by what little welfare existed in Victorian England for a widowed mother.
For all of this she is resolute in keeping her 5 children with her.
Mawer always writes easily, so the apparent disconnect between the Abraham Block part and George Mawer is not a bar to enjoyment.
I learned much about the Crimean War and Victorian welfare – or lack of it – and hypocrisy.
Yet for all of this it did not reach the heights of The Glass Room.