In the mid 50s, scientists began to give serious consideration to the possibility of single-sex reproduction. Dr Helen Spurway, a biologist at the University of London, observed that guppies were apparently capable of parthenogenesis. It had also been demonstrated that it was possible to induce spontaneous conception in rabbits by freezing the fallopian tubes.
In December 1955, the Sunday Pictorial (later renamed the Sunday Mirror) took a tabloid response to Spurway’s research by launching a Christmas appeal to find women who believed they had experienced a virgin birth. Most who came forward were ruled out for displaying some confusion about what virginity entailed. But there was one case over which several eminent doctors failed to reach a consensus – that of a woman named Emmimarie Jones, who apparently conceived a daughter while confined to bed in a German sanatorium.
This curious case was considered by the geneticist Aarathi Prasad in her 2012 study, Like a Virgin: How Science Is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. Clare Chambers heard a radio discussion about the story and has made it the basis of her fictional account of immaculate conception in south-east London.
The novel centres on Jean Swinney, a woman approaching 40 whose prospects of fulfilment have begun to fade. Jean cares for a neurotic, suffocatingly dependent mother, while dealing with the mundanities of her job at the local newspaper. There she is relied upon to pen housekeeping tips and dutiful celebrations of National Salad Week (“Try serving the humble lettuce with baked or fried forcemeat balls for a crisp new touch”).
Chambers evokes a stolid, suburban sense of days “passing without great peaks and troughs of emotion”. Jean takes her solace where she can find it: “Small pleasures – the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands …” The list continues in this vein for some time, going on to include spring hyacinths, fresh snow, the purchase of new stationery and the satisfaction of a neatly folded ironing pile.
A more promising commission arises when Jean’s editor suggests that she interview “Our Lady of Sidcup”, a Swiss-German seamstress named Gretchen Tilbury who claims to have given birth to a daughter without the involvement of a man. Jean is instantly charmed by Gretchen’s congeniality, which is shared by that of the supposed miracle, her 10-year-old daughter, Margaret. She is less immediately taken with Gretchen’s dour and significantly older husband, Howard, whose insistence that he had no hand in Margaret’s conception appears to be borne out by the fact that the couple maintain separate beds.
The narrative follows Jean as she attempts to substantiate Gretchen’s claim that, at the time of her daughter’s conception, she was suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a women’s ward in a convent-run nursing home. Meanwhile, mother and daughter are treated like guinea pigs by a peremptory and often self-contradictory committee of experts at Charing Cross hospital in west London, who recommend serum samples, saliva analysis and skin grafts as a means of establishing the genetic match.
Jean attempts conscientiously to trace Gretchen’s fellow patients and former staff from the nursing home, but her professional objectivity is compromised by her growing attachment to the Tilburys. She readily accepts Gretchen’s offer to make her a dress, and returns the favour by presenting Margaret with a pet rabbit. More surprisingly, she finds herself beginning to develop an intimacy with the unprepossessing Howard, whose lack of fulfilment in his marriage becomes increasingly apparent.
The postwar suburban milieu of Chambers’ work has drawn comparisons to Barbara Pym, although perhaps a closer parallel could be made with Anita Brookner, with whom she shares an interest in intelligent, isolated women destabilised by the effects of an unexpected and unsustainable love affair. At its best, Chambers’ eye for drab, undemonstrative details achieves a Larkin-esque lucidity – when writing about the “porridge-coloured” doilies crocheted by Jean’s mother, for example: “They had dozens of these at home, little puddles of string under every vase, lamp and ornament.”
Jean’s unfamiliarity with sensual adventure is hinted at in balefully comic terms: “Howard was astonished to find she had never eaten a cobnut, a deficiency he was determined to put right.” The problem is that once their passion has been declared, the prose fails correspondingly to ignite, relying on formulations such as “the monster of awakened longing” and “duty with its remorseless grasp”, which, even if used with self-conscious intent, feel uninspired.
Chambers’ novel is set in a period before DNA testing could have provided conclusive proof and manages to keep the reader guessing to the end, although the chances of Gretchen being impregnated by an angel are admittedly remote. One can appreciate the novel for its quiet humour and compassionate consideration of the everyday, unfashionable and unloved. But in terms of revelation, it is probably too much to expect miracles.
• Small Pleasures is published by W&N (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.