When she wrote Emma Jane Austen said that she was ‘going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. I have a sneaking suspicion that these words may have crossed Anthony Quinn’s mind when he began writing about Freya Wyley since she is as self-deluded and spoilt, in many ways, as Emma Woodhouse. Luckily, like Austen’s heroine, Freya has very many redeeming features and, even if you don’t always like her, you care about what happens to her.
The book starts when Freya meets Nancy Holdaway on VE, moves to undergraguate life at Oxford and then on to their later careers (Freya as a journalist and Nancy as a novelist). It is the story of a friendship, albeit one frequently torn apart by bad behaviour on Freya’s part, and of women’s lives in the middle years of the last century. Probably one of the reasons I actually liked Freya so much as a character is that she is very much a 21st Century woman in many of her attitudes – a lot of the tensions in her life come from her struggles against the sexism and homophobia inherent in the systems of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The other reason is probably that, beneath her bravado, attitude and apparant heartlessness, she is a rather damaged woman. Although she seems tough by the end it is the softer, younger Nancy who turns out to be stronger.
As well as a portrait of a remarkable woman this novel is almost like a biography of an era. Set largely in London it gives a fascinating insight into the world of artists, journalists, writers and ‘celebrities’ of the day – a form of social history which makes those post-war decades come alive. As the years pass you are not only willing Freya to be happy in her life but you are also cheering on the changes which have made life better (if not yet perfect) for women, the gay community and others who were marginalised at that time. We are so blase about sexuality these days it is easy to forget that, less than 50 years ago, men were branded criminals for loving other men.