The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Prisoner of Grace is Nina’s reflective account of the lives of her two husbands, Chester Nimmo and Jim Latter. Nina begins her story with the announcement that she is “writing this book” to defend both herself and her first husband, Chester, against certain “revelations” which are soon to be made in the press.

Reared at Palm Cottage, the upper-middle-class home of her Aunt Latter, Nina Woodville is introduced to Chester when she is seventeen. At the time, she is pregnant by her cousin, Jim Latter. Because Jim cannot marry without resigning from his regiment and thereby ending his military career, another candidate for husband must be found. In order to protect the family honor, Aunt Latter encourages a marriage between Nina and Chester, a young clerk in the estate office in Tarbiton. For Chester, the marriage is advantageous because Nina brings him money and social standing; he has political ambitions and, with Nina at his side, he eventually rises above his impoverished rural origins to become War Minister during World War I and, later, a central figure in the British general strike of 1926. For Nina, the marriage is never more than convenient. Although she stays married to Chester for almost thirty years, she never ceases to love Jim, the father of all her children.

Soon after he marries Nina, Chester is elected to a local county council, thus beginning his climb to political power. Jim returns to Tarbiton from India on leave from his regiment and demands to see his infant son Tom. He denounces Nina for “jilting him” and marrying that “dirty little snake.” Ignoring Nina’s assertion that it was he, not she, who fled the country, Jim accuses Chester of marrying Nina to get her money.

At Lilmouth, Chester campaigns against British involvement in the Boer War in South Africa—his aim is to secure for himself a seat in Parliament— and deliberately provokes a violent riot which establishes his fame as a radical politician. At about the same time, Jim is encouraging Nina to leave Chester. Realizing that she still loves Jim, Nina accepts his dare to make love in her garden while Chester is out mailing some letters. This encounter results in Nina’s second child, her daughter Sally.

On several occasions, Nina attempts, unsuccessfully, to leave Chester. When Chester wins the Tarbiton seat in Parliament, they move to London. Following the 1905 Liberal defeat of the Tories, Chester is appointed UnderSecretary for Mines. Desperately unhappy in her marriage and under the constant scrutiny of Bootham, an incompetent secretary Chester keeps solely for the purpose of spying on her, an overwrought Nina takes “six cachets at once” of a sleeping medicine and almost dies. Chester is angry with her. In 1908, he is promoted to the Cabinet.

The year 1922 marks the beginning of the end of Nina’s marriage to Chester. After a distinguished political career, Chester is defeated in the election that year. Nina’s son, Tom, who had been acting in the cabarets before he was forced to flee to Germany to escape the British police, is so unhappy in exile that he shoots himself. Returning from Tom’s funeral in Berlin, Nina resolves to break from Chester. She leaves London and visits Jim in Axwell. At age forty-five, Nina soon discovers that she is pregnant yet again by Jim. After she divorces Chester, Nina marries Jim and moves to Palm Cottage where her third child, a boy, is born. Chester sends a note both to congratulate Nina and to ask permission to quote from her early letters to him in his memoirs. When Chester begins to visit Palm Cottage to discuss matters related to the letters, Jim becomes dangerously jealous and angry, but Nina still feels some loyalty to the “great man” who was her husband for the better part of thirty years....

(The entire section is 1555 words.)