Women and the Novel

Marilyn Butler

  • Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis
    Hutchinson, 256 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 09 156240 6

Like Norman Mailer in America, Kingsley Amis has made a career out of being nasty to women. Even in the days of low consciousness, Lucky Jim had liberals protesting at its treatment of the academic spinster Margaret, a woman whose sole offence was to be physically unattractive to young men. As the woman question has grown more noticeable, Amis’s gallery of male chauvinists has grown too, until in Stanley and the Women he has created a world in which only men appear to communicate with one another, and their favourite topic is their dislike of women.

For nearly three hundred years, the notional reader of the mainstream novel has been a woman, not a man. (It takes a specialised genre, like fantasy of the James Bond type, or Science Fiction, actively to posit a male reader; perhaps that is why Amis is interested in both.) The classic field of novels, domestic life and its relationships, used to be described as a microcosm of the greater world, but of course it wasn’t: the home was unique, the one sphere in which the woman reader could feel at home, and the woman character could act decisively. From Moll Flanders and Clarissa onwards, women have supplied, at least as often as men, the novel’s models of virtue and heroism. Against the tradition of all those fictional women who are vessels of consciousness, and keepers of conscience, Amis can get a shock effect merely by withholding the thoughts of his women characters, who seem, here as elsewhere in his novels, to have little social altruism, and no inner life at all. And shock effects are what this parodic woman’s novel seems initially all about.

The title proclaims another skirmish in the sex war, and an unprepossessing jacket reinforces this theme: an unnaturally small, weakly-looking male, the hero, Stanley Duke, is threatened by a half-circle of four towering women. The blurb beckons to women to read, in order to be outraged: ‘it is not a book that is likely to win many prizes for fairness or fashionable social attitudes.’ It is certainly not a book that is likely to win many prizes for accurate representation of itself. After the coat-trailing comes a sensitive, thoughtful and open-minded novel. What can be discerned of social philosophy seems humane, non-doctrinaire, neither radical nor Thatcherite, but clearly preferring state intervention to the-devil-take-the-hindmost. On this showing, the worst that can be said of Amis’s disposition towards his women readers is that he mischievously hopes to make fools of them, by showing them in advance how to read him superficially.

It would have to be a superficial reading that perceived this novel as an anti-feminist tract. A good feminist book, according to one current dictum, is a book that inverts the feminine stereotype: instead of depicting women as passive and subordinate, as in current society and in literature they generally are, a feminist book depicts them as authoritative, so that it presents women with wholesome models to follow, and men with objects of chastening respect, or terror. Stanley, whose surname Duke recalls notions of status and of a male hierarchy, spends the novel lamenting his lot as the perennial victim of women who are self-centred, bossy, exploitative and vengeful. Amis’s subject is not man’s objective hold on power in our times, but his morale; tougher-minded women readers are going to feel gratified rather than insulted by Stanley’s witness, because he is delightfully demoralised. A somewhat less polemic definition of a feminist book is one that exposes the formative influence of the arbitrary concept of gender on our thinking. Relevantly again, Stanley spends the novel contrasting the characteristics of women with those of men – who to him represent the human norm – for the purpose of getting women declared constitutionally, generically mad. This must be one of the most persuasive accounts in fiction of a mind imprisoned in received categories, a condition so impenetrable to evidence and common sense that it might itself be labelled delusory, except that much of the population shares it.

Two sets of polarities, male and female, healthy and sick, are giving consistency to Amis’s work in mid-career. This is the third of his novels to turn on the threat women are offering to male confidence. The Alteration (1976) imagined an England that might have been. If the Reformation had not taken place, we should have had less of what we call progress – less materialism, individualism, democracy, competitiveness, egalitarianism; instead, a world in which spiritual and intellectual authority resided in a Church staffed by male priests worshipping a male God. But this is no mere nostalgic fantasy about the man’s world we have lost. The boy hero in The Alteration has a wonderful soprano voice; to realise his musical gifts, he is advised to submit to castration. Becoming a eunuch could be a striking way of symbolising a proposition advanced in all Amis’s recent novels – that the men who find happiness are likely to be the minority who succeed in going it alone; on the other hand, The Alteration also conveyed the subversive suggestion that without the male organ, in a world feminised, we should have harmony. So far it is the first and more macho reading that Amis’s public seems more aware of. A similar moral seemed to emerge from Jake’s Thing (1978), which you may reasonably regard as Amis’s best novel if you have not yet read Stanley and the Women. Jake is conned by the Zeitgeist into thinking his middle-aged impotence a disability, and undergoes a series of humiliating public treatments for it, until he comes to realise he is happier sexless – released from his North London modern marriage, regressing into his monastic, homosexual Oxford community, though that is at the very point of succumbing to co-education. The more you think about this novel, the less the end reads like a solution, and the less Amis’s thinking seems to coincide with Jake’s. Someone is having someone on.

At first sight, Stanley and the Women seems to be, despite the title, less about gender than about madness. The story begins when Steve, Stanley’s 19-year-old son by a previous marriage, arrives at his father’s new marital home in a state which a layman like Stanley simply describes as mad. On one level the plot unfolds as a tightly written and acutely observed study of Steve’s advancing disorder and of its effect upon Stanley, his first wife Nowell, his current wife Susan, their relationships and their relations. As well as domestic drama, the topic gives scope for a satire of that classic kind which anatomises some current intellectual folly – in this case, competing theories about madness. Steve’s breakdown functions like Jake’s impotence in the earlier book, as the occasion for a series of set-pieces in which the physicians need a cure as much as the patients.

Stanley first calls in his doctor friend Cliff, a kind of alter ego from the same South London suburb as himself, and as Amis. ‘Most people seem to have come from a place. Wainwright and I got out of an area.’ Wainwright recommends a rather outmoded psychiatrist called Nash, the author in the long-ago Fifties of a book on madness in literature. Nash firmly declares Steve to be indeed mad, diagnoses his condition as acute schizophrenia, and has him admitted to hospital for treatment with drugs.

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