‘Oh! Its only a novel ... only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ A hundred years elapsed before Lawrence spoke of novels with equal warmth or extravagance – the one bright book of life, etc – and an hour or two browsing in John Sutherland’s Victorian Fiction will be enough to persuade most readers that not many novelists of that century wrote the bright book of life, or quite came up to the standard set, unless Jane Austen is way over the top, by Fanny Burney. It is generally assumed that these lofty claims have little relation to run-of-the-mill fictions of the kind that Booker judges have lately been ploughing through.
And yet it can be argued that even in the present state of things the novel may be the best available instrument of ethical enquiry; that its own extraordinary variety of means equips it as our best recorder of human variety, even at a time when biography is challenging that position; and that its capacity for wit and humour and poetry continues to exist and even to expand. This doesn’t mean that a sequel to Sutherland won’t contain hundreds of imitative, spiritless and feeble-minded duds; all it suggests is that in respect of imaginative power the better practitioners are more remarkable than is sometimes believed. They aren’t necessarily gigantic intellects, though it would certainly do no harm if they were. Joyce said he had the mind of a grocer’s assistant, but he knew how to use its powers as well as its limitations. The point is that good novelists have found the medium to be one in which they can make unusual sense, a medium which bears them delightedly up, confers on them a self-disciplined freedom that can astonish the land-bound observer.
These unoriginal reflections arise from a reading of Rose Tremain’s new novel. In the opinion of the Booker judges there are at least six recently published novels better than this one, and if they are right we are rich indeed. Ms Tremain, I see from the jacket copy, is employed in Norwich to teach other people to do Creative Writing. Reading her, you feel she must know exactly how to go about this notoriously difficult task, and that she would do it by encouraging her pupils to immerse themselves in a potentially destructive element and either discover that it bears them up, or sink. Sadler’s Birthday, her first novel, less adventurous than her latest but still very accomplished, appeared in 1976. The central figure of Sadler’s Birthday is a retired butler who has inherited the house in which he had, indispensably, served – not an obvious choice of theme for a young woman’s first novel, but expertly handled. Over the years since that debut she has become, by means of exercise and research, a genuine virtuoso.
It is difficult to give any real notion of the story of Sacred Country without making it sound daft or tedious. It is primarily about the life of a girl called Mary, beginning when she was six. She is standing with her family in a cold Suffolk field – Tremain often revisits Suffolk – trying to observe two minutes’ silence for the funeral of George VI. The time is extended by her father’s inability to judge time by his faulty watch. Like most of the characters, the father is pretty odd; unlike most of them, he is also capable of brutality. He has had an ear shot off in the war, and later becomes a drunk. During the funeral silence the six-year-old Mary has formed the view that she is really a boy. Her father responds to Mary’s pubescent attempts to stifle her nascent breasts by ripping off the restraints and beating her. Mary’s mother Estelle is no less strange. When we meet her, she is working parachute silk on her beloved machine and has sewn her hair into the silk. She spends a lot of time in a psychiatric hospital. Mary has a brother who might have been an Olympic swimmer but doesn’t develop his talent because his mother wanted him to be a diver, and he hates diving. Eventually he becomes a parson.
Given the oddity of her kin, Mary is pretty normal except for this secret conviction that she is really a boy; it becomes the purpose of her life to be male, or as male as biological circumstances allow, hence the testosterone injections and the mastectomy. Most of the inhabitants of this part of the world explain in one way or another why crude Essex men traditionally talk, I’m told, about ‘silly Suffolk’. Tremain’s county is as weird, though less malign, than T.F. Powys’s Dorset; whether the influence is conscious or not, I think Powys is part of the genetic inheritance of this kind of novel.
Some of the characters are good people who know what their place in life is – the schoolmistress Miss MacRae, whose capacity for making strange but telling observations owes something to Miss Brodie, as indeed her creator owes something to Miss Brodie’s. When Miss MacRae tells the children to bring something precious to school and explain why it’s precious, Mary brings the cleaning woman’s baby, Pearl. (Later she wishes, when she becomes a man, to marry Pearl.) Miss MacRae tends to say wise things, as when Mary is struggling to confide her secret wish for maleness: ‘If it’s not too heavy to bear, you must keep it.’ Another inhabitant is a boy called Walter, of limited intellect but with a gift for Country and Western. He plays records with an amiable and generous nut called Pete, who lives in a disused trolley-bus. Walter hopes, not quite in vain, to become a singing star in Nashville, Tennessee. Then there is Mr Harker, who makes cricket bats. Believing in the transmigration of souls, he is sure he was a nun in his previous existence. And there is Estelle’s sad, benign father ...
There are many more characters, not all Suffolk – some live in Tennessee – and the story takes them up to 1980. Much of the time Mary thinks and talks, Estelle also thinks and talks, sometimes the story anonymously does the talking. Meanwhile everything gets more and more peculiar but continues to be registered with much accuracy and resource. ‘She had a simpering expression on her face, like someone behind a counter trying to sell liberty bodices’; the date is 1957, probably the very end – maybe, deliberately, somewhat after the end – of the era of the liberty bodice. When Walter, the future Nashville star, goes to the fair and gets his fortune told by Madame Cleo he asks her: ‘Can you do spells?’ Yes, she says, for two guineas, and undresses. ‘Walter understood. He took a deep, terrified breath. The feeling of having swallowed a man became so profound that he thought he might choke and die.’ One of the patients at the psychiatric hospital was a jockey ‘until he fell on his head at Chepstow’. We feel it is quite right for us to be informed of the exact racecourse. In 1958 TV addicts are watching Dixon of Dock Green and organising their lives around What’s my line? (‘What’s my line?’, incidentally, could be a subtitle of this book) and Pick of the Pops. In 1966 it is the World Cup, and Geoff Hurst becomes the object of a hopeless love.
Among the more peripheral characters there is a gay dentist who is tempted out of the closet when he treats Walter for what used to be called pyorrhea. Tremain often goes on about smells. This affliction, which causes unbearably bad breath, is associated in Walter’s mind with visits from the minatory ghost of his butcher grandfather. These cease when the gay dentist restores his mouth to beauty and freshness. More disagreeable, less remediable events occur: a butcher, rising early, accidentally chops off his fingers and expires from loss of blood before anybody else gets up. The dentist’s nurse falls frostily dead. Indeed, there are quite a number of deaths, as might be expected.
At the centre of all the queer, imperiously wanton detail is the long tale of Mary’s quest for manhood. She seeks help from an agony aunt:
I am a woman of 21. Or rather, my body is a woman’s body, but I have never felt like a woman or colluded with my body’s deceit. In my mind, I am, and have been from childhood, male. This belief is an ineradicable thing. I am in the wrong gender. I dress as a man. I loathe my breasts and all that is female about me. I have never been sexually attractive to a man. I do not even dream of Sean Connery.
The little surprise at the end of this is a reminder that the book is often funny, even when it deals with the virtually mad, as in the hospital scenes. It is part of the game that nothing is said quite straight. The immediate consequence of Mary’s letter to the newspaper is that she becomes the lesbian lover of the ghastly agony aunt. But she does succeed in becoming ‘Martin’, passes as a man of that name, gets to London, works in a coffee-bar and then on a little magazine run by a nice South African. Dedicating herself to the ambition of masculinity, eliminating as best she can the shadow between her biology and her ambition to be otherwise gendered, she winds up with Walter in Tennessee as, beyond challenge, Martin.
This selection from the whirl of events probably gives a sense of an irresponsible imaginative fling. But the book isn’t really like that; it is, at its core, controlled and serious; it has what Lawrence would have called a ‘metaphysic’, though it struggles, by its profligacy of act and character, against that burden. In the end, it is not false to its solemn epigraphs. They cite St John of the Cross: ‘I live without inhabiting/Myself’; Hamlet’s ‘Seems, madam? Nay, it is’; and Eliot’s ‘Between the idea/And the reality ... Falls the Shadow.’ The point is not that the novel was written to endorse these remarks; indeed I’d guess they were chosen after the book was written, or at any rate along the way. The quotation from St John of the Cross tells us that the uncomplaining struggle of Mary-Martin to inhabit herself represents, after the fact, as it were, a kind of sainthood; that her ultimate state, as a man who is not a man, is nonetheless an authentic collocation of being and seeming, which, if you want, may be thought an emblem of the way people in general seem and are. The ‘shadow’ can represent the life of Mary-Martin, caught in the desert between sexes as people are continually stranded between the opposing forces of desire and reality. As a girl, Mary was quite a good conjuror, which calls for a trained understanding of the difference between appearance and reality. Her father put a stop to her conjuring acts when she removed the blades of his lawnmower to make imitation swords, needed for a trick in which her brother would crouch in a box singing angelically while she seemed to pierce him with swords.
Good novelists claim as a traditional entitlement that their readers should make a substantial contribution to their enterprises. If what they are doing calls from them a large exercise of imagination, displaying the full powers of their minds in a happy delineation of the varieties of human nature – then we must accept that the demand their performances make on us is one of the criteria by which we distinguish the real thing from the easy substitute.
Describing the events of 1972 there is a chapter called ‘Transillumination’. This refers to Pearl’s studies, for she wants above all to be a dental nurse. Transillumination, it turns out, is not, as Mary conjectures, ‘something hidden in the past which suddenly becomes clear’, but a dentist’s method ‘of detecting a mesial or distal cavity’. It is a bright light that, placed against the crown of a tooth, reveals the cavity as a dark shadow’. One admires Tremain for knowing this as well as so much else, but I do not wholly believe Pearl’s denial of Mary’s interpretation. Here is the shadow, the cavity; the fiction is the bright light that reveals it. The fiction is about all the shadows that lurk in all lives, including the shadow of death.
None of this means that Tremain’s novel is a Middlemarch or an Anna Karenina. It is not a comparable ethical exercise, its clever loops and echoes, its surprising inventions, are in the end agents of remoteness; they tempt one to feel that these plights are not ours, that the pull of human behaviour away from the moral or even away from the sane is not really ours, being proper to silly Suffolk or silly Nashville. Yet one perfectly respectable reason for admiring a novel is the wonder one may feel at the sheer quantity of the world the writer knows and can put down in her story. Very few have known as much as Tolstoy and George Eliot, but you can know less and still know an amazing amount. And that is what one feels about this book, unless one is a competition judge, deafened by the claims of a hundred others. Of course, it is ‘only a novel’, but so admirably expert, so serious, so compassionately knowing in its slightly modish way, that I should have thought no decently expert reader could withhold some admiration for it.