The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath: A well turned out chiller

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed several of Patrick McGrath’s novels, some of them with a distinctly Gothic flavour. Those of you who’ve read Asylum will know what I mean. For some reason, I’d got it into my head that The Wardrobe Mistress inhabited similar territory which turns out to be not entirely the case. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End.

Joan cuts a slightly dour if striking figure. Handsome rather than beautiful, she dresses meticulously for Gricey’s funeral, aware that all theatreland’s eyes will be upon her. Gricey fell to his death just after a heated exchange with his son-in-law. Joan and Gricey’s marriage was not entirely happy but Joan is quietly distraught, convinced that she hears Gricey’s voice at his funeral. When she sees his understudy stepping into Gricey’s final role as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, she’s convinced her husband lives on so faithfully does young Frank Stone replicate his performance. She decides to offer the impecunious Frank one of Gricey’s suits, altering it for him until it’s a perfect fit. An intimacy forms between these two, one which Joan needs to hide from her daughter who is preparing for the leading role in The Duchess of Malfi. One day, while deciding which of Gricey’s coats would best suit Frank, she finds a badge hidden beneath a lapel. Gricey, it seems, was a fascist, a secret he kept from his Jewish wife but one that everyone else except his daughter knew. The discovery unhinges Joan with devastating consequences.

The Wardrobe Mistress is a beautifully turned out piece of work. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against a vividly evoked background of London in 1947, frozen and struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity. Replete with period detail, there are a multitude of allusions to the theatre running through the novel. I’m sure that readers better acquainted with drama will recognise many more than I did. It has all the ingredients of a tragedy complete with occasional interpolations from the Chorus, often snidely knowing in keeping with the dark thread of humour which runs through the book: ‘was there to be no end to the qualities she discovered in him now he was dead’. Altogether an impressive, thoroughly enjoyable novel, far more chilling in its depiction of a mind deranged by grief and the shadow thrown by post-war fascism than the ghost story I was expecting.

15 thoughts on “The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath: A well turned out chiller”

  1. This sounds rather unusual: perhaps more ‘The Turn of the Screw’ psychological case study but with less ghosts. I haven’t read anything by this author, but this sounds appealing.

  2. This is definitely one for me with its theatre associations. I am teaching Twelfth Night this term so the Malvolio references will be fascinating. I like the social premise as well, though: the idea that a person can keep such an enormous secret from someone so close.

    1. This sounds right up your street, then. I’m sure you’ll get much more out of the theatrical thread than I did. I hadn’t realised until I read the novel that McGrath’s wife is Maria Aitken.

  3. I’ve read a couple of his more gothic novels, Asylum, which you mention, and Spider. this one sounds slightly less dark, but still with a psychological edge. Must add it to the list

    1. I’ve also read Spider, perhaps even darker than Asylum. Two novels that fell into place somehow when I discovered that McGrath’s father was the last medical superintendent at Broadmoor. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

  4. I read most of McGrath’s early novels but just kind of lost touch (I find that happens with writers…is it just me?) This one sounds interesting though – thanks. Not sure I would have discovered it otherwise.

    1. It would, although it’s in hardback. I think it’s my favourite of his so far but I also enjoyed Port Mungo – one of his less Gothic novels. If you don’t mind the scary stuff both Asylum and Spider are very good, too.

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