Nicola Upson interview: Stanley and Elsie is the story of artist Stanley Spencer's family dramas through the eyes of his maid
A soap opera story, that’s how Cambridge author Nicola Upson describes the tangled love life of artist Stanley Spencer, whose touching friendship with his maid is the basis of her latest book.
Stanley and Elsie is the new novel from the best-selling historical writer. The book starts after the First World War. In a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.
When Elsie Munday arrives to take up her position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.
For the next five years, Elsie is a vital part of the Spencer family, sharing in the creation of Spencer’s masterpieces and the daily dramas of his life: his marriage to the painter Hilda Carline and the artistic rivalry between husband and wife; the continuing impact of the first world war on all their lives; the scandal over Spencer’s personal and artistic attitudes toward sex; and his obsession with Patricia Preece, the woman who would become his second wife.
Nicola says: “I’ve always loved Spencer’s paintings, but I became intrigued by his relationship with Elsie when I saw an exhibition of his work in the Fitzwilliam Museum. There were lots of paintings that I was familiar with, including a double nude portrait of him with his second wife, Patricia Preece. It is an incredible picture, it is really quite ruthless. There are two single beds pushed together in a room with flowery wallpaper and P is lying on her side looking past Stanley and he is nude in the picture too, you see his back with his head turned to the side. It is ruthless and brutally frank and in no way about desire.
“For those who don’t know soap opera story of his love life, it was a relationship that never even got started, never mind finished.
“I was admiring this picture again and then I saw in another part of the exhibition there was just this little pencil drawing. It was a picture of a maid standing at a door, flirting with what looks like a postman or a delivery man
“The Fitzwilliam had chosen an extract from his diaries to say it was a picture of his maid, Elsie Munday. I had never heard of her before but I was drawn to her.”
It turned out that when Spencer went to Burghclere in Hampshire, she became his housekeeper and then followed the family back to Cookham. Nicola says: “She became a friend and confidant to the family as well as the person who kept the whole house going.”
But eventually Elsie became so much more - a muse for his paintings and a witness to the breakdown of his family life.
“The diary extract with her picture in the Fitz exhibition talked about how they ‘blew about like a couple of rooks’ in a cottage for five years in a field by a railway cutting,” says Nicola.
“It talked about the shared sense of joy they found in everyday things and it talked about how when she worked for Spencer at Burghclere ‘our life was as light as air’. That was quite a lovely thing to say, and that is a side of Stanley Spencer we don’t often see.”
It was their completely platonic, but obviously deeply affectionate, relationship that Nicola wanted to capture in the book.
“People have written about the pictures he has painted of her,” says Nicola. “It's very well known she kept house for him and he was going to create a chapel project where he was going to portray all of the women he loved, and Elsie was going to be one of them. But no one has ever explored before what it must have been like for her.
“That relationship with her was a unique one in his life because it wasn't sexual or romantic, it was a friendship. They were both country, rural, people and they also had service in common: Spencer had worked as a medical orderly in the first world war before he went out on the front line and he served in hospitals carrying tea urns and scraping frostbite of patients' feet.”
The story that is more familiar to those who have heard of Stanley Spencer is the scandal that surrounded his personal life, and Elsie was a witness as it all unfurled.
“What people know about Spencer is his disastrous love life, because the nude paintings, the disastrous relationship that he has with his first wife and his second wife and the fool he made of himself, that's all very well documented. But it struck me that the creation of this memorial chapel which was very much his attempt to get that innocence back that had been knocked out of him by the First World War. That was set against that the disintegration of his first marriage and the disaster of his second. All of it could be told, I realised by effectively the most intimate witness to it. Elsie, as a servant living in the household, saw everything and that was a book I really wanted to write.
“I was captivated by their friendship because she is typical in the sense that if you read a lot of the stuff that’s written about between those two world wars there is something about men and domestic servants' It is almost as if that is the one fundamental level they can rely on. It is almost like going back to childhood and their nannies.”
During this period, Spencer would divorce his first wife Hilda, leaving her with two small daughters, after becoming infatuated with a woman he met in a tea shop in his home village of Cookham.
Patricia Preece lived with her friend Dorothy Hepworth, whom Spencer did not realise was in fact her lifelong lover. He divorced Hilda and four days after the decree came through he wed Patricia. But the marriage was never consummated.
“In the wedding photograph, Patricia looks absolutely distraught; you could not think of anyone who looked less like the happy bride, with her lover Dorothy standing next to her,” says Nicola.
“After the wedding, Dorothy and Patricia went back to their house and sent Stanley back to his own house on his own. He wasn’t expecting that - he was expecting their wedding night to be spent together. He had to stay behind in Cookham to finish a landscape and Patricia and Dorothy went on ahead for the honeymoon in St Ives in Cornwall. They had a lovely time until Stanley came to join them.”
The women continued to live together and, in spite of the fact Stanley signed over the lease of his house to Patricia, the two women remained lovers for life and were even buried together. Meanwhile, even though Spencer’s desperately tried to woo her back, Hilda wanted nothing more to do with him.
Through all this, Elsie remained a steadfast friend to both Stanley and Hilda. She stayed with the family through five tumultuous years before marrying a local man, Ken. But she was so discreet about all the events that she had witnessed that her own children did not know about her previous job until they were grown up.
“Stanley wrote about Elsie quite a lot in letters and diaries there are some lovely passages about her and what he loved about her,” says Nicola.
“He loved her joy in the everyday moments, he loved the fact she was always turned towards light and love, he admired her legs! You get the sense they must have talked for hours, when the marriage with Hilda started to disintegrate she would take the children back to Hampstead.
“Stanley and Elsie were on their own in that house for weeks and months at a time talking, never anything improper, but he clearly loved her in the most unromantic way. I think it was his least complicated relationship
“ I came to like my version of Elsie very much. It's impossible to know what somebody is like whether you are writing about them, but for me it is much easier to get under somebody's skin writing fiction rather than fact.
“It was brilliant to be able to consider this impossible, quite charming, infuriating and likeable and contradictory man through someone who was quite down to earth and could cut through all that nonsense and was in a position to consider his reactions.”
Stanley and Elsie is published by Duckworth priced £10.99.