Set in 1924, The Crimson Rooms is very much concerned with the aftermath of the First World War, with the distinction of featuring a young female lawyer – one of the first of her kind – as its viewpoint character. Evelyn Gifford, at thirty, shares the view of many women of her generation that she is unlikely to marry, and looks to her work for a sense of purpose and the chance to bring about change. She is assistant at the law firm of Breen and Balcombe, where the eponymous Breen is known by reputation as a champion of the poor, and – unlike many of his peers – willing to take on a capable, newly-qualified young woman. Evelyn’s work involves her in two court cases which form the background to the novel.
Since the death in the trenches of Evelyn’s younger brother James, the household in Maida Vale has been exclusively female: Evelyn and her fussy mother, a grandmother and great-aunt. Within the opening pages there are new arrivals: Meredith, a former nurse, and the young boy she introduces as James’ son, of whom Evelyn – but not her mother – has been quite unaware. Although the family’s finances are already stretched, the newcomers must be accommodated; the capriciously charming Meredith proves to be demanding and unproductive, leaving the boy to be looked after while she attends art classes with new friends from the Slade. To Evelyn, the boy brings touching reminders of her lost brother, and must be cherished. She also sees Meredith as a source of information about James’ last days, as the family has had only sketchy details; but when Meredith eventually does confide in Evelyn, a new shock must be absorbed.
Katharine McMahon’s succeeds in presenting the turn of the century domestic life (tepid celery soup, lavender and mothballs, limited clothing), the different class attitudes and behaviours, and depicts a great female protagonist. Evelyn is believably a product of her time: intelligent, observant, ambitious but wary, slowly learning to make her way against male intransigence and prejudice.
As McMahon points out in an afterword, Evelyn was ‘on the horns of a terrible dilemma – her aspiration to be a lawyer must be at the cost of her clients, who in court would be disadvantaged by the sex of their advocate’.
The patronizing remarks Evelyn receives from judges and magistrates (addressing the bench, she is asked whether the court “is so lowly that it can be used as the playground in which ladies may conduct a flirtation with the law”) would be outrageous today, yet she must weather them and prove herself through doggedness and by trusting her insights. Even so, others in her group of women lawyers challenge her for focusing on the saving of individuals, rather than more riskily making them test cases to bring about policy change.
The book falls short though in delivering an engaging story and falls short in providing an interesting plot. The two cases she has are a murder and a child kidnapping case – they are interesting but ultimately fail to suck you into the story. Yes, we have an ambitious character, failing with self-doubt and bending in the will of the judges and the man who hired her.
The Crimson Rooms is thoroughly boring and drones on for 400 pages. While McMahon seems completely at home in this period – attitudes, even Evelyn’s own at one point, towards rape and shell-shock are very much in keeping – she has created a fallible character which will be hard to love and appreciate fully. The plot becomes increasingly tepid towards the end, the novel losing sight of its main theme – the pity of war, and the profound effects of loss on survivors and relatives.