I Haven’t Got a Life at the Moment: On Rosemary Tonks’s “The Halt During the Chase”

By Leo LasdunOctober 14, 2023

I Haven’t Got a Life at the Moment: On Rosemary Tonks’s “The Halt During the Chase”

The Halt During the Chase by Rosemary Tonks

THE ARTIST’S CRACK-UP is especially intriguing when it involves the destruction of work. Why, we still wonder, did Michelangelo dismember the Christ of his Deposition with a hammer? Why did Nikolai Gogol destroy the manuscript of his Dead Souls sequel? Less famously, but just as dramatically, Rosemary Tonks, English poet and novelist, had a midlife Christian awakening in the 1970s that saw her disavow her writing as the work of Satan and, the story goes, hunt down copies of her own books in shops and libraries to take home and set on fire in her yard. It’s true that 20th-century poets had a penchant for breaking down (Pound, Lowell, Berryman, etc.), but it’s possible that some exaggeration is at work in the Tonks legend—whether she literally took to book burning is unclear, as is much of what she did after her … retirement. The only confirmed combustion was of an unpublished manuscript, in a fit of something—rage, maybe rapture—in 1981. What’s sadly true, though, is that her conversion meant the end of her writing. She died in 2014, following decades of literary silence.

The last novel she published was 1972’s The Halt During the Chase, which was released again this October after years in obscurity. The book, which documents the buzzy Sophie’s belated coming-of-age in London (and beyond), has a palliative quality—it’s driven by Tonks’s wishful thinking about a young woman who just barely doesn’t crack up. Some sections of The Halt read a bit like excerpts from a self-help pamphlet: Sophie learns anxiety management, and her assurance that “[she] wasn’t having a nervous breakdown” is a repeated refrain. “Autofiction” would be an unfair term to use for Tonks’s book when ultimately she wanted nothing to do with her own work and, in fact, seemingly would have preferred to see it disappear from the world entirely. And since the only real Tonks biography is a thorough but necessarily broad-strokes obituary in The Guardian by Neil Astley, we can’t truly say how “auto” this fiction is. But the sensation that Tonks was exorcizing something personal in her books, that she was trying to write her way out of a jam, remains.

Sophie is at war for control of her life. She has an upside-down relationship with her mother, about which she says, “[I]t was my mother who was the child, and myself who was the mother.” They’re stiflingly close—so close that it comes as a surprise, two-dozen pages into the book, when Sophie announces that the two don’t live together. Yet even with her own place, Sophie can’t escape her mom: “I haven’t … got a life at the moment. But if you’d just let me go away and make one …” she pleads during a fight.

Sophie’s other antagonist is her lover, Philip, a charming stiff. Philip orbits her like a drone, somehow both predatorily on her case and neurotically distant. She’s at once attached to his handsomeness, which she brings up often, and put off by his snobbery. She starts to find him grating and to question his outsize role in her life. Why won’t Philip propose? Why is he so unspiritual? There are other problems with Philip too: “I was really terrified of the women in Philip’s set. They were all male women, capable adults,” Sophie complains. Philip serves a dual purpose for Tonks: he furnishes much of the novel’s comedy (“‘Potatoes?’ He said it in such a potatoey voice”) and is also the engine of Sophie’s anxiety. Almost every problem she has can be traced back to him. If Tonks was playing out her impending personal crisis in The Halt, then Philip is the nucleus of her agitation, her loosening grip; in vanquishing him, so too, she thinks, she vanquishes psychosis.

The first half of the novel is big on its characters’ quirks. Sophie’s mother spins a conversation about nose size into a revealingly off-color anecdote: “I remember one Jewish family in which the men had little tiny noses. And they had to go out and get themselves wives with great big noses, and breed them in again.” At dinner with Philip, Sophie finds an “unmistakable caterpillar” in her cauliflower. Afraid of a row, she reconciles herself to the grub: “I decided to eat the caterpillar and die.” These are the best parts of the novel: when there’s nothing going on, stultifying English nothing, when everyone’s sitting around dissatisfied and sneering like characters in a Mike Leigh film. Drab London doldrums cloy and cloister Sophie, and we can feel her mounting hysteria like droplets of sweat condensing on cold skin. The dirty freedom of the kitchen sink helps Tonks let her people be mean and funny, and it distracts her from the malingering self-reassurance that there’s no breakdown on the horizon.

There’s a shift in the book when Philip makes a cruelly half-assed cohabitation proposal: “I was going to ask you to come and live with me. But I can’t promise you there won’t be an emotional bust-up in five years’ time.” After that, Sophie’s healing journey begins. No more Philip and no more mother is good for Sophie, but the story suffers a bit without its comic creatures.

Sophie visits a psychic who prognosticates on theme: “You won’t have a nervous breakdown now.” She goes for a rest cure in the French countryside (where Philip pops up again for a bit). The story melts inward, becomes more first-person, more reflective. The cantankerous cast that surrounds Sophie in London is replaced, in France, by wispy fawners, background instrumentation for what the book jacket aptly calls Sophie’s “croaky-throated liberation song.” What Tonks sacrifices in character comedy, she tries to make up for in revelation, but often she comes by it too easily. In a pivotal sequence, Sophie “gets over” Philip:

Oh I had no idea I was so in love with him! I demand that body with its nervous power, its smell, its intensity. And it must be given to me. If not, I’ll … I’ll…

In two minutes it was all over; I recovered. It was the last struggle. I thought: “Thank God, that’s finished.” And walked away.

The ease of Sophie’s convalescence is off-register. Tonks believes purging your life of an infantile mother and a hectoring boyfriend is enough to clear the spirit for independence, but the peace Sophie finds on her quest for self-sufficiency feels flimsy. In an early instance of Tonks’s self-soothing compulsion, Sophie has a panic attack in a hotel room: “With the trembling and the panic came nausea; I was mad for some words of comfort.” It seems serious, but just a few lines later, Sophie is reassuring herself, triumphantly, after throwing open a window, that “[t]here wasn’t anything wrong with a subconscious as wide awake as that.” Tonks shuts down a potentially interesting moment of uncertainty, as she does often in the novel, rarely letting a surge of unpleasantness linger.

If Tonks’s literary career was on its deathbed when she wrote The Halt, her style was still brilliantly alive. There’s a Woolfian element in Sophie’s solitary moments—her revenge schemes, her strong and fluid romantics. She journals constantly in her head, musing over Philip, over a leaf on the bathroom floor, fretting over her imaginary child: “I would learn to mount the first tread of a stair in a way that would make that child feel it had failed me.” In other spots, Tonks’s prose has the lugubrious hipness of an indie rock song; some passages could even (with some rhythmic imagination) be mistaken for Morrissey lyrics: “I get—a loss of personality—after I’ve been with him,” or “He would make a very good friend to a man, but he will never be any good to any woman.” The liquidity of Tonks’s sentences, the deftness of her humor, makes it hard to understand how writing became such a source of torment for her.

Tonks left us with this odd child, this Frankensteined novel—a trembling, emotional, sensitive bildungsroman stitched inside a flashy comic-novel facade. There’s lots to enjoy in The Halt, but you’ll need to parse out what you like—are you reading for humor or for comfort? The Halt During the Chase is also the title of a painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau. I wonder what Tonks saw in the image; it’s a forest idyll—gowned women curled up on the grass in a clearing, waited on by men and horses and dogs, stopped for a rest mid-hunt. Was she just desperate for a break in the action?


Leo Lasdun lives in New York.

LARB Contributor

Leo Lasdun lives in New York. 


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