The older generations, we are constantly told, were less demanding. Today we want it all: Instagram-perfect lifestyles, true love, and total job satisfaction. It is an injustice if we are not fulfilled in every area. There’s a whole industry telling us that if it’s not perfect, we’re duty-bound to overturn everything.
All a bit dramatic, no? Is there any stiff upper lip left, Britain? And I think that’s a key element to early-to-mid-20th-century nostalgia: they made not having everything they wanted (or indeed, not wanting everything?) look STYLISH. The fiction has a delicious underplay, a lack of hysteria. This review of Ibbotson’s Madensky Square hit this appeal right on the nose: “This refreshing novel in which the heroine overcomes hardship, sticks to her ideals and is satisfied with what happiness life brings her is carried off without sticky sentimentality, Machiavellian wickedness or salacious sex scenes.
Farewell, drama! Be gone, total fulfilment! Here’s a novel in praise of partial satisfaction and disappointments lived with – without damaging the pretty sheen on top.
Madensky Square shows a year in the life of Viennese dress-maker in 1910. It has a brittle Mitford-like charm thanks to a stylised, gossipy tone and intrigue-a-plenty. Murder, prostitution, and depression almost pass you by beneath the primary sparkling world of the Viennese square where the pertinent issues are an overworked piano prodigy, an unwanted seventh daughter, and a politically over-zealous assistant. An Emma-like figure, Susannah entertainingly fixes the diverse lives of those around her while failing to sort her own. Whisper-quiet hints of the war give the sense that this book is a golden kiss of farewell to this world.
It’s not a masterpiece, and there are better examples of its type, but if you’re looking to keep it light in pre-war Vienna, certainly tip it a wink.