I’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.