Graham Swift’s new novel, like its two predecessors, is about a man who wants to reconstruct the past. In Waterland (1983) this enterprise was conducted – plausibly enough if rather insistently – by a history teacher who saw in his imminent redundancy more than the demotion of his subject. Cutting back on history meant cutting off adults as well as children from the stories about the world that are among their deepest needs. History lies about us in our infancy, and in his case the Fenland child was the father of the pedagogic man. The hero of Out of this World (1988) was a famous photographer of wars and their aftermaths as well as the son of an armaments manufacturer, and neither by chance. As he says, ‘someone has to be a witness, someone has to see.’ Ever After, too, is driven forward by looking backward; maybe, its hero muses, it’s not posterity he’s looking for, but anteriority.
But if history, of this century or the last, is now an established and essential element in Graham Swift’s fiction, he hasn’t become a historical novelist in the way that, say, the late and still lamented J.G. Farrell did. Immersion in the past is never complete (we know, of course, that it never can be); the point of departure remains explicitly in the present. Swift’s characters pursue their researches with such intensity because they have urgent and personal reasons for doing so. They need to suss out the contingencies – historical, topographical, genealogical – which have made them what they are, and which have brought them to their present, critical state. Although sententiousness sometimes threatens, their interest is much more than academic, even when being an academic is or was their profession. Waterland’s epigraph significantly quotes the dictionary definition of historia as not only ‘inquiry, investigation, learning’ and ‘a narrative of past events’, but also as ‘any kind of narrative of past events’, but also as ‘any kind of narrative: account, tale, story’.
Ever After is the story of how Bill Unwin, a former lecturer who after a long interval has returned to what is clearly a Cambridge college as a research fellow, came to attempt suicide. Exactly how and why this occurs is kept back until the novel’s final pages. By then we are beginning to get used to the idea: both his wife and his father have taken their own lives, the one to escape the terminal stages of cancer, the other for reasons that despite his son’s investigations remain finally unclear. Unwin is much possessed by Hamlet, alluded to passim, and the question being versus not being naturally comes up, although whether the Almighty has fixed his canon against self-slaughter doesn’t seem to worry him unduly.
Questions of divine intention do, however, trouble Unwin’s Mid-Victorian ancestor Matthew Pearce, whose papers have come down to him; he is supposed to be editing them. These documents are the source for the historia which counterpoints Bill’s own history. Matthew starts keeping a secret diary after the death of his unhappy child Felix in 1854. This has exacerbated his characteristically Mid-Victorian complaint of Doubt. At first, things had gone well. Although only the son of a Cornish clock-maker, he had got to Oxford, after which he remained level-headed enough to return home and set up as a surveyor. He has a great love of the land itself, as the basis of life, and an inherited trust of the Bible, as the repository of truth. He prospers, marries the Rector’s pretty daughter, has several children; they look like living happily ever after. But a chance meeting with the newly discovered remains of an ichthyosaurus near Lyme Regis begins to erode his confidence, the fossil’s age being incompatible with Biblical account. If Lyell’s Principles of Geology is right, Genesis must be wrong. Other questions begin to insinuate themselves: why, for instance, is nature so unthrifty, over-producing so recklessly only to destroy? His father’s world, in which God himself was the supreme clock-maker, comes to seem as remote as the theological resistance of the Rector is obscurantist. Matthew dares not disturb his wife’s peace of mind – she being one who, when he offers to explain how a steam-engine works, says she would rather admire than wonder – until given an ultimatum by his father-in-law, roused to outraged orthodoxy by the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species. In 1860, Matthew leaves his wife and family for the New World, not much over fifty, the same age as his widower descendant.
Matthew’s anxieties are familiar to the modern student, and of special interest to Unwin’s colleague Potter, a specialist in the relevant field, whose academic career needs refurbishing now that he appears so often on television. Swift has seen to it that Matthew’s prose seems appropriately in period (his observation that ‘a crow is a crow is a crow’ is a rare lapse), and – whether by accident or design – his story touches others in Victorian fiction at several points. His observations during his coach journey back from Oxford to the West Country recall, in compressed form, the view of England in the opening chapter of George Eliot’s Felix Holt; advanced heroes have been having unnerving encounters with seaside fossils since Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, and there’s also the embarrassment of a drunken father at a royal occasion, as in The Mayor of Casterbridge; Mrs Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis also involves an unhappy love story between an engineer, a man of the new age, and a household of traditional pieties; and perhaps Matthew’s ultimate fate at sea echoes the end of Villette. Other period features are dextrously woven in – a glimpse of the great Brunel, designer of Saltash bridge, the local effect of the now-forgotten copper rush in south-west Devon in the 1840s, the alarming arrival of the Great Western railway.
But the Victorians were not Victorians to themselves, as the narrator justly reminds us, and in Ever After Swift insists, as he did in Waterland, on the essential continuum of feeling between ourselves and our forbears. ‘You have to picture the scene,’ says Unwin, even though he knows that as he does so he is making it up. The emotions and circumstances that Unwin infers from Matthew’s diary are made possible by a belief in human community. They have to remain a possibility only – what he chooses to believe: but their authority and their plausibility come from a passionate conviction on the part of both hero and author that if you care enough, and find out enough, you can get under the skin.
All the same, if the novel’s ancient and modern stories are to hang together satisfactoorily we need to sense that the bond between the Victorian man and his descendant is more than a fortuitous demonstration of human solidarity, however worthy. Why, Unwin asks himself, should he feel so possessive about Matthew, and why can’t he bear the idea of Potter getting his hands on his papers? What it comes down to is that he wants to know who Matthew was, just as, by writing the novel, he seeks to discover himself. Otherwise, the two men don’t really have as much in common as the book’s design seems to imply. Their marriages are alike in not being happy ever after, despite the fact that both couples possess in turn Matthew’s father’s wedding gift of a clock with Amor vincit omnia hopefully inscribed on it. However, Matthew’s wife remarries after his apostasy; Unwin’s wife Ruth dies prematurely, at the peak of her career as an actress, the suicidal Cleopatra her last part, because she smokes too much.
Ruth’s quality as a theatrical presence is more asserted than demonstrated; we’re told rather than shown how she could bring a text to life (as Unwin tries to do with Matthew’s papers). Her quality strikes him immediately when he first sees her performing in a Soho club in 1957. They spend their first night together in the Denmark Hotel (Hamlet again). He gives up his lectureship to be her ‘manager’; really, he wants to be with her all the time, even when he has to share her with her audiences. Their relationship is presented with an appealing romantic sincerity; one can accept that after Ruth’s suicide – and reminded of what he has lost by the sexual approaches of Potter’s wife – he should want to follow her example.
In attempting self-slaughter he has another precursor. Unwin’s father, an official in Paris with unspecified duties, shoots himself at the age of 55, leaving a self-indulgent wife twenty years younger. She’s engaged in a vigorous affair with an American younger still called Sam, naturally. Sam is in plastics and believes they have a future as substitutes, becoming one himself when he marries Unwin’s mother. He is something of a satyr compared with the Hyperion that her first husband appears to have been, and, following Hamlet again, Unwin ought to want to take revenge against this transatlantic Claudius. In fact, he can’t help liking him. In return, Sam’s uncomprehending feelings about his stepson are complicated by his guilt over his own brother’s death in the war. The Hamlet references thus come to have less weight than might have been expected.
In the end, and despite its manifestly humane intentions, the different areas of narrative interest in Ever After disperse rather than concentrate attention. Although its varying strands are conscientiously knitted together (so that, for instance, the fellowship which allows Unwin to edit Matthew’s diaries is endowed by Sam), they don’t seem significantly to cohere. The histories of hero, his father, and his Victorian antecedent, can be vivid and affecting in detail, but the jumps from one to the other become unsettling. It would be unfair to the novel’s workmanship to say, echoing James’s almost too famous phrase, that its internal relations stop nowhere, but proliferation does appear to get the better of purpose.