Glyn Hughes’s novel, Where I Used to Play on the Green, won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the David Higham Fiction Prize in 1982, yet it received not a tenth of the publicity awarded to winners of the Booker and the Whitbread. This is a pity, for it is a fine achievement, although too dour a story to command affection in the media. It reminds us not only that the past is a foreign country but that England, too, is a foreign country and perhaps never more so than at times and in places which we think we know fairly well. Those whose images of 18th-century England have been fashioned by the painters of that time and who are accustomed to the smiling faces of a well-fed squirearchy, looking ineffably satisfied with the onward march of progress and its own contribution to the wealth of nations, will receive a shock when they read Glyn Hughes’s account of the coming of Wesleyanism to the poverty-stricken weavers of Yorkshire and the madness and suffering that attended it. His characters are historically real, although perhaps not historically important: William Grimshaw, the fanatical wandering preacher, and his associates, early martyrs – the word is not too strong – in the cause of the simplest and most primitive of trade unions; a cast of six-year-old children sent to work in the pits, of narrow-minded cloth manufacturers on the brink of becoming the new rich; and an illiterate and starving populace at the mercy of every restriction laid on it in the name of ‘enthusiasm’.
The novel purports to be about William Grimshaw, an ordained clergyman, prone to distraction and confusion. A choleric man, he is at his most effective when thundering to a congregation largely indifferent to his strictures and retaining more than a trace of pagan loyalties. After the death of his wife, the preacher, now further troubled by sorrow and desire, begins to feel a new sense of guilt, loses his taste for the landscape and the natural pleasures that had previously delighted him, and falls to making pacts with God. His second wife is carried off by one of the regular plagues of typhoid that ravaged the insanitary village houses of those days, but not before she is entreated by her half-mad husband to ‘accept salvation’. This involves penitence and scourging, prayers and fasting, and, worse than these, the forcible confession of sins that may not even have been contemplated, let alone committed: over all is the fear of the eternal flames, the begging to die and to be taken into God’s bliss.
The power of this terrible creed, soon to be subsumed into Wesleyanism proper, is sustained by the crazed and superhuman energy of the itinerant preachers who tramp over the moors, through the burns, from village to village and town to town, commanding the half-starved to fall on their knees and pray until they feel the descent of the spirit. Soon it seems as if no little rush-lit household is safe from their harrying, bullying, shouting presence. Predictably, there are a number of converts, since many of the meetings take place in crowds, in the open air, where a fit of hysteria is easily carried from person to person, and the most glorious cases of ‘salvation’ are to be witnessed in writhings on the ground or the ecstatic flowing of tears. The novel is particularly alarming to read because the author takes no sides but simply lets his undifferentiated narrative sweep relentlessly on until there seems no reason why it should ever end. I was beginning to succumb to the peculiar malaise that signals a too-powerful authorial presence or immanence, when the conversions stopped just as suddenly as they had begun, prosperity started to make inroads into the region and its industries, and religious enthusiasm became harnessed to the work ethic, for the greater profit of all concerned. At this point, a new family arrives in Grimshaw’s parish, which is called Haworth: their name is Brontë.
Virginie, by John Hawkes, proclaims its intentions boldly on its pretty jacket: ‘a lush erotic masterpiece,’ runs the legend, beneath a reproduction of Greuze’s Cruche Cassée. One may in fact wonder whether it was the picture that gave rise to the story, rather than the other way round, for this is a strange, and strangely delicate fable which, although conforming to the most hallowed traditions of pornography, is more of a personal fantasy or even a pantomime. The eponymous heroine is a child of 11; she is preternaturally innocent and she is the chosen companion of a thoughtful 18th-century seigneur, who is called simply Seigneur. It is Seigneur’s vocation to take ordinary women and by means of certain rituals to turn them into masterpieces of the female principle: the chosen one, having passed all the tests, is named Noblesse, and is sent off, dressed in a specially designed habit, and mounted on a specially chosen horse, to become the wife or companion of a local dignitary. The area is then searched for five more candidates for instruction, and in this exercise Seigneur is assisted by the child Virginie, who is otherwise employed in the kitchen, a minute Cinderella, where she sweeps the hearth and cleans the dishes. All this takes place in an 18th-century chateau called Dédale, although, to get the most rebarbative and wilful element of the whole exercise out of the way, it should be mentioned that these scenes are interspersed with jumps forward to the Paris of the 1940s – berets, taxis, wet streets – to add, I suppose, a certain piquancy to what would otherwise appear to be slumbrously distant.
The fable is in the tradition of Boccaccio and the Marquis de Sade. It drifts in the direction of a series of set-pieces: women recounting stories of their amorous pasts. Otherwise, it is la vie de château with all the usual refinements: incest, torture, humiliation, bestiality, and long disquisitions on the philosophical significance of all these goings-on. For Seigneur, like the Marquis de Sade, claims to be a philanthropist, an altruist: he is a Pygmalion who works with the living model in the cause of enlightenment, or for the greater good of the greater number. The tests to which he subjects his victims, or his elect, are rather interesting. The arts to be learned are not those of seduction but of self-esteem, although the means to the desired end are sometimes rather recherché. So promising are the lessons that it seems a great shame that the men on whom the women are allowed to practise offer so little in the way of a challenge.
But more than all this (and there is, in fact, not very much of it) Seigneur is that fantasy nobleman of the Ancien Régime who lurks somewhere within the common range of archetypes: he is the refined voluptuary, handsome, delicate, immaculate, sophisticated, impassive, autocratic, melancholy. And his chateau, Dédale, is everyone’s fantasy chateau, complete with horses and whippets, dovecot in the stable court, enclosed formal garden, nearby convent, tapestries of the hunt in the dining-room, whole logs burning in huge fireplaces, and meals of meat, wine, fruit and cake. When Hawkes speaks of the sun on the golden stone of the house or describes the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobbles, he is constructing a fantasy that is almost a memory, and the effect is heightened by the use of beautiful 18th-century names: Bocage, Doucette, Sylvie, Cupidon. It must be stressed that the whole of this extraordinary conceit is written in language of the utmost chastity and that its parodic elements soon strike one as entirely straightforward and even natural. Despite his avowed borrowings from a number of sources, from the troubadours, via the 17th-century Tristan L’Hermite’s ‘Royaume d’Amour’, to Georges Bataille’s Histoire de l’Oeil, the execution is quite seamless and the effect very strange. That the strangeness attains the force of credibility indicates a high degree of expertise in the author.
Ancient Enemies is a new departure for Elizabeth North. She has, before, left tantalising trails of unexpected connections and consequences; she has also, notably in Everything in the Garden, proved that she can produce a masterly pastiche of period speech and behaviour. Here she has done both of these things. On the face of it the story could not be simpler. Petra Frobisher is 16 and were she in a different social class would be receiving the attentions of various social workers. Her mother, a hapless creature, given to love, tears, collapse and tranquillisers, presumably started the process of Petra’s complicated evolution when she committed adultery with the mesmeric Henry, whom she subsequently married. Their daughter, Daisy, was born when Petra was nine. Petra herself is a tough self-possessed girl, inattentive at school, totally unable to grasp any idea that hasn’t been the subject of a TV series, sexually advanced, much travelled, capable of taking care of the arrangements for her own abortion, possibly a throwback in terms of mental attitudes to her landed ancestors, and stoical in the face of her complicated family. Her world is bounded by her mother, Henry, Daisy, her ineffectual uncles, and her teacher Mr Forbes. And the sole action – the central mystery, not solved until the last page – is the disappearance of Henry.
Throughout Petra’s somewhat monotonous narrative, we become aware of enormous tensions in this family. Mother is far from certain of Henry’s fidelity and makes hieroglyphics in her diary when he is away from home. Henry, one of those charismatic bounders who are so difficult to describe, is apparently quite unable to stomach Petra, and makes no bones about not trying to understand her. His disappearance is apparently inconsequential and we are led to believe that this is another adultery, compounding the first one, which the child Petra almost witnessed. What Elizabeth North – or Petra – never gets round to telling us is that Petra herself must be a very attractive girl; Henry’s friend falls for her and is in fact the father of her aborted child. Mr Forbes makes what is obviously more than a drunken pass at her, and it might even be that Henry himself is intrigued ... The cause of his leaving emerges as the narrative spins to an exhausted close. Petra’s mother has decided to send the girl off to live with her own father in America; the roots of her hair are now quite white and sometimes she takes too many pills, so desperate measures are called for. Henry, in a rage, has walked out on hearing of this ploy. But at the very end, when Petra hears the train coming in at the station and knows, in the teeth of all concrete evidence, that Henry is on it, that he has returned, we are left not with the explanation of his absence but with the awareness of one of those elective affinities that mark for life. And no good can come of it.
The random divagations of the verbose Petra can never quite encompass this truth. She can accept, without question or speculation, the divergent backgrounds of her mother and Henry, the fact that one uncle is now a commercial raspberry-grower on the remains of her mother’s land and another a second-hand bookseller; she can accept the upmarket decorating business which her mother now runs with Henry; she can accept the contrast of family holidays with her father and his second wife in Colorado, and the suburban mournfulness of Mr Forbes’s house in which she babysits. She does not, on the face of it, grow appreciably older, and her means of self-expression remain woefully limited. Except in one instance, Elizabeth North stays completely in character. But when she says, ‘To be a child in the back of a car with people hating each other in the front is never tolerable,’ one realises that her adult consciousness is monitoring these events. It is therefore all the more to her credit that she remains faithful to her brief, which is to inhabit the mind of a 16-year-old girl, not quite satisfied with the easy certainties of her unambitious contemporaries, and aware, in spite of herself, of potentially painful truths that may colour an entire existence.
‘Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but that is wrong. They know less, that’s why they write.’ So says Margaret Atwood in her collection of stories, Dancing Girls. They know less, but she might have added that they find out more; they might wish they had not had to, but there is no going back on what they have learned. Margaret Atwood studies odd and apparently inexplicable situations in an honourable effort to discover what brought them about: a tiresome Vietnamese student who attempts to ingratiate himself with an unattractive Canadian girl and thereby adds momentarily to her sexual status, the breakdown of the marriage between popular Fred and cute Betty, the extremely convincing collapse into madness of Louise, and the effect that this has on her reluctant friend Morrison, a small nightmare about a woman poet who is about to give a reading in a distant town and is struck down in a strange hotel by a nosebleed, terrible accounts of the anomalies of ‘persons of a different culture’ sent by their governments to gain degrees at Western universities, and a beautiful and acute account of early love and loss, called ‘Hair Jewellery’.
Margaret Atwood writes about women, but her emotional catchment area is large. She knows how women behave when they are in love, how they buy clothes and hope that these clothes will make statements which they are too faint-hearted to make themselves; she knows that for many women (most women) the lack of dignified status within a love affair means constant anxiety and even dread; she knows that women survive their disasters in this sphere but never forget them. But she is not mournful or lugubrious. Indeed, like any person of courage who has abandoned cheerfulness but has gone determinedly on to the end of the line, she is extremely funny. Of fat Christine, who has risen to a minor post in the Department of Health and Welfare, she remarks: ‘she did a good job, and was seldom discriminated against for being a woman because nobody thought of her as such.’ Nor is she exclusively what used to be described as a woman’s writer, usually in the pejorative sense. Like any thinking woman she is much preoccupied with the enigma of the eternal masculine – vain, giddy, feckless, and amenable to flattery – and this has always been the preoccupation of women whether they write about it or not. But those who do write about it have a significant moral choice to make. The way to come out of the predicament gloriously, and to gain a reputation for prodigious expertise, is to subject your characters to the Colette process: i.e. to observe their foibles with immense sympathy and comprehension but to deliver your narration from the winning side. What a writer has learned from this process is only to be guessed at: probably never to confess to a failure. The alternative course is to preserve dignity in defeat, and that is the course taken by Margaret Atwood. It is a course which involves thinking your way through to survival, and one takes away the impression that if this is achieved the process of writing it up does not present itself as an art but as a necessary act: the compilation of a log-book.
But for those who do not care for such complexities, there is always Sidney Sheldon, with his pleasing tales of love and skulduggery in the multi-million-dollar conglomerate zone, of the frail but indomitable heroine who rises above the heartache of her private life in order to get into zinc, armaments, real estate, and personalised marble-floored mansions ‘filled with Rembrandts and Vermeers and Velazquezes and Bellinis’. (The profusion of those Bellinis worries me.) This is a world in which art critics come complete with Inverness capes and slouch hats, in which women are ‘tigresses’ and men are ‘insatiable wild stallions’, in which emotion is ‘an irresistible rip-tide that caught them both up and swept them away in a glorious explosion, an eruption, and a contentment beyond words. They were floating together in a velvety softness that knew no time or place, lost in the wondrous glory and magic of each other.’ All these people fly Pan-Am, apparently: the airline is mentioned several times, always with an unmistakable note of appreciation. It is a world in which girls, before they become tigresses, go to Cheltenham School where they end up as ‘class valedictorian’; and where a penchant for pursuing an activity beyond the oil, tank and diamond nexus can turn overnight into paranoid schizophrenia or be diagnosed as such by authorial decree. The gritty, plucky, feisty Kate Blackwell, who makes it to the top of the heap, is presented as some kind of role model, but it is the sort of role made popular in olden times by Joan Crawford, whose immense tear streaked face could be relied upon to carry the message whenever her lover closed the door behind him. This particular story is so schematically written that it could be used as a script for a film which has not yet been made but which will undoubtedly proceed, as of right, to the wide screen. It now remains for Mr Sheldon to come clean and to use his agreeable skills to write a saga in which a huge amount of money is made by cynics with their sights trained on the susceptibilities of the typing pool.