Philip Larkin’s lines have taken hold over the years, calling to them the confirmatory evidence of family histories, uniting disparate and apparently unconnected offspring under their aegis. Few authors in recent fiction have addressed themselves to the universal family romance with Caroline Blackwood’s bleakness. In her previous novels, The Stepdaughter and Great Granny Webster, the outlines of parental tyranny, of domination and resistance, were memorably etched. Mum and Dad could fuck you up in the simplest of ways – by simply not wanting you. These stories, which do not of course confine themselves to mums and dads, seem to have become a kind of public record: no longer ordinary fictions, however elegant, brutish and short, but something larger, with a historical reach that makes the issues of abandonment and waste something to be answered within the community, and not merely half-remembered at the novel’s close. Whose children are they, in the end, these orphans, fictional and yet also real presences? She seems to be writing a history of the family, but one that is not confined to History.
This question of history, how to write it, how to avoid it, and how finally to come to be at its mercy, emerges again in the appalling clarity of The Fate of Mary Rose. The male narrator, Rowan Anderson, is a historian, albeit one with the right kinds of ‘sympathy’: he is engaged on the biography of a woman engineer who contributed to the war effort against German Zeppelins by developing a powerful arc lamp. Anderson may (or may not) manage the biography: he certainly cannot manage his wife, Cressida, nor does he feel much for his own six-year-old daughter, Mary Rose. Cressida and Mary Rose live away from him, out of London, in the artificial peace of Beckham, a village where all the cars are new and all is calm, all is bright. Anderson visits Cressida, and his daughter, in their village, and the novel brilliantly captures the way they are together, in darkness, and yet also polite. The historian is trained, after all, trained in not feeling much, and trained in that most exacting of activities: the fault-finding mission. He finds fault with his wife’s hands, old from washing up; with the blankness of her responses; with the local pub that he retreats to whenever he can. He is permanently angry. Angry in London, angry in Beckham, angry in the pub and out of it. And this is the root, for Mary Rose was conceived in a dreadful duet between blankness and anger:
‘Am I hurting you?’ I asked her. She didn’t answer. I looked at her face. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was open and contorted in a ghastly grimace. She seemed to be in agony. Something about her tortured look exasperated me and gave me a spurt of energy. I rammed against her. Something seemed to give. I felt her tearing and Cressida gave a horrible scream. I came very quickly ... Her eyes were still closed but tears were trickling out from under her silky corn-coloured lashes. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered. I detested the way she thanked me. She managed to make me feel that I ought to be thanking her.
But they stayed polite. Polite until little Maurreen Sutton, from the housing estate in Beckham, disappears. Her disappearance is, for others, her first appearance – in the picture of her that is seen, in the papers and on television. She also enters the marriage of Cressida and Rowan.
Who is the guilty man? Rowan Anderson has a mistress in London, Gloria, who is glamorous and greedy. She is an ‘empress’, who gets it when she wants it. But she has also revealed to the historian a desire for children, for marriage. She tells Rowan that she would like a child that looks like him. He has a seizure. And when Maureen Sutton disappears, so does Gloria’s sexual love for Rowan. He seems not to care, is not interested in this little girl, and so cannot be interested in his own. The generalisation carries all before it: men are guilty. They do not care, least of all for their own. As in Edward Albee’s Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the child, imagined or real, is everybody’s child, and is the weapon used by everybody’s parents.
Rowan Anderson is insane in his carelessness, his deadness. But it is a mark of Blackwood’s intelligence that in Cressida she shows other insanities – the insanity of the generalisation, the insanity of maternal protectiveness – that are just as destructive. Cressida sees all men as guilty, and takes her daughter to the scenes of guilt: to the funeral for Maureen Sutton, to the murder spot. She puts Maureen’s picture in Mary Rose’s room, completing the Catholic cycle that began with the conception. A friend tells Anderson about Cressida: ‘She told your daughter she must never trust any man at all. “They can all be bloody killers,” she hissed at the child. ‘Even your own father.” ’ Cressida appropriates the grief of others, insane with zeal, and at the mercy of the single idea. She lectures Mrs Sutton on the horrors of the murder, and Mrs Sutton breaks down. A stranger now to the particular, the actual, she has to complete her terrible, medieval syllogism: all men are killers; my husband is a man ...
As often in Blackwood’s novels, help is there, on the fringes, with dotty aunts and crazy neighbours. Rowan Anderson makes his way through this tangential world of assistance and advice, curiously alive now, attentive to his daughter and to the need to rescue her. He manages the retrieval, but even as he flees away with Mary Rose, away from Cressida’s house, away from Beckham, into the night, along the M2, the historian is inside History. For Mary Rose has her choice too. Without speaking to Mum and Dad, she says no thanks. And when the police arrive, needing their success, Maureen Sutton and Mary Rose can both be seen as victims of the historian. After all, as the police sergeant has it, ‘All my men are family men, sir.’
The fate of Mary Rose? The weakness of the novel is that it can be seen as formulaic: that Mary Rose is not given her chance to protest and survive. There are any number of ways of saying a plague on both your houses, and Mary Rose should not be altogether fated if the novel is altogether to succeed. The determinism is not unlike that in Nicholas Roeg’s film, Don’t look now, and equally to be resisted. The classical finality needs to be fought against: even Scylla and Charybdis can be negotiated.
Caroline Blackwood has joined hands with Anna Haycraft to keep herself, and us, going in another way – with food. Darling, you shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble (dedicated to ‘our daughters’) is a cookery book of a new kind. You can cheat, and enjoy it: do it all at high speed, and still make it delicious. Hard to be keen on ‘family and friends’ after the novel, but many of the recipes, here donated by a gallery of friends and neighbours, are ready and waiting for them. Jonathan and Rachel Miller contribute their Saturday Salad that can increase in size as the friends flood in. Some of them may arrive in the condition of Rowan Anderson when Maureen Sutton was murdered: comatose from drink. The brandy and champagne mix here called ‘Colin’s Killer’ may have been responsible. Most of the drinks seem pretty dangerous but the food is delightful, if a little too much part of the Magimix culture that has taken hold in the metropolis. Guilt is at a minimum, and sensualists can get on with it – i.e. drink and cook at the same time. Olive oil is essential; instant potato has its place; lump-fish roe is caviar, if you think about it.
Children get properly treated – special recipes for them (but not hot curried spam, surely, not even in Beckham). And they get extra thought, too, as they ought: Alan Bennett’s Bread and Butter and Cinnamon Pudding ‘can be served alone as a supper dish for tired children’. And parents get spoiled too: George Mott’s Spinach and Bacon Salad is finished off by adding hot honey. But, for the grown-ups, the final verdict must be harsher. We seem to deserve each other, or at least to deserve to be reminded of hard truths, and Quentin Crisp is on hand to provide the recipe, as we ‘drop in’ on each other. It is the closest that food can come to ashes:
Tibetan Workhouse Soup
I have never cooked seriously either for myself or for anyone else. In the days when I was too poor to eat in restaurants and was besieged by acquaintances even nearer to starvation than I, the most I ever did was to take a saucepan which had been used for a variety of purposes without ever being washed, fill it with water and bring it to the boil. The result was known as Workhouse Soup. As, naturally, very little of this brew was consumed, on subsequent occasions I added to it anything that came to hand. The more ‘acquired’ (nasty) the flavour became, the more distant the places in which I said the recipe had originated. When a consistency of cake and a state of uneatability was reached, I described the dish as Tibetan.
Working on this principle you do not need a great many recipes – just a large number of friends.