Women and the Novel
- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 6 No. 12 · 5 July 1984
SIR: Marilyn Butler is wrong about Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women (I say nothing about the rest of her review: LRB, 7 June). She claims that this novel is not, as advertised and widely received, a work of blackly misogynist import, but an ‘enlightened’, ‘decent’ and ‘compassionate’ critique of gender stereotyping and, in the portrayal of its central character and narrator, a ‘deconstruction of [Amis’s] own favourite macho persona’. A ‘first person’ novel may of course invite an ironic reading which reverses everything the narrator asserts, but there must be some signals tacitly encoded in the text (e.g. inconsistencies or absurdities in the narrator’s discourse) which indicate to the reader that the narrator is unreliable (Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a good example). ‘Amis maintains his distance from the petty chauvinist Stanley,’ Dr Butler asserts, ‘so that what Stanley says and what the book says are two different things.’ But her only evidence for this is of her own invention.
The ‘key episodes’, she says, ‘are Stanley’s two interviews with Dr Collings, which Amis on the whole lets Collings win’. It is impossible to demonstrate, in the space of a letter, that the reverse is the case, but let me make just a few points. The story concerns the mental breakdown of Stanley’s son, Steve. Collings is working on the hypothesis that Stanley resented the birth of Steve to his first wife, Nowell, had a culpably poor relationship with Steve in the latter’s childhood, and dissuaded his second wife, Susan, from having children. But she never succeeds in getting any hard evidence to this effect, nor is anything that Stanley says in these interviews ever shown to be false or self-deceiving. Collings, on the other hand, lies blatantly to Stanley’s friend Lindsey in the course of the first interview, which surely discredits her in the eyes of the reader.
Dr Butler makes no mention of Lindsey in her review, but she is an important character, the only woman with whom Stanley has real rapport. She takes an instant dislike to Trish Collings. If Stanley is, as Dr Butler claims, ‘deluded’, then so is Lindsey, but, on the contrary, she is presented as a shrewd judge of character. Early in the novel she tries to warn Stanley of his wife Susan’s instability. When Susan claims to have been stabbed by Steve (a very grave accusation, which Dr Butler omits to mention) it is Lindsey who confirms Stanley’s reluctantly entertained suspicion that Susan wounded herself to claim his attention, by telling him about Susan’s neurotic behaviour in the past.
It is quite false to assert that Stanley is ‘instantly ready to gang up – first with Nowell, afterwards with Susan – to have [Steve] admitted to hospital’. There is a long scene in which Stanley pleads with the psychiatrist Nash that Steve should be allowed to attend the hospital as an outpatient. Throughout, Stanley is portrayed as a troubled father trying to do his best for his son, and disposed to trust the ‘experts’ if he possibly can: ‘I told myself it had to be, had to make sense somehow, somewhere. The resemblance to TV must be a mistake, an illusion based on my ignorance, which had made me miss all sorts of subtle points and misunderstand phrases and expressions that were nearly or even exactly the same as bits of drivel but actually conveyed a precise scientific meaning to those in the know, and getting in touch with your own anger and finding out who you really were, etc, were technical terms referring to defiite, observable processes.’ This passage, which Dr Butler says betrays Stanley’s uptight resistance to Dr Collings’s ‘democratic’ professional style, is surely discrediting Collings’s discourse by making Stanley a reluctant witness to its clichés and imprecision.
It’s perfectly true, as Dr Butler observes, that Amis could have created a much broader caricature of a trendy psychiatrist than Trish Collings; by the same token he could have created a broad comic caricature of a raving feminist. The artfulness of the book resides precisely in this: that it conceals the full force of its misogynist message until the reader is so deeply involved in the story that s(he) cannot simply dismiss it. But Mr Amis seems to have reckoned without a reader who would respond by turning the message inside out.
Marilyn Butler writes: Lodge reads Amis’s novel as mimetic – an attempt to represent external reality as Amis thinks it is. I think it’s concerned with structures of thought, principally those of the narrator Stanley, and a structure of thought belongs to the person who thinks it. Amis’s use of a deeply irrational narrator is consistent with the general intellectual tone of the novel, which is one of scepticism. The effect would be marred if he went in for the crude authorial interventions – ‘signals’or ‘hard evidence’ – Lodge asks for, which would imply that there’s an objective or approved view of, say, women, madness, adolescence and Jews. Stanley’s narration is full of absurdity, of self-deception, of animus against his first wife and of ignorance about the previous life and feelings of Steve. And a case against him is made, but by characters he doesn’t like: women, of course, the doctor Collings and the first wife, Nowell. Stanley brushes off what they say, and so does a reader persuaded by him, like Lodge. Characters Stanley does like are shown behaving badly: Stanley doesn’t notice, and nor does the compliant reader (Lodge again). Lindsey, with whom Stanley has an on-off affair, is a case in point. She claims to be loyal to her old friend Susan, Stanley’s current wife, when she is talking to Collings – whom she suspects of having designs on Stanley. When she is talking to Stanley, Lindsey undermines and finally betrays Susan – in a deeply unsympathetic and (as always, in this novel) uncorroborated story which earns her Lodge’s unsuspicious description: ‘a shrewd judge of character’. But why does Lodge take her rapport with the bigot Stanley as sufficient proof of her shrewdness? My point was that the reader would have to choose to trust Stanley – Amis has not obliged him to. Incidentally, I applied the words ‘enlightened’ and ‘decent’, not to the novel’s views on gender, but to what it says about the treatment of mental illness.
Vol. 6 No. 16 · 6 September 1984
SIR: A Mr Lodge and a Dr Butler have been squabbling in your columns about whether Kingsley Amis’s new novel is mimetic (?), sceptical, misogynist, structuralist, etc. Instead of boring the pants off us why don’t they just ask the old boy.
Because the old boy might well not reply. I hope that Nicky Bird recovers his – or her – pants.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 6 No. 18 · 4 October 1984
SIR: Further to the interesting squabble between Mr Lodge and Dr Butler about the true nature of Kingsley Amis’s new novel Stanley and the Women: Nicky Bird’s entirely sensible suggestion that someone ask the old boy himself to settle the argument was greeted by you with some scepticism as to whether the old boy would reply (Letters, 5 July). On the strength of a recent interview which I had with him for Time Out magazine, in which he proved sane, good-natured and very good company for some three hours, I would guess that the old boy definitely would reply. Guessing further, I suspect that the old boy would come down heavily in favour of Mr Lodge. And before Dr Butler chimes in with something about not trusting the author’s intentions, it is worth noting that the old boy, unlike many authors, is very shrewd indeed about his own work. He also invents good cocktails.
Film Editor, Time Out, London WC2