A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse – Review
By Sandra Callard
This book is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an ordinary novel. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse is based on the famous trial of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, who were both convicted of the murder of Thompson’s husband, Percy, and subsequently hanged in 1923. The public were enraged by the hanging of Edith, as the actual deed was committed solely by Bywaters, and as the years went by she was progressively said to be guilty of adultery, but not of the murder.
Tennyson Jesse, who was named after her great-uncle, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote the book some years later (it was first published in 1934). It caused a sensation at the time, bringing the feelings of women – and sex and sexuality in particular – to the fore. These newly highlighted subjects feature prominently in Jesse’s book.
The main character is Julia Almond, a lower middle-class girl, and something of an anti-hero. She is so totally concerned with herself that she only sees things from her own perspective. Indeed, she holds herself in such high regard that she is genuinely puzzled when others dislike her, but she can easily rise above it, being thoroughly egocentric. The book follows her school days, where she falls in love with her female teacher, and her career via a dress shop, where she blooms and becomes a buyer in Paris. She makes a bad marriage with an older man, then falls in love with a man some years younger than herself.
The character of Julia is outstanding. She fills every page and, although we may not always like her, we are fascinated by her, and the woman who created her. She stands out as someone who is selfish, conceited and vainglorious to a tee, but Jesse manages to bring out her tender side, which adds to the reader’s anxiety for her.
The above is a short resume of the story, but the reading of it is very different. Tennyson Jesse’s writing is spectacularly good. The story flows in exquisite detail, as Julia’s imagination takes flight. Her love for Leo is of the moment and is encasing and towering. She is enveloped in a relationship which gives her the two things she has always wanted; the love of a wonderful man and an understanding of what sexual love is. Jesse’s description of this is overpowering, and Julia’s life for those brief moments, she feels, is everything she has wanted and always deserved.
The prose throughout the book is voluminous and long, but so very perfect, and even Julia’s love for her dog, Bobby, is powerful and authentic. The same story could effectively be told in half of the 382 pages that it takes Jesse to tell it, but it would not envelop the reader in the way this does. Nor would it bring about the feelings of sadness, fear or love that the author manages to evince from the meagre actions of the characters.
Jesse’s prose is utterly perfect for a long, exhaustive and thorough telling of a story such as this one, and is one which reaps its rewards in a long and satisfying sentiment on completion.
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F. Tennyson Jesse is published by the British Library, £9.99 paperback