Review by

Lord Jim at Home

Unmistakably English horrors

Upon its original publication in 1973, Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke was described by one reviewer as ‘squalid and startling’, adjectives that immediately render it irresistible, and also prove to be true in a singularly impressive way. It tells the life story of Giles Trenchard, a very particular type of Englishman. Ostensibly the product of a privileged interwar upbringing of chauffeurs, nannies, and public school, Giles’ life to date has been blighted by a cast of grotesques and persistent emotional abuse. Stepping into adulthood with a damaged spirit and a wavering moral compass, it’s only a matter of time before calamity strikes.

The novel opens with Giles’ birth, delivered into the arms of the well-to-do Trenchard family, his father a partner in a prestigious law firm, his mother a coddled and passive Conservative ladies group member. She has already secured him a nursemaid via a letter to The Times, unwittingly hiring a sadistic villainess who views the nursery as an arena whose ‘dark battles should never be seen.’

Believing that babies should be silent and malleable, she keeps poor Giles strapped to his cot, where he stares up at the ceiling by day and into ‘deep velvet blackness’ by night. Later on there will be beatings, bruises that Mrs Trenchard wonders about but decides not to question, as after all the nurse did come with the very best references.

At five, Giles is a cowed and invisible child. At nine, he’s at boarding school, a place of bad dreams, lumpy porridge and bedwetting.

‘Like a barnacle clinging to the bottom of a ship who unwittingly travels round the world, he clings on, eyes closed, to the life of a small boy, and grows.’

Once grown, he finds himself in the Second World War, signing up for the Navy and the chance to save his country, although disturbingly his patriotic thoughts are interspersed with a longing to witness bombs falling and hear the terrible screams of dying victims. A grim childhood has potentially set the scene for our antihero’s unhinging.

Brooke’s reissued novel is brutal, compelling, and darkly funny, an often parodic characterisation of emotionally stunted upper class Englishness. She is particularly incisive in her portrayal of the power dynamics within families and across social classes. In the Trenchard domestic sphere, we see Giles’ paternal grandfather ritually humiliating his father, who reliably passes that misery down to Giles, at the bottom of the patrilineal heap.

The grandfather, a high court judge, has the upper hand (and wandering hands) with his housemaid too. Hearing of her fears of eternal spinsterhood, which would mean certain destitution, he agrees to write her into his will in exchange for sexual favours. These he receives while clad in his robe and horsehair wig. There is also, of course, some spanking.

If Giles hopes that the trappings of an upper-crust background will finally confer some power to his own self in adulthood, he’s set to be disappointed. Brooke’s viscerally stunning descriptions of war and her portrayal of his inglorious later years set the scene for a devastating downfall

A gripping tale of horrors, recommended for imperturbable readers.

Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke is published by Daunt Books, 264 pages.

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