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A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson…
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A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934)

by F. Tennyson Jesse

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
162673,595 (4.14)86
  1. 10
    Criminal Justice: True Story of Edith Thompson by René Weis (christiguc)
  2. 10
    Fred and Edie by Jill Dawson (Her_Royal_Orangeness)
    Her_Royal_Orangeness: Both books are based on the true story of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.
  3. 00
    High Wages by Dorothy Whipple (souloftherose)
    souloftherose: Both books look at the life of a young woman working as a shop assistant in the early 20th century.
  4. 00
    The Ordeal of Elizabeth by Anonymous (souloftherose)
    souloftherose: Although set 20 years apart, both books look at the restrictions society of the time placed on young women and the terrible and tragic events that can follow
  5. 00
    The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (souloftherose)
    souloftherose: Two books written by women and published in the 1930s which are both about women who find themselves trapped by the constraints of the society they live in and end up seeking happiness in ex-marital affairs. Both have been reissued by Virago press.
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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
This story of a young woman trapped by social conventions in 1920s England takes as its basis actual events from a sensational crime. Julia Almond grows up in surburban London, and initially escapes her humdrum family of origin through work in a dress shop. She develops as a business woman, representing the shop on trips to Paris to choose new clothing lines for the shop. But Julia isn't satisfied with her modest lifestyle, and believes she deserves more. She marries a man several years her senior, primarily for a sense of security. The union is unsatisfying due in large part to Julia's inflated expectations, and her inexperience with romantic relationships. When she meets up with a boy she once knew in school, sparks fly, but in Edwardian society there is really no way for Julia and Leo to be anything other than lovers. Eventually and inevitably, matters come to a head, with disastrous consequences.

In addition to its basis in history, A Pin to See the Peepshow also inspired Sarah Waters' 2014 novel, The Paying Guests. F. Tennyson Jesse's novel spends a great deal of time developing Julia's history and character, whereas Waters focuses primarily on the crime and its aftermath, and develops her characters in that context. I enjoyed both books and found it particularly interesting to compare and contrast the two while reading A Pin to See the Peepshow. ( )
1 vote lauralkeet | Nov 17, 2014 |
A Pin to see the Peepshow was first published in 1934 and follows the fortunes of Julia Almond. As the novel opens Julia is sixteen and still at school, it is 1913, she has a “rave” on one of her teachers, jealously guards the privacy of her own room at home, and adores her dog Bobby passionately. Julia however is not a very likeable character - I tried to warm to her as the novel progressed – but I disliked her more as time went on. She though an extremely realistic and believable character, she is a fully fallible human being, and fascinating too. The fact I didn’t much like the central character didn’t of course prevent me from enjoying the novel itself. Julia though is selfish, vain, thoughtless and certain of her own importance, ambitious and independent she has no time for women’s suffrage, is bored by it – her only interest is in things that directly affect her. Julia lives in a fantasy world most of the time, her head filled with dreams and stories in which she plays a central role. She is a woman who is ultimately destroyed by her own actions, but also and more importantly by her class and the times in which she lived. Julia’s fate is dark one, which the reader will struggle to forget.
When Julia’s father dies, she and her mother find they will find it difficult to make ends meet. To help the family finances Julia’s uncle and aunt and Cousin Elsa move in, Elsa has to share Julia’s precious room, and even manages to steal some of Bobby’s affection for herself – much to Julia’s distress. Julia begins work at an upmarket dressmakers, where the society women who own the shop lead a very different life, which includes the ability to divorce an unsatisfactory or dull husband with practically no scandal, something that women in Julia’s own class is unable to do. Julia makes her first forays into romance, when the war gets in the way. Family friend Herbert Starling is newly widowed and although somewhat older than Julia he offers her a way of escape from home. With Herbert away at the war she will have his large roomy flat all to herself and Bobby, and so she marries him. Julia soon finds that the war doesn’t last for ever and that Herbert when no longer an officer, is once more the rather dull man she remembered from before the war, and now she must live with him constantly. She still has her job, which she loves, and indeed is so good at it – she is soon earning more than her husband. Then Leonard Carr comes back into her life. Leonard was a boy at her school years earlier, seven years her junior, who once showed her his little peepshow box.
“Then she picked up the box. A round hole was cut into each end, one covered with red transparent paper, one empty. To the empty hole was applied an eye, shutting the other in obedience to eager instructions.
And at once sixteen year old, worldly wise London Julia ceased to be, and a child an enchanted child was looking into fairyland.”
Julia and Leonard strike up a friendship – which over time becomes a lot more. Julia has an overly romantic view of their relationship, Leonard – Leo to Julia has it seems less to loose, and begins to make suggestions that would see Julia leaving her husband. Julia finds that this option which had seemed so easy to her society employers is not something that will be so easy for her. Julia is dependent on her employers; she fears that her husband making trouble for her could be detrimental to her career. Julia becomes terrified of losing Leo; she needs to prove to him that she will do anything to keep him. The repercussions of this deeply unwise relationship are astonishingly harsh, and very sad. I won’t say any more about the plot – although as the novel is famously based upon a real life court case of 1934, the Bywaters/Thompson murder trial you may be able to hazard a guess at some of it. According to the afterword, Julia Starling is not that dissimilar in personality to Edith Thompson.
I did really enjoy this book – and maybe it is not my all-time favourite virago book – not sure what they would be anyway – but it is a brilliant read, and I can see why it has proved to be so popular. I loved the descriptions of Julia’s life at the dress shop, her buying trips to Paris making her quite a modern business woman of her day. The author presents us with the inequalities for women at this time, the class that Julia was born into means her options are not as easy as for those of a higher or lower social standing. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Sep 30, 2012 |
This is a riveting novel about a young woman caught in a web of destructive circumstances. Beginning in 1913 and ending in 1927 it covers the life of Julia Almond. The reader first encounters Julia at age fifteen when she is a pretty, bright and charming student at a London girls' school. Even though she has ability and personality, Julia's future is not promising. Her parents are lower middle class. Her father works as a clerk for a real estate agency and makes just enough money to support his family in a modest home and her mother keeps the house. There was never quite enough money to put something aside for a rainy day or for Julia's continued education. After school Julia is apprenticed to a boutique dress shop where she learns the ins and out of dress design and finds she has a talent for business management. She is sent to Paris as a buyer for the boutique, makes friends with a young actress who gives her an in with the theater crowd. Life is good and getting better.

Then a calamity occurs when Julia's father dies and leaves his family almost destitute. In short order Julia's home is invaded by her uncle, aunt and young cousin to help meet expenses. She must share a room with a ten year old and her mother is reduced to almost servant status in her own home. To escape, Julia marries her father's friend, a 35 year old widower who offers her a lovely house and expects a dutiful, grateful wife. As the years pass, Julia struggles to maintain her individuality. She refuses to give up her career, does not want children, and longs for Prince Charming to come and sweep her away to a life of passion and adventure. He shows up when Julia is 26, a young sailor engaged to her 17 year old cousin. He is handsome, not dull, and, even though only 20, he gives off the air of a man of the world. She and Leo fall passionately in love. As they become involved with each other Julia becomes more and more disgusted with her husband. He is becoming fat, has a dull brain, and insists on a husband's rights which he executes with no care or skill. In letters to her young lover, Julia begins to fantasize about being free to marry Leo. If she cannot get a divorce, maybe her husband will oblige by dying.

And so the novel becomes something more than a look at a pretty, imaginative, selfish and sometimes silly woman who, only twenty years later, would have been able to have a successful and independent life. Julia was so ordinary, but since she took a few missteps in society's eyes, she was punished. Had she been richer or poorer, no one would have cared, yet middle class women in in the first half of the twentieth could not commit adultery without suffering consequences. Fiction becomes thinly disguised fact as Julia Almond's life mirrors the life of Edith Thompson who was tried for the the murder of her husband. ( )
  Liz1564 | Aug 14, 2012 |
Before I read this book, I knew that it had been based on a murder case from the 1920s (the Thompson/Bywaters case) and I was initially confused that the first three-quarters of this book seem to show a life that has as little to do with murder as you can imagine. A modern book would probably start with the murder then tell the story of the events leading up to the murder through flashbacks, but Jesse starts back in her main character's childhood in 1913 and we follow her as she leaves school, begins an apprenticeship and then marries. The main character, Julia, has always lived in the world inside her head. As a young girl, she dreams that someone rich and devastatingly handsome will sweep her off her feet and marry her.

"It was just that something that Julia always wanted - even when we were at school. She lived on - I don't quite know how to put it - that romantic assumption that there was something wonderful and golden, something complete and round; that was what she wanted."

As she gets older it becomes more and more obvious to her that things like that just don't happen to girls like her but rather than being able to face the reality of the world she's confined to, Julia continues to live inside her head and to believe that she is someone truly special who will one day escape the humdrum life she lives.

Ultimately Julia's story ends in tragedy, and even knowing the ending it still feels unexpected and sudden - I think this would have been lost if Jesse had told the story through flashbacks. The writing is wonderful and I could often feel the how trapped Julia must have felt in her life - so much so that I had to stop reading for about a month because I was finding it too depressing.

"He saw how completely at the mercy of her imagination and her body such a girl must have been; a girl whose mind had never been trained to look for truth, had never learned any thrift of thought. What guide could such a one have had but her own desires, which were not, after all, ignoble? Her desire for beauty, fro something finer than the ugliness which was all that lay within her grasp? Her desire for physical pleasure, the only ecstasy that could be hers?"

As the back cover says she is truly 'a woman trapped by her sex, her class and the times she lived in'. ( )
1 vote souloftherose | Jul 21, 2012 |
This is one of the best books I've ever read, and I speak as someone whose spare room is stacked to the ceiling with volumes. The quality of the writing is superb and F. Tennyson Jesse takes you right into the world of the characters as if you're living the story wth them. The end, although invevitable, is chilling when it finally comes and Julia is a realistic heroine - human, fallible, not always a pleasant person but believable. Even if you don't like her, you wish she had received justice. One of those books that you want to tell all your friends to read straight away... ( )
2 vote kaggsy | Apr 9, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
F. Tennyson Jesseprimary authorall editionscalculated
Morgan, ElaineIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The tram roared and swung down the Goldhawk Road towards Young's Corner.
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Julia Almond,born into drab suburban povery in Edwardian London, longs for a better life, the fairy-tale world of romance she glimpsed in the toy peepshow of her childhood. She believes she is somebody special, always seeking - through her work, her conventional marriage and finally a young lover - the magic which will make her dreams come true.

But these are peepshow fantasies. For Julia lives at a social level where convention and respectability - particularly for women - exert their most tyrannical hold. Julia cannot escape and in attempting to do so, she brings tragedy to herself and those who love her. When first published in 1934, this famous novel was identified with the sensational Thompson/Bywaters murder case. Today it is striking as a brilliant example of Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse's genius as a storyteller, and for its magnificent portrait of a woman trapped by her sex, her class, and the times she lived in.
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