- A Particular Place by Mary Hocking
Chatto, 216 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3454 2
- The House of Fear, Notes from Down Below by Leonora Carrington
Virago, 216 pp, £10.99, July 1989, ISBN 1 85381 048 7
- Painted Lives by Max Egremont
Hamish Hamilton, 205 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 241 12706 8
- The Ultimate Good Luck by Richard Ford
Collins Harvill, 201 pp, £11.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 00 271853 7
In fiction the form of the fairy-tale and the sound of gossip are joined. The first allows heroes and heroines, tragic misunderstandings, farcical adventures, grotesque cruelties and happy endings. The second gives the valet’s view of the same events, or untinctured gushings from the parish pump. In some strains of fiction the tale atrophies and only the gossip is left, and of these strains the Anglican novel of village and suburban life is a pure variety. It is remarkable for tackling the problem of ordinariness. By an extension of Christian love, boring people are gathered together into the community of its characters. In the Christian congregations which figure in such novels they preponderate – the chorus of regular worshippers is usually subfusc. The challenge is, of course, to overturn or qualify the categories of ‘boring’ and ‘interesting’. The writers of these tales build their moralities around small derelictions (like Emma’s failure of charity to Miss Bates), and do not exclude the problems of homely, limited lives from the arena of the soul’s struggle. Agnostic readers probably feel easiest with them when they are funny: Barbara Pym pleases by her disengagement, by avoiding a charismatic or the enthusiastic tone.
Mary Hocking is not at her best in this mode. She is better on the larger themes of dying and the remaking of relationships, but her moral points are close to the surface, as though the book was planned as a vehicle for good sense and good feeling; the characters tend to serve the purpose of Jonsonian types in the working-out of conundrums in the morality of everyday life. Her hero, Michael Hoath, is the newly appointed vicar of St Hilary’s, a West Country parish. His wife Valentine is beautiful. They are childless. She is no more than decently dutiful in the discharge of her function as the Vicar’s wife, and is aware of the attentions of his female congregation; to her, they are an irritation, to the world outside they are at best excellent women. He is in the (fictionally at least) common situation of the priest who seems to be a capon among the hens – emasculated by the calling which makes him attractive. He must, like the novelist, care for all souls and try to dismiss none as unworthy of his time.
His problem is to find the spiritual strength to guide his flock and give direction to his life. The problems of the flock are various: Shirley, a young woman whose gay husband has run off with another man, is lonely, and her son is more deeply damaged still by his father’s desertion. Norah, a retired nurse, is unhappily married to a barrister who grieves petulantly for the domestic efficiency and subservience of his dead first wife. The congruent gaps in the lives of Michael and Norah lead them to fall in love; the book ends with her death from a brain tumour, and Michael and Valentine shaping up for what looks to be a better relationship.