The Wardrobe Mistress
The Wardrobe Mistress is Patrick McGrath’s ninth novel, and he is top form as he paints a grim portrait of grief, fascism, and madness in post-war London. The narrative focuses on Joan, a wardrobe mistress in London’s theater world and widow of well-known stage actor Charles “Gricey” Grice. It’s 1947; London is rubble-filled, facing down “the coldest winter” in memory, and Gricey has just died under suspicious circumstances (did he fall or was he pushed?). As always, McGrath’s prose is thoroughly engaging from the opening scene of the novel through the brutally sudden ending. Using a shifting perspective between close third person focused on Joan, McGrath also employs a first person plural that the reader soon discovers is a theatrical chorus of women who claim to know more than both reader and character. A sort of bitchiness is present in descriptions and hints at future events from this chorus: Gricey’s widow Joan is presented as a “striking-looking woman” and “formidable,” but with bad teeth she seldom smiles, and the chorus tells us she comes “at the world like a scythe.” Gricey is the likeable one, it seems—affable, famous, and the chorus tells us, “We’d all loved Gricey” with the qualifier, “Some of us had, anyway.”
The first half of the novel focuses on Joan’s grief. She confronts an apartment that is full of the ghost of Gricey, turns occasionally to “Uncle Alcohol” for solace, and drifts into an affair with Gricey’s understudy, Frank Stone. Joan meets Frank when she goes to the theater to see him play Gricey’s last role, Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Stone’s ability to perfectly mimic her dead husband leads Joan to believe that Gricey resides within Stone, setting up a pattern of tragic grief-driven events that provide much of the pathos in the novel. The sexual tension between Stone and Joan is deftly etched, focusing not simply on their age difference (Stone is much younger) but also the post-war poverty that makes food and clothing (and gin) precious commodities. Joan tailors her dead husband’s suits to her young lover’s body, thereby creating in her own mind a space for her dead husband “to return.” But it is a deadly haunting turned more so when Joan discovers Gricey’s secret brutality, hidden from her during their thirty years together.
The second half of the novel focuses on Joan and Gricey’s “up and coming” actress daughter Vera as she readies herself to play the doomed Duchess of Malfi, and also on Joan’s inability to come to terms with her husband’s secret life. Vera is married to Julius, an older and relatively wealthy impresario whose theater was destroyed in the war. Their household has a third member: the German Jewish refugee Gustl. Vera suspects Julius and Gustl of having an affair and first moves into the attic of her husband’s house and then into her mother’s apartment. Finally, Joan can no longer stand her daughter’s presence, and with the help of her son-in-law convinces Vera to move back home. There are many cups of tea and cigarettes involved in these scenes, and with the freezing, drafty apartment, theater, and house, McGrath brings the reader into the atmosphere of post-war London.
Joan rides her bike from her apartment to work and back, which gives the reader an opportunity to see the piles of rubble and half-rebuilt houses. There is detritus everywhere, and it is the “coldest winter” on record. No one has enough food, enough clothing, enough of anything. And as if that wasn’t sufficient to make his characters suffer, McGrath introduces the specter of British fascism into the mix. Gricey, it seems, wasn’t such a likeable man after all, and when his widow learns of his involvement with the repellent Oswald Mosley’s followers, she decides to act. Joan joins Julius and Gustl in their efforts to infiltrate a group of London fascists. It is here where the novel moves away from a quiet story of grief and the particular madness that grief can bring about and into a politically tinged near-thriller.
Joan’s shift from desiring the return of her husband to a hatred for him and his hidden fascism is one from the terrible grief of a woman who has lost her lifelong companion to the anger of a woman betrayed. Not only was Gricey a fascist, but Joan is Jewish; when she discovers his fascist uniform in the back of the large wardrobe in the apartment, she takes it out to the water and flings it in. Perhaps it is the shock of Gricey’s betrayal or the loss of her young lover (who decides flirting with the daughter is better for his career than sleeping with the mother), but ultimately Joan descends into madness. In one terrifying scene, she is locked in Gricey’s wardrobe—at war with his clothes and, she believes, his angry ghost.
McGrath weaves the preparations for the performance of The Duchess of Malfi throughout the second half of the novel, bringing it to climax on the first night’s performance. Joan is in the audience, sees Gricey’s ghost, and causes a scene. The build-up to the final pages of the novel is somewhat lost as the chorus presents the events as after-the-fact, and those of us who have come to sympathize with Joan and her mad grief feel cheated with what reads as a rushed and brutal end to the narrative.
Overall, The Wardrobe Mistress is both a compelling story of a woman unable to come to terms with her own grief and a fascinating period piece showing England in all its hypocrisy as fascism and anti-Semitism survive and thrive in the rubble of post-war London.