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Vain Shadow

by Jane Hervey
Persephone book no:

111 112 113

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263020

This very funny black comedy about a family gathering for a funeral was written in the early 1950s, put away in a drawer for ten years, and then published in 1963. By the time it appeared, ‘women writers had begun to express themselves with more freedom and confidence than ever before’ writes Celia Robertson in her Persephone Preface. ‘So it was that it came out in the same year as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer and The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks had been published just a year or so earlier. As a needle on the historical compass of the previous decade, it quivers with the anticipation of change, poised at the very end of what had gone before.'

When the manuscript was first submitted to a publisher they complained that they couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to read about a funeral. But that is precisely this book’s appeal; people behave strangely and badly around death and a family funeral has a dark comic drama all of its own. The plot is simple; a wealthy family gathers at the family home (a 2,000 acre country estate in Derbyshire) in the aftermath of the patriarch’s death; to mourn him, bury him and read his will. Jane Hervey restricts herself to four chapters, corresponding to four days, and the weight of the novel lies in the relationships between the old man’s surviving wife and adult children as they begin to realise what his death will mean.

Jane Hervey is brilliant on the power play within a family: who gets what and who does what in the vacuum left by a dead parent. She observes the struggle between husband and wife, child and parent, older and younger siblings, those with status and those without and how that status is achieved. Her novel is restless with these constantly shifting positions as the characters jostle and bicker for advantage.

The Preface concludes: ‘Vain Shadow is quietly successful, a steely and accomplished comedy of manners that makes one both laugh with recognition and breathe a sigh of relief that this is not one’s own family. It shows us – in the most undramatic but knowing way – how tyranny and casual violence exist in the most civilised of settings, how far – legally, at least – women have come since the 1950s, and how death remains impossible to get right.’

Vain Shadow was also published in America and in Italy. One reviewer said: ‘There is a touch of Waugh in all this but not in the derivative sense. Jane Hervey’s approach is fresh and entertaining. The study of human frailty under stress allows her to show how the English upper class can crumble in its attempt to come to terms with reality... Her knack of being comically serious makes Vain Shadow a good candidate for a place on that long list of solid British satire.’ Another reviewer referred to the ‘stylistic beauty of the novel’, a third called it ‘short, honest and full of a delicate mixture of warmth and irony’ and the American Parade of Books said it was ‘a truly remarkable book with astonishing acumen’; and in the UK the Times Literary Supplement thought it ‘an admirable novel and, in its descriptions of people, alive with irony and humour'.

When Victor Gollancz, that great champion of women writers, published the book he garlanded it with a quote from Elizabeth Jane Howard: ‘It is most unusual with a first novel to achieve exactly what you set out to do. Miss Hervey displays a remarkable sense of proportion and writes with the most enviably skilful ease.’ After its 1963 publication Vain Shadow vanished. But we are delighted that a new generation can rediscover this hilarious and superbly written book.

For more on Vain Shadow, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


A 1950s Heal's curtain material, provenance unknown, which was sold until the early 1960s.

Picture Caption

White Lilies (1877) by Henri Fantin-Latour © V&A

Read What Readers Say

The Oldie

Unique, astute and very funny.

JacquiWine's Journal (blog)

A sharply-observed portrait of a wealthy English family at a time of mourning, this 1963 novel is something of an underrated gem.... a darkly comic insight into dysfunctional family dynamics at a time of heightened stress.

Charlotte Moore, ‘The Spectator’

Jane Hervey’s ‘Vain Shadow’, written in the early 1950s, lay in a drawer for ten years. Eventually published in 1963, it received little attention. Now this funny, tightly constructed novel of a landed family on the brink of implosion after the funeral of their patriarch has been rescued by Persephone, and should be gratefully received by every book group in the land.


‘Vain Shadow’ is so engaging. The omniscient perspective has been marvellously utilised, as have the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of each character, which unfold simultaneously alongside the action. Rather than just an overseer, it feels as though the reader is an intrinsic being within the family; we are brought into the thick of conversations, and bouts of important decision-making. Jane Hervey is an incredibly perceptive author. Sharp, surprising and so well written, this is a most fitting addition to the Persephone list.

Categories: Family Humour Social Comedy Widows

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