In her second novel, Dignity, Alys Conran delivers a touching tale of three women separated by generations, history and culture. Yet they are united in their spirited assertion of their right to independence and their search for the meaning of ‘home’.
Through the first person narratives of these women, Dignity takes us from a modern English seaside resort that has seen better days to pre-war India under British control. As the narrative progresses it asks questions about the nature of home and the impact of colonialism on the individual.
Pride and Dignity in Old Age
First we encounter Magda who lives alone in a seaside town that is well past its best. Confined to a wheelchair in a sprawling, disintegrating Victorian house, her only visitors are care workers. Magda resents their presence as she fiercely tries to maintain her dignity in the face of declining health and advancing years.
Every care worker despatched to help her feed and wash, experiences the brunt of her bad temper and sharp tongue. Shusheela, a part time student and daughter of Bengali immigrants, is the only care assistant who finds a way to penetrate Magda’s stubborn exterior. She recognises that Magda uses rudeness as a shield and that “underneath it all, she’s desperately sad.”
Shusheela has problems of her own. Still grieving after her mother’s death, she is trying to support her widowed father and her ex-army boyfriend, Ewan, who is is suffering from PTSD. And then she discovers she is pregnant.
The discovery becomes the catalyst for an unlikely – and sometimes fraught – relationship between these two women. Magda’s practical, no nonsense attitude proves to be exactly the support Susheela needs. She recognises that this girl is not like the legion of other care workers – this one has dignity.
The girl’s Bengali heritage unlocks Magda’s memories of her childhood in colonial India and the terrible secrets surrounding her mother Evelyn.
It’s Evelyn’s story that most captured my interest. She arrives in India as the young wife of an engineer ( a man she barely knows), apprehensive about how to create a new home up to the standard of that left behind in Britain.
Upholding The Raj Tradition
Even before her ship docks she is marked out as different from the other British wives. She has brought no romantic novels with her nor does she share their love of gossip. Dignity shows how adjusting to her new life and the expectations of a Raj wife, prove challenging. She dislikes the way servants are treated and the parochial attitudes of the other wives.
She tries desperately to maintain her independence, to forge her own way of dealing with India. But gradually Evelyn changes; worn down by the expectations of respectability and the pressure to conform. The schoolteacher who arrives in India as warmhearted and independent in spirit becomes as cold as her husband and cannot even relate to her daughter.
… I become toughened like old meat into a kind of sergeant major, and, when I look at myself in the glass, I become, day by day, more like the hard-faced Englishwomen who have surrounded me since I arrived, my brow creased by resentment…
Dignity is a touching story that shows the damage of the colonial experience. You feel for Evelyn in her confusion on first arriving in India and in the criticism she faces because of her relationships with the servants.
It’s evident that this is a story that cannot end happily for her.
But Evelyn is not the only victim. For Magda having been raised surrounded by servants and privileges is suddenly despatched back to England. A country that is not Home, but a foreign land. One in which she will be alone.
Dignity is a novel I enjoyed right from the first pages. The characters could easily have been stereotypes but Alys Conran has made each woman distinctly human and grounded in reality.
As the story wends it way through the lives of these three women it raises questions about the effect of the Colonial experience and also the meaning of “Home”.
Views of Home
Evelyn thinks about “Home” all the time she is India. It’s what all the wives do, eagerly scrutinising the outfits of any new arrival so they can copy the latest fashion. But Evelyn that all their memories are idealised the longer they are out of England. Home for her is
sitting in my mother’s kitchen, shelling peas, with light flowing in through her net curtains and the sound of children playing outside…
But she knows this is an England that cannot exist. That home is fading just as much as she is, that “the very guts of me are being worked on by this India ….and I am slowly less and less of what I was.”
Her daughter’s view of home is significantly less idealised. Though there is a doormat at her house which bears the word “Home’ this is a building which she views more like a fortress. A house that “has to hold out against the changing world outside.”
This is a touching, thoughtful novel, showing characters who are vulnerable and uncertain how to deal with the issues that life has thrown at them.
I had enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. But I had wondered whether she would be as effective when she broke out of her Welsh milieu. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Dignity by Alys Conran: Fast Facts
Dignity was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, in April 2019. My copy was provided free by the publishers in return for an honest review.
Alys Conran was born in North Wales. She is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. In 2017 she won the Book of the Year prize in the Literature Wales Awards for her debut novel Pigeon.