Dressed in black

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Furies by Janet Hobhouse
    Bloomsbury, 296 pp, £15.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1270 1

This beautiful, vexed and tragic novel is well served by its title, for its narrating heroine both wrestles with and represents the female forces of retribution; and since Orestes at last escapes maternal retribution, Janet Hobhouse’s Helen is arguably the more tragic character of the two. Yet the saddest page of the book comes before the story: ‘Hobhouse, Janet, 1948-91 ... Copyright 1993 by the Estate of Janet Hobhouse’. I had met (I cannot say ‘I knew’) Janet Hobhouse in her youth, when I was a graduate student at Oxford and she was an undergraduate. I feel embarrassed about surviving such a vital person who was substantially younger than myself. Perhaps the most surprising thing about death, that great commonplace, is that it never ceases to surprise.

The sure touch of the book as a piece of cultural history, of American history, is immediately striking:

That my mother, who viewed herself as related to very few other beings in the universe, should have descended in a mere three generations from this world of wealth and kindness, this reliable multiplicity of connected others, this cohabitation of cousins, aunts, servants, etc, says something about the speed of American life in this century, which can not only provide a solitary immigrant with the means to create, in a matter of decades, a secure and well-populated dynasty, but can also, and at the same rate, take all these steps in reverse, reducing, as in our case, a huge, prosperous, civically active and internationally connected clan to a mere handful of desperate solitaries, operating like loose ball bearings in outer space.

‘Why, this is Edith Wharton!’ I thought as I started reading it: ‘a new Edith Wharton for our time.’ Of course, I was wrong about Wharton, as I found on reading the book further. Janet Hobhouse is concerned with the intensities of the solitudes rather than with the dynasties and their breaking down. Edith Wharton sustains a social vision throughout any given novel: Hobhouse brings one in intermittently – angrily, like an existentialist acknowledging the constraints of history. Yet historical and cultural restraints are very much part of the subject here, along with a romantic desire to transcend or subvert them. The quality of the anger makes Hobhouse a truly American writer. (The English are less likely to experience vivid indignation or contempt at the way in which human beings are shaped by class, periods and settings.) At the same time, Hobhouse must count as an English writer, too. Like her heroine, whom Janet Hobhouse closely resembles, she had an English father, and in part, if reluctantly, she adopted England as a country (not the country) of her own. The Furies can be read as another Portrait of a Lady, the representation of a young woman essentially on her own coping with the experience of existing in divided and distinguished worlds. Hobhouse’s Helen, like James’s Isabel Archer, is perpetually an alien. But there are big differences from the James novel, the most obvious being that The Furies is narrated in the first person, and could not be told in any other way. There is no wise third-person voice to ruminate on history, on causes and consequences. It is left to the heroine, that vibrant sensibility, to supply general comment as well as to describe the impact of living as body and as subject, as an ‘I’.

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