By Claire JarvisMarch 1, 2016
The Past by Tessa Hadley
TESSA HADLEY’S NOVELS center on domestic trials set in and around Bristol and Exmoor in a region that skates along the edge of Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex. Violence and disaster puncture the proceedings in a way that at times feels pointedly Hardyan — characters are killed; babies are illegitimate; deeply wanted love affairs never happen. Hadley’s novels present lives insulated, however, from the total suffering familiar to readers of Hardy’s fiction. Hadley compresses the bulk of the 20th century into its first quarter, so that the deprivation and misery of the Second World War, not to mention the leaden imposition of Thatcherism in the 1970s and 1980s, seem like a hazy, bad dream. Even characters that come of age in the 1960s or 1970s seem more interested in an earlier version of British aesthetics — characters talk about the Oxford Movement, Victorian architecture, E. Nesbit editions, and John Piper’s quasi-Victorian, post–World War II designs.
Hadley’s accomplished new novel, The Past, features the Crane family and its rambling country vicarage home over two distinct historical periods. “The Present,” making up two-thirds of the novel, focuses on four adults — Harriet, Alice, Roland, and Fran — and their assorted children and stepchildren who convene to make plans to sell the house. In “The Past,” set in 1968, we see the three eldest Cranes (all but Fran) as children when their mother, the ambitious and erudite (but scattered) Jill, has returned to the house after discovering her husband’s embarrassing affair. In both of these parts, Hadley splits her readers’ attention between the personal disruption that aging brings as one shifts from youth into middle age, and the secretive worlds that children build in the presence of their elders, as they perceive in half-light the troubles that surround.
Hadley is especially talented at registering the misery that even tiny moments of personal insecurity can bring to well-adjusted people — Alice’s anxiety that a vintage bolero, chosen to be unusual and striking, in fact makes her look dowdy; Alice’s ex-stepson Kasim’s retreat into his room under the pretense of school work that he has not actually brought with him; Roland’s embarrassing affectation in his school-aged letters home, referring to his parents as “Mater” and “Pater”; and Alice’s awkward recitation of these old letters to the family group. These vignettes chart how one passes off as unimportant moments that in fact are momentous or somehow tragically revealing. Hadley describes them with a clear-sighted precision, anatomizing the internal torments that even tiny social infractions can produce.
A more extravagant example of Hadley’s powers of description occurs with Harriet’s unexpected, intense desire for Pilar, Roland’s new wife. Pilar is an accomplished Argentinian lawyer, who dresses like a movie star in smoothly elegant separates and high heels. Harriet’s diary shifts from an earnest account of her walks through the countryside to a histrionic confession of this obsessive lust and the accompanying self-recrimination. In a sharply drawn moment of dimly lit cruelty, Fran’s nine-year-old daughter, Ivy, blindly desecrates the diary with a lipsticked note. Harriet mistakes the culprit as Ivy’s younger brother, Arthur, and the violation as a result of his childish but perceptive insight into her longing. Only much later does a snooping Alice connect Ivy’s scrawling, uncomprehending rage to the deep sense of self-loathing visited upon Harriet because of her desire for Pilar. In these scenes, Harriet’s misery interrupts what she saw as a successful adulthood, the graceful aging process of a woman committed to progressive, clearly ordered ideals. What can Harriet do if the person she thought herself to be — a sensible do-gooder, a heterosexual woman, a person uninterested in sex — turns out to be an utter mistake?
Throughout The Past, there remains a seemingly impassable distance between the world of women and the world of men, particularly in regards to the draws of the home versus those of political or public life. In one particularly potent scene in the middle section, for example, the Cranes’ father, Tom, talks about his time as a journalist in 1968 Paris:
Listen to me, Tom said. — I’m telling you about Paris. A revolution is happening in Paris. The children are tearing down prison walls. Everything that seemed established and set in stone turns out to be insubstantial as fog.
Tom seems to think his revolutionary politics are enough to justify his abandonment of his family. For Hadley, masculinist notions of revolution fail to understand or address the difficulties of women’s lives, particularly the burden of motherhood (or even non-motherhood) in a world that remains peculiarly intransigent about feminist revolution. As Alice, thinking about her decision to remain childless, imagines, viscerally: “All those little eggs which were inside her when she was born: Alice imagined them like clusters of tiny pearly teeth, and the idea of them washing away one by one was a relief as well as a regret.” Motherhood ends up being complicated in The Past not because it is a harrowing experience — it is often bemused, dilettantish, joyous — but because it upsets personal ambitions in favor of familial ones.
Hadley’s novels, perhaps surprisingly, end with mild optimism, even in the face of emotional disaster, with the fragile but still hopeful tough-mindedness that is the backbone of much postwar British fiction. Hadley touches her plotlines with hints of the larger political and social issues that frame the middle-class domestic lives we see, referencing the lives beyond British insularity (such as Kas’s Punjabi family in The Past or Nicky’s Brazilian heritage in Clever Girl). Still, these stories always re-center themselves on white British women and their lives. Such lives are the central attraction of Hadley’s fiction — not only the inherent, if not particularly striking, difficulty of this kind of womanly life, of balancing personal ambition with familial responsibility, but also its pleasures.
Perhaps this is why Hadley’s US critics have been suspicious of her precise style, of her interest in female quietude: “It’s tempting to feel annoyed by what comes off as passivity,” writes Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times, “but this suggests that all characters should be able to determine the shape of their lives.” Wolitzer here taps into one of the central achievements of Hadley’s fiction — her characters are not the masters of their own fates, a fact that might be unpleasantly unsettling to readers used to more searching, and more active, protagonists. Such reviews consistently suggest that stories about women’s lives, particularly stories about mundane romantic and familial plots, have a conservative savor to them — that perhaps we can no longer fully justify such fiction. Although many of Hadley’s reviewers ask, as I am asking here, that readers consider the power of a narrow, intimate frame, they also imply that this frame might be a little old-fashioned, a little out of date. Yet Hadley’s focus on inwardness is neither surgical nor exhaustive; rather it demonstrates — simply, modestly — the ways people live in, and are altered by, the closely held worlds around them.
Hadley’s writing is assured and comfortable, its precision reminiscent of Elizabeth Bowen’s brittle, abstruse fictions as well as Barbara Pym’s or Elizabeth Goudge’s cozier ones. Though Hadley has written for The New Yorker, and her books have found their ways onto The New York Times’s Notable Books lists, her books do not make it onto the year-end lists where literature (like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, or all of David Mitchell’s recent work) is noted and praised for its scope and scale. The narrowness of Hadley’s family-based plots may be the cause of some of this neglect, yet this attitude mistakes scale for ambition, and width of representation for power, and suggests the only rationale for telling a “small,” personal story is if that story is explicit in its large-scale ambitions. Hadley’s novels remind us of the strength of the minute, of the intensity that tight focus can bring. They are a sign that the domestic novel still has a prominent and critical place in contemporary fiction, a point that seems perhaps easier to accept when we look at the British reception of Hadley’s fiction, which takes as a given that the domestic novel can be a genre for serious literature.
In fact, in The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel, one of the novel’s two protagonists, Cora, considers a past love affair in terms of her current reading habits:
She wasn’t reading anything strenuous these days: women’s novels, commercial novels, some of which, she and Annette agreed, were remarkably well written, better than much so-called literary fiction, more true to life. She hardly ever thought now about what she had learned when she did her English degree. Her imagination was crammed with women’s stories, most of which began with a collapse like hers, some loss of faith or love, losses more catastrophic than anything she had endured. She devoured them, one after another, turning the pages with hasty hands, impatient for the resolution. As soon as she’d finished one, she would start in upon the next.
The harsh core of this assessment — that “women’s novels” are both compulsive reading matter and unserious because not “strenuous” — holds a key to the American reception of Hadley’s fiction. How did stories of British provincial life and of familial strife, carefully observed and exquisitely tender, come to be deemed more “womanly” than “literary”?
The characters in Hadley’s fiction — in women’s fiction, more broadly — read. And while they don’t often read “strenuous” fiction (what, precisely, is strenuous fiction is one question lingering here), they do often read authors that fit securely into the history of the domestic novel. For example, in one scene Alice reads a children’s book that she has picked up in her room. The book, though never explicitly identified, is The Doll’s House by Rumer Godden, a brilliant mid-century British novelist whose career and subsequent literary reputation have been hampered by her identification with two reading audiences not considered “strenuous”: children and women. Hadley writes:
The story itself, in its own words, tapped into deep reservoirs of feeling. The writer’s touch was very sure and true, unsentimental — one of the doll’s house dolls died, burned up in a fire. The book seemed to open up for Alice a wholesome and simplifying way of seeing things which she has long ago lost or forgotten, and hadn’t hoped to find again.
This scene of reading, with Alice sprawled on a window seat, jerking her head up now and again to check that her surroundings are really there, is familiar to anyone who has read a beloved childhood book as a grown-up. Such reading has a romance in The Past. It is patiently atavistic — the romance offset by the rabid anticipation with which Kasim and Molly, Roland’s teenage daughter, receive text messages, stretching their arms up, far from the Cranes’ cottage, in the hopes of picking up a signal.
On the other hand, Roland, as a child, saw storybook reading in a way we might associate with this other, rapacious form of informational reading — reading to test out new ideas and ways of being, as a route to “thinking.” Hadley makes this explicit when we get a glimpse of Roland’s active mind as a five year old:
[Harriet] reminded [Roland] sternly that he couldn’t even read yet.
— Grandfather said that doesn’t matter, because I’m already thinking about things.
— What things?
— Sorting out what I need to learn, about history and science and stuff, and people speaking different languages.
Reading, in young Roland’s view and perhaps in that of his elders, is a method to gain mastery, the path to an active education. This assumption ends up being true: as an adult, Roland is the most educated Crane child, an academic and writer, a “popularising” philosopher of film. However, the kind of reading Alice does when she picks up the Godden novel, the kind of reading The Past licenses — absorbing, childish, avoidant — is the kind of reading for which we long, even if we can’t quite get rid of the sense that it might be a little bit bad for us. This is the kind of reading The Past valorizes, and it’s the kind of reading Hadley’s novel asks — or gently coaxes — us to do.
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