Miss Webster and Chérif by Patricia Duncker - review by Francis King

Francis King

North African Charms

Miss Webster and Chérif


Bloomsbury 244pp £12.99

There was a time, now long past, when English novelists, with E M Forster in the forefront, would write of cultivated, respectable spinsters seduced out of the emotional frigidity of their lives by contact with some ardent, handsome, erratic and on occasion even caddish and mercenary Italian. Now this fictional transformer of Anglo-Saxon lives all too often comes from North Africa or the Middle East. So it is in this new novel from the rightly admired writer Patricia Duncker.

The protagonist, referred to throughout as Miss Webster, has spent most of her life teaching French to girls at a Catholic school. Then the school is absorbed into a much tougher and rougher catchment area and she finds that, instead of introducing pupils to Corneille, Racine and Molière, she must modernise with business studies, economics and journalism. She is unwilling and unable to make the change, and is eventually eased out of her post.

With no close friends and only a distant and estranged sister as relative, she lives a cranky, solitary and self-sufficient life in a small village cottage, which she scrupulously maintains. Then, while watching television, she has what appears to be a stroke, is hospitalised and goes into a seemingly irreversible

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