A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

I first came across a mention of the 1922 Thompson–Bywaters case when I read The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters several years ago and discovered that it was part of the inspiration for the novel. F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow was listed in the acknowledgments and I immediately wanted to read it. However, that was 2014 and it has taken me until 2022 to actually do it! The good thing about waiting this long is that the book has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series and that’s the edition I read, complete with a very insightful new afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book.

A Pin to See the Peepshow was first published in 1934 and begins just before the First World War. Julia Almond is sixteen years old and a typical schoolgirl, infatuated with one of her teachers, fiercely protective of her beloved dog, Bobby, and longing for some excitement to brighten up her humdrum existence. Starting work in a fashionable dress shop after leaving school gives her a glimpse of the sort of world she would like to inhabit, but it also makes her situation at home, where she is forced to share a bedroom with a much younger cousin, seem even more unbearable. Rushing into marriage with her parents’ friend, Herbert Starling, in the hope of finding the freedom she craves, Julia quickly discovers that she has made a terrible mistake. She doesn’t love Herbert and knows she never will, but divorce seems to be out of the question and she can see no other way of escape.

Several years into her marriage, Julia meets the much younger Leonard Carr and at last experiences the passion and romance she has always dreamed of. The two begin an affair and soon Leonard – or Leo, as Julia prefers to call him – is putting pressure on her to prove that she loves him and leave her husband. Julia knows that Herbert will never let her go and that she can’t afford to lose the security her marriage provides, but Leo won’t accept this and eventually decides to take matters into his own hands…

I loved this book, although I had expected the crime element to play a bigger part; the section of the novel based on the events of the Thompson-Bywaters case only takes up around 100 pages out of 464. The rest of the book is really a character study of Julia Almond and an exploration of the world in which she lives. Jesse spends a lot of time building this up, but I never felt that a word was wasted – every detail seemed necessary in order for us to understand the circumstances that led to the actions of the characters later in the book. Julia herself is not a particularly likeable character, but it would be difficult not to have at least some sympathy for her as her only ‘crime’ is to be constantly striving towards a happier life for herself and dreaming of things that are always just out of reach. This is illustrated by the metaphor of the toy peepshow she stares into as a schoolgirl and finds herself glimpsing a fantasy land:

The walls and lid of the box gave to it the sense of distance that a frame gives to a picture, sending it backwards into another space. Julia stared into the peepshow, and it was as though she gazed into the depths of a complete and self-contained world, where she would go clad in snow-shoes and furs, and be able to tame savage huskies and shoot bears; a world of chill pallor, of an illimitable white sky, both only saved from a cruel rigour by the rosy all-pervading light.

The events that unfold towards the end of the book are tragic for everyone involved, but are particularly unfair for Julia, who is judged by the standards of the time. Her position in society places her at a disadvantage and as Jesse points out, if Julia had only belonged to either a higher class or a lower one, her situation could have been very different. This is a fascinating novel and now I’ll have to read E.M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs, which is based on the same case!

This is book 10/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is also book 30/50 from my second Classics Club list.