“Life had made demands on art, and art had suffered.”

Dear Janet,

Apart from the faithfull but small group of Virago Modern Classics aficionados, your work doesn’t receive nowadays the recognition it deserves. Maybe the reason for it lies on some largely pervasive prejudice, according to which family novels written by women are dismissed as domestic tales, while the ones written by men are regarded as social satire… Be that as it may, I still think your novel Tea at Four o’clock (now sadly out of print) is sharper and more unsparing than, let’s say, the soap operas Jonathan Franzen is so skilled in writing.

Janet McNeillAt the beginning of Tea at Four o’clock, we are presented to Laura Percival, on the day of her older sister Mildred funeral. Laura, now middle aged, was the middle child of a rich Protestant family in Belfast. After a brief period of freedom, in her early twenties, when she attended art classes at the local college, Laura abandoned her painting and has lived a proscribed life in the family mansion, Marathon. She has then spent many years nursing her ailing eldest sister.

After Mildred’s death, their previously estranged younger brother, George Percival, drops by at Marathon, in order to reacquaint himself with Laura – and, perhaps, with the fortune she has now inherited. George, the family’s black sheep, disowned by his father and bullyed by his sister Mildred, had left the family home twenty years earlier, and never returned.

The other characters are no less a threat to Laura’s recently achieved freedom than George: part of the charm of this novel is the gradual (and somewhat empathic) way in which you reveal each character’s weakness and selfishness. For instance, Miss Parks, Mildred’s former teacher, who had moved in at Marathon under the excuse to help taking care of Mildred, shows little intention of leaving the mansion and its many comforts. Even the family solicitor, the elderly Mr McAlister, has his own reasons for offering Laura some (unwanted) advice.

Once trapped by the family duties which were expected of her as a woman, Laura faces the challenge of escaping the new trap that is now rearranging itself around her. The title,  albeit mild on its surface, serves as an allegory for the trap the protagonist fell prey to for most of her life: for the austere and demanding Mildred, tea should be served precisely at four o’clock everyday. Laura was constrained by her sister’s rituals down to the most disabling obedience and the most stifling emotional paralysis.

For Laura, there is still the threat of remaining under Mildred’s shadow, even after her death. The apparently devoted Miss Parks, eager to make herself useful to the household, immediately sets herself to continue imposing Mildred’s habits and stringent rules of conduct. George, on the other hand, insists on imposing on Laura his utmost hatred for Mildred – an attitude which, instead of diminishing the shadow the eldest sister had left on the family, only increases it. Having subdued her personality and sacrificed herself and her art, in order to play the role imposed on her, Laura must now learn how to reclaim her identity and stop being complicit in her own captivity.

Highlights, for me, are the subtly acid portraits you paint of the characters who inhabit this novel: your writing is so perceptive, but in a unassuming way. You slowly shows us how invisible those characters are to each other, how lonely they are in their weaknesses, fears, frustrated dreams, and lasting guilt. It feels as if you cast a regard both generous and unsparing on those same fears and weaknesses. And that, my dear, is such a difficult (and beautiful) thing to do in writing, to say the least.

Yours truly,



John Singer. "Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron." 1881. © Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.
John Singer. “Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron.” 1881. © Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.

About the book:

Reading Ireland Month

8 thoughts on ““Life had made demands on art, and art had suffered.”

  1. I loved this novel. Mcneill is so good at character and those small domestic details. Did you know Turnpike books have re-issued 3 of her novels? Two I’ve read one I have still tbr.


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