It turns out that my expectations for what this book contains and what it actually contains are two very different things. The title is so ridiculous that I was expecting a lot more humor, quirky situations, a great ensemble cast of characters, and perhaps an ending whose poignancy would take me by surprise. Basically, I was expecting something rather like Oscar Wilde meets The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. What I got was a lot more like Thomas Hardy meets The Remains of the Day, but with fewer pages. Which is obviously still a pretty good thing, but not what I happened to be expecting.
The novel opens at a picnic in the village of Narberth in Wales in 1924. So far, so good. It's been a little quiet, a little awkward, as Wilfred doesn't have much experience with young ladies, and he's never seen a butter-yellow dress such as the one Grace is wearing. He's been brought up properly, so he knows he cannot let his gaze linger on inappropriate places on her person, and yet for the life of him, he yearns to know how she can take that dress off, it's so fitted around the bodice, with no buttons going up the back. Grace catches him off-guard, staring at her, and instead of asking what he really wants to know (which is clearly improper), he instead asks her to marry him. Uh, oh. Worse, Grace says yes.
Awkward, that. And by the time Wilfred muster up the courage to tell Grace that he didn't actually intend to propose, and that it's ridiculous to get married after going on one picnic, Grace has told her parents, and the whole village knows.
Clearly author Wendy Jones has laid the perfect groundwork for a comedy of manners, but she takes the book in an entirely different direction. I'm not saying that Wilfred Price is devoid of humor altogether, but it is definitely not a distinguishing characteristic of this novel. It's far more a tragedy of predestination, where the characters' secrets are burdens that can never be lightened and whose utter lack of birthright, by dint of gender or class, dictates the course of their lives.
Grace is pregnant after being raped but knows she cannot go to her parents or the magistrate about it, so marriage to Wilfred would be her saving grace. Wilfred has fallen in love with somebody else who lost her fiancee in the Great War, but not only is he honor-bound to marry Grace now, his and his da's livelihood depend on it. You see, in a village like Narberth and for miles around, no righteous family would trust their dearly departed loved ones to a man who abandoned his own fiancee and her baby.
More than anything, Wilfred Price is a novel about limited horizons and a time when what your neighbors thought of you was more important than pursuing your own happiness. It's a good novel but overall a pretty sobering one. The jacket flap tells me that the producers of Downton Abbey have optioned the rights to this novel to create a mini series, which I look forward to viewing.
NB: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price Purveyor of Superior Funerals, by Wendy Jones, was published in February 2014 in the US by Europa, though it has been available for some time in the UK already. I read a copy that was sent to me by the publisher at my request.