Vol. 30 No. 13 · 3 July 2008

Tickle and Flutter

Terry Castle on the strange career of Maude Hutchins

6202 words

Leaf through old New York Times reviews of the novels of Maude Hutchins – from the 1950s and early 1960s especially, when her reputation was at its height – and one is instantly struck by it: the old-maid-like embarrassment she aroused in her critics. Not one of them could get through an essay about her, it seems, without a biddyish dilation on the carnality of her themes. ‘Maude Hutchins,’ James Kelly wrote in 1955, does ‘as she pleases’ as a novelist and ‘to date what has pleased her most is s-e-x as observed and enjoyed from the feminine vantage point.’ Hutchins, Maxwell Geismar said, was a writer who went about ‘describing casually all the “taboo” subjects that are perhaps better repressed’. ‘A career of this kind,’ Stanley Kauffmann wrote in 1964,

that takes sexual and other sensory pleasures so seriously, is unusual. Many novelists pass through such a period, but there comes a time when ‘then they went to bed’ suffices; or when the bed is to society what war was to von Clausewitz, a continuation of politics by other means. To remain as interested intrinsically in sex as Colette was all her life long, and as Mrs Hutchins continues to be, requires an almost monastic single-mindedness.

Now some of the coquettishness here – s-e-x – is simply that of the time and place. As late as 1964, as the nervous joking reminds us, many of those unbuttoned attitudes we now associate with the ‘sexual revolution’ of the second half of the 20th century had yet fully to infiltrate the world of American letters. Premarital sex and birth control remained inflammatory subjects. Homosexuality and masturbation were largely unmentionable. Mildly explicit works of art could be banned for obscenity (and were). Nude scenes were proscribed in films and on television. It is true that a number of influential mavericks – from Nabokov and Henry Miller to William Burroughs, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and the Beats – had been chipping away at the old taboos. But it still took courage to challenge the stultifying pieties of middlebrow culture. Being a woman didn’t help. (Does it ever?) Over the course of an admittedly strange and somewhat ill-starred career, Maude Hutchins seems to have provoked more than her share of misogynistic sex-baiting and condescension.

Yet in some uneasy degree one may also sympathise with Hutchins’s first critics. There is something peculiar about the novelist’s erotic preoccupations, her almost queasy-making interest in the sensations of embodiment. Witness the first paragraphs of Victorine, the best of the eight, now mostly forgotten novels Hutchins published between 1948 and 1965. The book opens with Hutchins’s heroine, 12-year-old Victorine, on her way to church:

Victorine felt a lovely thrill in her very bones, a sweet taste in her mouth and along the edges of her teeth, and her thighs felt soft and warm and pneumatic to the touch of her palms, even through her gloves, as she walked to church alone. ‘Please, oh, please, oh, please, I want to go alone,’ and They had let her.

‘They’ are Victorine’s oddly named parents, Homer and Allison L’Hommedieu, upper-middle-class denizens of a staid New England village. As official family changeling, Victorine will ignore them for much of the novel, even as her older brother, Costello (shy and broody and horny, ‘as if there were milk in him’), struggles, rather more defiantly, to escape the banality they represent. During the church service itself, after Victorine sucks down a ‘big swallow’ of communion wine, so quickly and avidly that the startled clergyman, the Reverend Fulton-Peate, is unable to tilt the cup back in his usual mincing manner, she feels ‘the colour hit her cheeks and her insides respond to Jesus’ blood at the same time. She felt it like a hot thread exploring her intestines.’ Yikes. No wonder the pale reverend recoils.

It’s all a bit hysterical, of course, like Victorine herself. (She is on the visionary cusp of puberty and desperately trying to avoid growing up.) Yet at the same time it is hard not to feel – however obscurely – the inward sensations described here. The language itself acts as a weird kinaesthetic prompt. As the novel unfolds – delicately alternating between Victorine’s regressive daydreams and the very real sentimental education of Costello – this flagrant appeal to the reader’s own body-world will be both incessant and disquieting. To read Hutchins with any pleasure, and this is both the good news and the bad news, one must be willing to be aroused, if not embarrassed, by her sensual provocations. The embarrassment is part of the plan: it means that you’re alive.

Why this urge to tickle and flutter? (Even Nature is prurient in Hutchins: walking home in the ‘fresh November air’, Victorine imagines the trees by the roadside experiencing that ‘thousand-felt loss, the pinprick severance of uncountable leaves causing tiny lesions and abrasions, a strange inevitable infinite mutilation, pleasurable perhaps, like a passionate itch’.) The Hutchins back story, a baleful one, sheds some light here, both on the vicissitudes of the career and the frank titillations of style. Like other taboo-breaking writers – D.H. Lawrence and Sylvia Plath come to mind – Hutchins seems to have written for some fairly unpleasant emotional reasons, and the wish to mortify her nearest and dearest was no doubt among them. Such difficult wishing may be far more deeply implicated in artistic creation than is often acknowledged. Hutchins was difficult from the start: proud, incorrigible, intransigent and wedded to revenge.

But against whom exactly? Born in 1899 into an old and genteel New York family – her father was Warren McVeigh, editor of the New York Sun, and her mother one of the Phelpses of Long Island – Hutchins was orphaned at an early age and raised by a grandfather and a wealthy aunt. Like the skittish Victorine, she seems to have been lonely and fantastical from the outset. She was also ambitious, highly intelligent and, to judge by photos, strikingly attractive. Art was her first emotional outlet: she began sculpting in her teens and later earned a degree from the Yale School of Fine Arts. In 1925 she received first prize in a competition sponsored by the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design for a daring draped male nude entitled Disarmament.

Over subsequent decades she would work hard – though never with great success – at being a visual artist. She had solo shows in New York and Chicago, carved portrait busts, and had a book of Beardsleyesque silverpoint nudes published in 1932. (The last, a vanity production called Diagrammatics, was a collaboration with the University of Chicago philosophy professor Mortimer Adler, who contributed Gertrude Stein-like nonsense ‘poems’ to accompany Hutchins’s drawings.) But one also gets the sense that none of this added up to much. While scattered references to her can still be found in old art directories – Who’s Who in American Art and the like – Hutchins never received either the praise she thought she deserved, or recognition enough to relieve her increasingly urgent psychic needs.

Nor are the reasons far to seek. From 1921 to 1948 – nearly the first half of her adult life – Hutchins found herself upstaged, maddeningly enough, by an authentic boy wonder. Shortly before she began her college art studies Maude Phelps McVeigh married the precocious, prodigious, ‘collar-ad handsome’ Robert Maynard Hutchins, a brilliant young teacher and law student who became secretary to the Yale Corporation in 1923 at the age of 24. In 1928, soon after receiving his law degree and a professorship, he was made dean of the Law School – the youngest in Yale history. But that was hardly the end of it. The next year, at the age of 30, he was made president of the University of Chicago – the youngest ever in its history. When he and Maude arrived in Hyde Park in 1929, the news was reported around the globe. Hutchins presided over the university for the next two decades, and at the height of his prestige, in the later 1930s, not only was he regarded as an obvious candidate for the Supreme Court, but his most ardent admirers urged him to run for president of the United States.

Neither prospect materialised, however, in part because of the protracted (and ultimately public) collapse of the Hutchinses’ marriage. For all the glamour they exuded – the young Bob and Maude were as tall and beautiful, everyone said, as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald – their 27-year marriage was a union made in hell: the full-bore, martini-sloshing Wasp nightmare. Hutchins’s biographers – worshipful to a man – place most of the responsibility on Maude. She had no interest in the ‘parochial stuffiness’ of academia, one says, and refused to entertain university dignitaries. Whenever ‘poor Bob’ had to attend a presidential function, another says, Maude would throw a ‘window-rattling tantrum’ and threaten to ‘blow the roof off’. She was ‘extravagant’, ‘selfish’ and ‘constitutionally uninterested in most of mankind’. She doted on her Great Dane, Hamlet, but ‘never’ took her own young children out for a walk. (She and Hutchins had three daughters and it’s true: they were mostly shunted off to nannies.) She invited undergraduates, male and female, to model for her in the nude. One of her most embarrassing freaks – or so the story goes – was to send Christmas cards to all the Chicago faculty and trustees featuring a drawing of the Hutchinses’ 14-year-old daughter Franja, nude and in an alarmingly suggestive pose. Reports of even wilder misdeeds crossed the Atlantic: in 1934 Gertrude Stein received a letter from her French friend Bernard Faÿ, then visiting the Midwest, in which he described meeting one of Alice Toklas’s oldest friends, the alluring Bobsy Goodspeed: ‘a good-looking, silly-clever Evanston lady, wife of the foremost trustee and lover of the wife of the president of the University of Chicago’. If the description of Bobsy is accurate, the liaison would have been a hair-raising frolic indeed: Bobsy was president of the Arts Club of Chicago and her husband, Charles Barnett Goodspeed, the trustee in question, a prominent Chicago businessman related to one of the founders of the university, Thomas Wakefield Goodspeed.

Bob Hutchins’s partisans gossip to this day about Maude’s psychic frailties. In a 1990 essay, entitled ‘The Sad Story of the Boy Wonder’, Joseph Epstein, an undergraduate at Chicago in the Hutchins era, compared her both to Zelda Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot’s schizophrenic first wife, Vivienne. She ‘wasn’t meant to be a school-teacher’s wife’, Milton Mayer wrote in 1993; ‘perhaps she wasn’t meant to be anyone’s wife.’ The gentlemanly Hutchins, he concludes, was forced to spend nearly thirty years in an ‘isolated hell’, struggling gamely to ‘keep Maude quiet’, sometimes by pressing colleagues and subordinates to commission expensive portrait busts from her:

A few months after I went to work in the president’s office I discovered, to my fiscal horror, that I had been admitted to this shameful circle. He was willing to employ his silent, shrieking agony not only to duck engagements, not only to generate a generalised sympathy (‘poor Bob’), but to get his hands on money to keep his wife ‘quiet’ – as if Maude Hutchins were in want of repeated sedation and solicitousness.

As ‘poor Bob’ himself later wrote to his friend Thornton Wilder, ‘we had to watch every word because we couldn’t tell what would set my then wife afire.’

One would of course like to know Maude’s side of the story. The biographies of her husband are at present the only substantial sources of information about her. Female self-assertion was not especially prized in the claustrophobic academic world of the 1930s and 1940s – least of all when conjoined with unladylike frankness. Though difficult to live with, her furies seem to have coexisted with a certain majesty and verve. (Later in life she learned to pilot her own plane and made several solo flights around the country.) Alas, like Torvald in A Doll’s House, the punctilious Bob seems to have been ill-equipped to deal with her. Hutchins, one writer says, was ‘infinitely polite’ to women but the politeness masked ‘deep-seated scorn’. His emotional focus was entirely on other men. As one protégé put it, ‘Bob has made homosexuals of us all.’

This Ibsenesque misery came to an end – finally – when Bob Hutchins moved abruptly into a Chicago hotel one night in 1947. Maude never saw him again. She was forced to sue for divorce on the grounds of desertion, and though she received a hefty alimony settlement, her mortification was intense. (Every detail of the payout was reported in the New York Times.) Within the year her ex-husband married his secretary, a docile young lady called Vesta, twenty years his junior, who seemed happy to play the role of conventional academic consort. Maude, meanwhile, retreated with her two younger daughters to Southport, Connecticut, where she spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity. When Robert Maynard Hutchins died, some thirty years after the divorce, she refused to comment on him, saying: ‘It is all still too painful.’ In 1991 she died in turn, virtually forgotten.

Such private ordeals no doubt prompted in some degree Maude Hutchins’s sudden turn towards prose fiction. She had published a few ‘experimental’ poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s – James Laughlin included several in his early New Directions anthologies – but it was the defection of the boy wonder that seems to have changed her, almost overnight, from dabbler in the avant-garde to serious writer. Her first novel, Georgiana, appeared in 1948, the year of her divorce, and was quickly followed by A Diary of Love (1950), Love Is a Pie (1952), My Hero (1953), The Memoirs of Maisie (1955), Victorine (1959), Honey on the Moon (1964), Blood on the Doves (1965) and The Unbelievers Downstairs (1967). She published stories and poems in the New Yorker, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Harper’s Bazaar and other popular magazines, and later collected some of her short fiction in The Elevator (1962).

And thus the work of vengeance: after almost three decades of uneasy cohabitation, an AWOL husband was not to be forgotten, let alone forgiven. Hutchins’s bawdiness was a central element in the payback: what better way for a cast-off spouse to embarrass Mr Perfect than by publishing smutty novels? (‘The permissive doctrines of Freud,’ one of Robert Maynard Hutchins’s biographers intones, ‘were anathema’ to the sober educator, and ‘the sensual works of Lawrence one of the things … wrong with the world.’) The tactic got results: Hutchins’s A Diary of Love – a rather too whimsical exploration of the erotic fantasies of a young woman undergoing a cure for tuberculosis in an Arizona sanitorium – was very nearly prosecuted for obscenity in Illinois in 1950. In Victorine Hutchins is more artful, but no less outrageous. Even as she regales the reader with provocative material – the heroine’s juvenile visions of beautiful ‘Jesus God’ (in ‘pale blue diaper’), her Lolita-like encounters with various sexed-up local tramps and hired men, or the lascivious three-way tickling match she gets into with ‘dearest Costello’ and Lydia Van Zandt, the blowsy teenage tomboy who lives down the street – one can imagine the novelist relishing, at least in daydream, her pompous ex-husband’s discomfiture.

Yet it’s hard not to see the ex-wife’s rage and regret. Towards the end of Victorine Hutchins embeds what is, I believe, a melancholy self-portrait in the figure of Magda Smith, the attractive and mysterious newcomer to the village who in the book’s climactic scene (and only real piece of extended ‘plotting’) seduces the youthful Costello. Thin, dark, short-haired and made up like a demi-mondaine, Magda has been abandoned by a caddish husband and according to the village gossips is ‘sitting out’ the finalisation of her divorce. She fills the empty summer days playing with the local children (who adore her) and demonstrating ‘furious’ high dives – jackknifes and backflips and great walloping half nelsons – off the big platform at the local beach. With her kohl-rimmed eyes, scarlet toenails and seductive laugh, Magda brightens the small-town scene around her ‘with primary colours’. But her nights are another matter: ‘At night quantities of sleeping pills did not censor the insidious return of him, that Smith, who had despoiled her and left her to rot, and she moaned and tossed in a nightmare of ambivalence, love and hatred, spellbound as a spider helpless in a shining web made of her own spittle, crucified and naked.’

Maude Hutchins

‘Rot’ is a strong word: you can only write such a paragraph, perhaps, if you’ve lived it. (Here and elsewhere in Victorine, a certain baroque female anguish, painfully compressed into sentences, can sometimes bring Djuna Barnes to mind.) Yet Hutchins also reimagines – and rewrites – her own story through Magda’s. Almost as soon as she grants Magda a boy lover so virginal and ravishing one wants to cry just thinking about him – playing tennis in newly-pressed flannels, snowy white sneakers and ‘spotless’ T-shirt, Costello is a sort of teenage Lohengrin – she reunites deserted wife with errant husband. Though Magda’s return to Smith shatters Costello – she leaves town without warning – we must assume it gives both her and her creator some measure of gratification. Considered in the light of Hutchins’s own life, it seems like pure wish fulfilment. Not only is Magda allowed to deflower a luscious boy-god, she gets him back too – Satan in slacks, the one you love enough to kill, or be killed by.

None of which is to say that Hutchins’s novel need be read solely as displaced autobiography. Like similar forays by Barnes, Jane Bowles or Carson McCullers, Victorine makes its claim on us precisely because it transcends whatever idiosyncratic psychic turmoil it may once have registered. No, Hutchins will never please readers who judge Flaubertian self-effacement essential to literary greatness. She’s far too present in her book – too much of a madcap and a tease. Yet along with all the oddity and narcissism, Victorine has its own feral brilliance.

The brilliance is at least threefold. The book’s first claim is literary-historical: Victorine is a quirky, yet pliant example of the classic American Bildungsroman, one everywhere quickened by surreal touches and bathed in a Kodachrome 1950s glow. Gleaming with metallic reds, gold and copper highlights, umbrous browns and warm peach flesh tones, Hutchins’s colour schemes make for the same sumptuous, saturated mise en scène one finds in the film melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Though no doubt peculiar in some of its details, Hutchins’s portrait of adolescence and its intensities places her firmly in the cherishable American line of Twain, Cather, Salinger, Updike, Capote, McCullers, Welty and Tobias Wolff.

Victorine is a precocious child-woman in the mode of Frankie in The Member of the Wedding: intrigued by adult secrets but terrified to plumb them too deeply. At 16, her brother Costello is further along in the developmental process – male, stronger, less intimidated – yet has in his own way just as much innocence to lose. By contrasting Victorine’s resistance with Costello’s vulnerability, Hutchins gives the conventional allegory of emotional growth an androgynous double twist, dramatising anew the curious stuttering process by which girls become women and boys become men.

The novel’s second claim might loosely be called a philosophical one. Like every worthwhile novelist from Defoe to J.M. Coetzee, Hutchins offers a bold and sometimes painful endorsement of psychological truth-telling. Victorine L’Hommedieu’s favourite ‘man-god’ may be Jesus Christ (at least till someone better comes along) but Maude Hutchins’s seems to have been Freud, the early 20th century’s painful-truth-teller par excellence. Freud’s popular reputation was at its zenith in America in the 1940s and 1950s and everything about Hutchins’s fiction suggests she was a true believer. (The contumely of ‘squares’, such as her ex-husband, no doubt made the allegiance all the more piquant.) In the admirable frankness with which she treats Victorine’s central topic, the acquisition of sexual knowledge, Hutchins both adapts the theory in her own antic manner and pays homage to Freud’s eminently unromantic view of human nature.

Granted, one’s heart sinks a bit as the fact hits home. Victorine is full of what used to be called ‘Freudian’ jokes and symbols – starting with an outré little jest in the title itself. Besides being a name, the term victorine – so the OED informs us – is also a word for a ‘kind of fur tippet worn by ladies, fastened in front of the neck and having two loose ends hanging down’. Hutchins, alas, knows all about it. Midway through the novel, having just fled an unsettling sapphic encounter with Lydia Van Zandt (whose crush on Costello doesn’t keep her from horsing around with his little sister), Victorine is shown afterwards in her room, pensively examining an old doll. The doll is one of a dozen or so relegated to a toy chest – ‘semi-clothed, naked, sprawling uncomfortably, indecently intertwined … as if an atrocity had buried them’ – and forgotten about till now:

As if in a dream of an earlier self Victorine lifted the prettiest one gently out and hugged it to her breast. Fishing about among the others she found a jacket, a bonnet, a tippet and a muff, with all of which she adorned the senseless doll. She washed its face and combed its hair. After that she carefully undressed it again, speaking all the while in a caressing undertone, and wrapped it in a shawl. On tiptoe she showed it the sunset and then, careful not to let the little rocker squeak on a loose board, she rocked the doll to sleep. Its eyes shut down with a click and she kissed its slippery cheek.

When her toying is interrupted by someone calling her name, ‘she couldn’t have felt guiltier if she had been caught naked in the most self-indulgent act of all.’

In dream and fantasy, Freud proposed in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, fur typically stands for ‘the hairiness of the mons veneris’. Fiddling with her doll’s victorine – and used thus the word sounds lewd enough – is Victorine somehow replaying the scene with Lydia? Or worse yet: playing with herself? The coarse symbolism at once underlines the pubescent Victorine’s guilty pleasure in masturbation – the ‘spot thrill’ she discovers every night ‘between her legs’ – and hints at her psychological dilemma. Like Dora in the famous case history, Victorine is ‘lost in her feelings as thoroughly as in the backwoods’, caught between her curiosity about Eros and her fear of it. For a girl-child suspended in this ambiguous transitional phase – the part of early adolescence Freud dubbed the latency period – a weirdly sexualised doll would seem to be the perfect sublimation-toy. Though Victorine knows quite well what’s what, she retreats into babyish disavowal whenever possible. It’s all very Psych 101 – and spectacularly vulgar.

Tippets notwithstanding, when it came to delineating the intimate psychic forces shaping bourgeois family life, Hutchins, like Freud, lacked neither courage or candour. In Victorine the seemingly conventional L’Hommedieu home turns out to be a hothouse of ‘unspeakable’ desires. Which isn’t to say that any of the grown-ups in the novel are prepared to admit it. Parents come off badly in Victorine, as both repressive and profoundly stupid. Thus the unflattering portrait of Victorine and Costello’s father, Homer, a hypocritical philanderer whose ultra-banal motto is ‘put nothing in writing.’ Even as he debates how to shut up his ex-mistress – she’s come to the house in the hope of blackmailing him – he remains farcically oblivious to the sexy agitation evident in both of his older offspring. Though treated with more sympathy, Homer’s invalid wife, Allison, seems scarcely more perceptive: she has long blinded herself to her husband’s duplicities and taken permanently to her chaise-longue. She’s a frigid, second-tier Clarissa Dalloway type, solipsistic and ‘unpossessable’, but without that character’s gaiety and cool intelligence. (‘Homer was her only blunder. How she loved him!’) She is bored and irritated by her children and has no idea what’s going on either inside or outside the family circle. When at the novel’s end Homer’s cover is blown – all his dull mendacities revealed – Allison, we learn, goes ‘into a decline’, though it’s hard to see how someone who’s been flatlining for years could decline any further.

Hutchins, like some nutty bohemian aunt, has no time for such inertness. Her motto might as well be ‘put everything in writing’ – above all, the tragicomic pathos of the American nuclear family. ‘Dearest Costello’ provides her with the most lucid way into this subject and from the middle of the novel on she pays him ever more conspicuous attention. This shift away from Victorine, it should be admitted, is not entirely unwelcome. Once you ‘get’ Victorine’s problem (I’m not ready to grow up yet!) and track a few of her hysterical refusals, there’s not too much else to learn about her. Her sporadic encounters with local oddballs like ‘Fool Fred’, the simpleton son of the village grande dame, have a surreal, Alice in Wonderland quality to them, but can’t be said to be emotionally involving. Victorine is suspended in a mental cocoon, lost in her ‘self-centred dream’, and after a while even Hutchins seems to tire of her. Certainly the reader does.

Costello, by contrast, is both sharply attuned to others and quietly thrumming with fascinating ardours. Hutchins, predictably enough, empathises fully with this ‘tempestuous son of Homer’. Though shy and polite to his elders, Costello is fraught with Oedipal tumult: when Homer warns him not to get Lydia Van Zandt ‘in trouble’, Costello is so irrationally incensed he moves impulsively as if to strike his father (‘it was patricide he wished for’). He lusts haplessly after various sexy mother surrogates, the first and worst of them being his father’s own cast-off mistress, Millie. When the nefarious Millie, hoping to ‘get even with Homer’, lures Costello to her flat and tries to seduce him, she plays low-rent Jocasta to his dumbstruck Oedipus. Dazed by her overture (‘as if she had given him a Mickey Finn’), he manages to wriggle away towards the door. ‘Millie gave a raucous, mean laugh. “Your father didn’t have any trouble!” she said. He had gently opened the door, she knew he was really leaving, and she wanted to get at him, hurt him bad. “Your father …” she repeated, “your father was a man – he … why, you little fairy!”’ Ouch and ouch again. It will take all the ministrations of Magda Smith to rectify the ruthless snip-snip performed here.

Yet of all the erotic ‘truths’ exposed in Victorine the most striking, if not sensational, involve Costello and Victorine. The bond between the L’Hommedieu siblings is from the start a paradoxical one – at once lyrical and bumptious, chaste and carnal. It inspires some of Hutchins’s most subtle writing. Still, even a 21st-century reader may be shocked by how flagrantly she eroticises the relationship. Other fixations notwithstanding, Costello is plainly in love with Victorine, and Victorine, in her own dopey and half-conscious way, knows it. Hutch-ins seems to delight in the sheer perversity of the situation. Almost as soon as Costello is introduced – at the end of Chapter 1 – she plunges in with her usual dizzying indiscretion:

His sister’s beauty teased him. He longed to find her weakness and put his finger on it. He wanted at the moment to muss her up, turn her upside down, pull her hair and chew her ears as he used to when they were small. How she had fought back! And then how suddenly she had become limp in his arms, her eyes darkening, her wet mouth shining and he would let go of her, frightened.

No avoiding the disturbing news here: tickling one’s sister can turn – in a single uncanny instant – to forbidden passion. Whether it will remains to be seen: the point is it can.

Maude Hutchins

A bit later on Hutchins explains why Victorine has sought to bring such scary-delicious play to an end:

How did she know that the time had come for them to separate? … Well, their childish games had given Victorine, perhaps, an insight, or else, as her love for him blossomed under the intimacy of their rough-housing, the play that gives a skin trust, better than anything else, brother and sister blood kin, she withdrew because it was too much for her.

The incestuous contacts of infancy and childhood provide the model, quite literally, for sensuality itself. ‘Skin trust’ – the feeling of physical plenitude that is ‘better than anything else’ – is passed on directly from parent to child or between ‘brother and sister blood kin’. Can such primal arousal ever be forgotten? Not likely, according to Hutchins: it functions as a necessary psychic imprinting. Though the older Victorine will probably suppress any memory of Costello’s ‘wild brotherly embrace’, it will shape her adult desires. The logic is impeccably Freudian but no less controversial for that. Indeed, in this brother-sister variant on Freud’s celebrated (and much reviled) family romance – that ‘parable too hot to print’ – sibling amorosity finds perhaps its most unabashed literary champion since Byron or Emily Brontë.

Yet none of this assertiveness would count for much, of course, without the collateral gratifications of style, and Victorine’s most important claim on us is stylistic. Like it or not – and some may not – Maude Hutchins can write with perverse and often disquieting power. Merely by deploying a few extraordinary images, she manages to characterise Allison, for example, in a manner at once poetic, doom-laden and precise. On her wedding night, we learn, Allison reminded her new husband of a dead child, ‘her lips full and turned up at the corners, her skin moist and soft, her hair sticking to her temples, wet, like a drowned girl.’ Later, as a tremulous wife, she had eyes ‘dark as lawn mushrooms underneath and as big and as infinitely divisible into segments as their softly breathing gills are’. And now, twenty years on, pampered and supine and dimly perusing her copy of the Heptameron, she is pitifully unaware of the marital catastrophe ‘building up like giant cumulus along the horizon’.

Hutchins can also be droll in a dry, oblique, old-money ‘Yankee’ way. Lydia Van Zandt, cracking her gum and mad in pursuit of Costello, supplies some of Victorine’s most risible (and Cheeverish) moments, as when she plants herself on top of the piano in the L’Hommedieu living-room (‘like a third bunch of chrysanthemums’) and tries to entice him to her by tinkling on the instrument with her toes:

Nimbly her strong bare toes picked out the notes of a strange little tune that she was making up as she went along. She just managed to reach the keyboard by arching her feet like a dancer’s and her calves rippled with the effort. She had pulled her jeans up over her knees and her legs were still brown from the summer on the beach, with short gold hairs that caught the sunlight from the window, too. But Costello had no interest in Lydia at all, he did not look up from his book … ‘Meany,’ she said, ‘I hate you.’

Closeted with Victorine later on, Lydia affirms her passion in the tough-girl lingo of the Hollywood gangster moll: ‘he’s my man … I like to chase him, and I’ll catch him, too, there’s no hurry.’ In the novel’s last pages, when Lydia does catch him, at least for the time being, one is glad for her.

Sometimes Hutchins is plain old weird – and great. She is never afraid to unload a freakish image or metaphor. When Costello first encounters Millie, for example, and helps her restart her broken-down car, her eyes seem ‘painted on with luminous paint like the instruments on the panel’. Speculating (inaccurately) about the sex life of the newly arrived Magda, sundry villagers indulge in the ‘spaceship talk of the slightly over middle-aged’. After Costello has been initiated by Magda, Costello’s virginity is ‘as obsolete as his slingshot’. And later, mourning her departure, he looks like ‘an angel guarding someone’s tomb’.

Elsewhere Hutchins piles on the clauses – at the risk of a grammatical train wreck – yet somehow manages to triumph. When Victorine returns from church, giddy from her ‘holy cocktail at the Lord’s table’, she is disgusted to find the family hen and rooster mating in the yard. Hutchins begins by mocking her – with the funkiest of subjunctives – then launches into some run-on sibylline wisdom:

Poor Victorine, it looked as if her whole Sunday was used up preparing her for a sexual act and it had taken place in the barnyard, played by very minor stage-hands. Well, the greedy ardour and the final mounting disgust can surely be described as merely physical like too much lobster, and no harm has been done by the extraneous to her soul. A good and dreamless sleep in which she plays no part at all, the sleep of the young and the good and the exhausted, will purify her heart and give her strength for other daylight nightmares – the big exaggeration of real life that does seem to the very young like a king-sized, out-of-drawing and hypnagogic bad dream, as if the lenses in their eyes were borrowed from colts and fillies, and the very size of the extravaganza, the enormity of it, implied hostility.

Nothing in the zany, unfurling last sentence should work, but it does. Yes, the ‘hypnagogic bad dream’ is unfortunate, but by the time we have worked through the amazing gothic-surreal image that follows, of terrorised ‘colts and fillies’ who lend Victorine their own distorting ‘lenses’, the emotional situation has become luminous and arresting. Subjectivity can indeed be a nightmare, Hutchins intimates; syntax itself can barely contain it. Better to acknowledge the ‘enormity’ of ‘real life’ and attempt to understand the heroine’s quixotic responses.

And how, in the end, to understand Maude Hutchins? We need to know a great deal more about her. Reading her, I confess, I sometimes feel like one of those comical babies at the public tennis court in Chapter 13, who lie in their perambulators, ‘waiting patiently to grow up’. Despite the warmth, the sunshine, the deceptively Nabokovian locale, I can’t quite see enough of the surrounding scenery to make sense of it. What is going to happen to Victorine and Costello? What recompense for Magda? And why Victorine’s crazy last name: L’Hommedieu? Hutchins leaves us out there in our prams as we struggle to place both novel and novelist in some familiar or stabilising context.

And yet in another way both novel and novelist do give us enough – enough to be getting on with. For all of her fugues and vagaries, we sense in Hutchins – as also perhaps in her heroine – an underlying psychic viability. ‘Without appearing to pay attention,’ Hutchins says of Victorine, ‘seemingly lost in dreams, well, her mind made a recording of essential stuff.’ The assertion is reassuring. Hutchins too can appear ‘lost in dreams’; elsewhere, out of it, like someone with an idée fixe. The dreams are usually embarrassing too: just like real dreams. In her more prurient moments, reading Hutchins can be fairly mortifying: when she goes off on one of her semi-pornographic riffs, you don’t know if you are blushing more for her or for yourself. All you know is she gets into bed inside your head and wants to make love with you.

And yet in the end something essential has been recorded. It has everything to do with arousal and stimulation – the sublimity of not sublimating. There are no real recordings or recording devices mentioned in Victorine: no one listens to an LP (available in the US after 1948); no one watches a flickering, clattering, 1950s-style home movie; nobody’s father – certainly not Homer L’Hommedieu – gets hold of one of those behemoth reel-to-reel tape machines first marketed in the 1950s to enterprising male audiophiles. True, at the very end of the novel Lydia Van Zandt is singing snatches from the Rodgers and Hart song ‘Spring Is Here’ (popularised by the 1948 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film Words and Music), suggesting that new forms of recording and playback are in fact part of the novel’s social context. But Hutchins mostly avoids technological references, opting instead for a more rusticated, Norman Rockwell-like, seemingly timeless fictional atmosphere.

Yet Hutchins is clearly obsessed with the power of ‘recording’ – literary, artistic, musical – to transfer feeling from one person to another. What excited her about writing novels, one suspects, was the way language could be used to induce in others those visceral sensations otherwise internal to the self. This process of registering, articulating and retransmitting feeling – the creative process – was no doubt a largely narcissistic activity for her, part of a psychic compulsion to keep the intimate sense-world of the self ‘alive’ in the face of rejection and personal frustration. Yet as Costello L’Hommedieu discovers with Magda Smith, such narcissistic pleasure-seeking can also give intense pleasure to others. To judge by Victorine, Maude Hutchins was apparently so accomplished a narcissist – so good, alas, at playing with herself – it may be time to start playing back.

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Vol. 30 No. 15 · 31 July 2008

Terry Castle refers to the ‘great walloping half nelsons’ in the diving repertoire of Maude Hutchins’s heroine Magda Smith (LRB, 3 July). Half gainers, maybe. A half nelson is a wrestling hold, not a dive. I just tried a half nelson out on my wife and she found it a bit painful but neither great nor walloping.

Charles Alverson

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