Hachette, Australia, 2020
The Charleston Scandal is Pamela Hart’s 37th book, an absorbing and highly readable historical fiction that dives into the issue of class and privilege in British society in the 1920s, particularly in the royal and sub-royal echelons. It is also a delightful glimpse into the life of the theatre at that time.
With a cast of mainly real persons from the time, Pamela Hart tells the story of two ‘colonial’ theatrical hopefuls who make it into an André Charlot West End production, gold for performers of the day as it meant return calls and hence relatively reliable income.
Through the eyes of Canadian Zeke and Australian Kit, we experience the excesses and inequalities of the British upper crust world where expectations and roles were fixed and its members generally disdainful of and often cruel towards those outside the circle. Almost no-one in this coterie comes off looking anything other than shallow and selfish, some we see as criminal or cruelly abusive.
We are treated to a lesser-known view of the world of the theatre, in particular through depictions of Noel Coward and Fred and Adele Astaire, and also given a candid entrée into the world of female impersonators and trans performers so much in demand at the time.
Just as our heroine Kit vacillates between the desire for respectability, ease and wealth and all its trappings (like knowing which knife to use) and her wish to be independent in her thoughts and actions, so does the author deftly reveal the deficiencies and character faults of the privileged classes.
She is tolerant of Kit’s youth and allows the reader the status of a benevolent older relation watching a young woman grow up. Kit becomes not only aware of the excesses of alcohol and drug use in this idle class, but of their ugly consequences, and we rejoice as she makes her own decisions about where the line is drawn.
Zeke, the product of an abused childhood, blighted by the alcohol driven violence of his father both to himself and his mother, is understandably keen to pull Kit out of this milieu, particularly as he is openly in love with her.
She is not quite so sure of her feelings for Zeke, torn between her heart and her desire to maintain the freedom that coming to London has afforded her. She certainly doesn’t take kindly to a man trying to control her, no matter how well intentioned he is or, in the case of Lord Henry Carleton, how wealthy and well-connected.
So much of this novel comes back to this notion of expectation versus desire – society has written rules for women of different classes and Kit is in constant warfare with herself, as her upbringing bats against her artistic aspirations and her ‘modern’ world view.
Her genuine kindness is also in constant conflict with her moments of cool pragmatism. She becomes acutely aware of the real implications of class when she works as a model for a fashion house and must endure being treated as an object without sense or feelings – she needs the money to survive until the next theatre run.
To her credit she learns from this experience and makes sure her own behaviour towards servants is courteous and fair. She also muses upon the very substance of that relationship and the system which depends upon it for its continuance.
Amidst the weighty issues of class division and abuse of the less fortunate or powerful, Pamela Hart injects much lightness into this novel through her descriptions of fashion, dance, music and social occasions. The insight into the burgeoning film industry also provides a slice of levity.
And that’s what really makes The Charleston Scandal such a super read – the book engages us on a number of levels. We are impelled to delve into the darkness of class, of alcoholism, of domestic abuse, but we are also entertained by the reportage style writing about fashion and about the theatre and its entities.
So good to end up with a whole new swathe of information about people whose names we have grown up with and thought of in a certain way without really knowing why or where that impression came from.
Sorting out fiction from fact is one of the skills of the historical fiction writer but it is also a gift to the reader in this genre. Pamela Hart proves herself a consummate mistress of the art.
Thank you to Hachette for the review copy and facilitating my interview with Pamela Hart, which was both instructive and enjoyable.