Costa del Pym

Nicholas Spice

  • Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
    Macmillan, 216 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 333 39129 2
  • Foreign Land by Jonathan Raban
    Harvill, 352 pp, £9.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 00 222918 8
  • Black Marina by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 157 pp, £8.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 571 13467 X

In a letter to Robert Liddell dated 12 January 1940, Barbara Pym speaks well of her progress on a new novel, Crampton Hodnet, which she finished later that year, but which has only now surfaced for publication: ‘It is about North Oxford and has some bits as good as anything I ever did. Mr Latimer’s proposal to Miss Morrow, old Mrs Killigrew, Dr Fremantle, Master of Randolph College, Mr Cleveland’s elopement and its unfortunate end ... I’m sure all these might be a comfort to somebody.’ As well, it seems to me, call The Rite of Spring restful or Guernica entertaining as expect Crampton Hodnet to administer comfort.

That Barbara Pym should use the word is intriguing and open to two possible interpretations. Either she thought herself to be writing a very different kind of novel from the one she wrote (not an uncommon disjunction where artists whose works have any subliminal drive are concerned), or she is using ‘comfort’ in a circumscribed and impoverished sense, having in mind, for example, the sort of comfort which comes from discovering that others are as badly-off as one believes oneself to be, or indeed worse-off (which is even better). The second of these two interpretations seems right, because it accords so well with the novel’s own philosophy, one which argues for acceptance over rebellion, limitation over release, loss-cutting over risk-taking, and resignation over hope. The redefinition of the nice things in life to bring them within this restricting outlook is Pym’s major project in Crampton Hodnet. The chief casualty is not ‘comfort’ but ‘love’.

The novel is arranged around three love affairs which develop and dwindle within the time-span of a single academic year. Mr Latimer, the new curate of St Botolph’s, imagines briefly that he must marry Miss Jessica Morrow, until Miss Morrow points out his mistake; Anthea Cleveland has her heart temporarily broken by an Old Etonian undergraduate, Simon Beddoes; and Mr Cleveland, Anthea’s father, becomes infatuated with his pupil Barbara Bird, who is quite happy to return the sentiment so long as it does not entail kissing and ‘that sort of thing’. Francis Cleveland’s affair with Barbara is much the most important of the three, because it is potentially adulterous and threatens the equilibrium of the little universe to which he and the other characters belong. Or so they all like to amuse themselves by thinking. In reality, however, this dangerous liaison between Francis Cleveland and Barbara Bird is no more than a titillating pastime, an excuse for gossip and the indulgence of forbidden fantasies. No one, not even Margaret Cleveland, his wife, the only character whose interest in her husband’s behaviour is more than merely idle (though not much more), ever imagines that Francis has any freedom actually to do anything about his passion. As Miss Maude Doggett, his formidable old bully of a spinster aunt, puts it, ‘he can’t break away and start a new life, you know.’ He can’t because Barbara Pym has seen to it that he can’t: first, by endowing him (as she endows all the men in this book) with the weak personality of a spoilt child; secondly, by handicapping the girl he falls for with a crippling hang-up about sex; thirdly, and conclusively, by calling into question at every opportunity the possibility of liberating erotic passion, the existence of which is the postulate upon which his behaviour is based. In this last respect, Pym’s main mouthpiece is Jessica Morrow, Maude Doggett’s companion, 35 years old and on the shelf. Miss Morrow’s determination not to expect too much of life has a definite tinge of the perverse about it, and her pronouncements on love do a good job of shrinking it to a size at which it can manageably be renounced altogether. For example, when, near the end of the novel, Stephen Latimer declares that he has fallen in love, genuinely and for real, Miss Morrow’s response is ‘Oh, I see.’ Barbara Pym continues: ‘Miss Morrow had difficulty in keeping her disappointment out of her voice. She had somehow expected something less ordinary. And yet one must be reasonable and remember that falling in love is never ordinary to the people who indulge in it.’ On marriage, Miss Morrow is Johnsonian: ‘For, although she was in many ways a romantic, Miss Morrow could not help thinking that one usually married people in spite of faults rather than because of virtues.’

It isn’t only through the dour thoughts and utterances of Jessica Morrow that Crampton Hodnet reduces the universe of love to a narrow and shallow place. Each of the three romances which define love for the purposes of the book flower in a tightly-confined space, where the distance between negative and positive feeling is measured by the distance from indifference to lack of indifference. Thus Mr Latimer’s love for Miss Morrow expresses itself in terms of a dilemma the horns of which are whether he might or might not ‘do worse’ than marry her. Anthea Cleveland is ‘comforted’ by the discovery that Simon is as replaceable as any other ephemeral commodity: getting a new man, it turns out, is as easy as getting ‘new clothes, a new hairstyle, a new lipstick’. And when Barbara Bird falls out of a punt on a clandestine outing with Francis Cleveland, Francis is surprised to notice how little it takes to turn ‘a ridiculous mishap into a romantic episode’. In Marvell’s poem ‘The Definition of Love’, the poet declares the impossibility of union with his beloved, elaborating the point through a number of ingenious conceits, including the notion that only when heaven and earth are conflated will he and his lady be able to join in love:

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

‘Cramp’d into a planisphere’ is as good a way of describing the universe of love in Crampton Hodnet as I can think of.

The title of Pym’s novel, which called Marvell’s lines to mind, is eccentric, mildly enigmatic and brilliantly apt. Crampton Hodnet is the name of a village in the Cotswolds, invented by Stephen Latimer to explain his absence from evensong one Sunday afternoon in autumn. In fact, he has been rambling about on Shotover with Jessica Morrow, but he tells the rector’s wife that he has been visiting a friend of his, the vicar of Crampton Hodnet. Miss Morrow, much amused, appropriates the name to refer to anything suspicious or fishy – as, for example, when she sees Francis Cleveland hurrying out of his front gate carrying a bottle of wine: ‘rather Crampton Hodnet, was how she put it to herself. Oh, yes, distinctly Crampton Hodnet.’ As a generic term, however, Crampton Hodnet is ideally descriptive of the constrained and pallid world the novel creates.

Barbara Pym began Crampton Hodnet in the autumn of 1939, soon after the outbreak of war. She gathered the elements of her imaginative world from close observation of a society that was on the verge of having to forfeit its long-standing and deep complacency. But the Second World War, as it happened, gave that complacency a shot in the arm, inducing a dreamless beauty sleep from which, it seems, we are only now beginning to wake up. The suspicion that Britain may not, after all, be unalterably the nicest of all possible modern states to live in grows as each day of Mrs Thatcher’s second term passes. There are signs, moreover, that we are beginning to lose our collective nerve, as witness the howls of remorse and recrimination which burst from the media in the wake of the horrible accident at the Heysel football stadium in Brussels last month. The unseemly readiness with which we used the occasion to declare the English idyll over revealed an uneasiness beside which the barbarisms of the Liverpool fans seemed incidental as a sign of disintegrating national cohesion. In particular, it was ominous, though not very surprising, how frequently the search for a scapegoat fixed, obscurely, upon intellectuals, upon nameless social analysts who sought to explain what had happened not emotively but in terms of observable social causes. If Mrs Thatcher succeeds further in strengthening the role of the state while dividing the population the better to rule them, the intellectual community will find itself pushed out on a limb. As consensus is eroded, so dissidence and dissent will reacquire a meaning which in the English context they have not had in recent history. One of the consequences will be a change in the kind of stories we tell, in the varieties of our fiction. In the place of the comedy of manners, that specialty of the English fictional tradition (whether high or low, Crampton Hodnet or Coronation Street), we should expect to see develop a literature of protest and political parable. Last month, two novels appeared which suggest that this process may already be under way. Jonathan Raban’s Foreign Land and Black Marina by Emma Tennant are, from the formal standpoint, very different kinds of novel, but they share, quite strikingly, an un-English pre-occupation with the problem for the individual of belonging in the modern state.

Jonathan Raban is a distinguished travel writer and in his first novel he adapts the traveller’s perspective to a fictional analysis of England and Englishness. His main character, George Grey, is English through and through, from his taste in shirts (Jermyn Street, handmade ‘in a faded, denimy sort of blue’, with his name sewn into the collars ‘like a school boy’), to his taste in food (Fray Bentos steak-and-kidney puddings, heated up in a pan). George has spent the best part of his adult life abroad: first in the Navy; then, after his demob in 1946, in Aden, as ship’s bunkerer (‘just like being a sort of maritime petrol pump attendant’ is how he describes it); and finally, for the last twenty-five years or so, in Bom Porto, Montedor – Montedor being a small imaginary West African state, once part of the Portuguese empire. Foreign Land is about George Grey’s attempt to come home to England and his discovery that while he has been away it has gradually become a place where he does not care to be.

Returning to St Cadix in Cornwall to set up his retirement home in what was his parents’ retirement home, he finds things changed:

When George first visited his parents in St Cadix, Fore Street had been sober – a long and narrow tunnel of dripping slate and granite. Now it was the colour of romperwear, of second infancy. The fishermen had all gone – up to the council houses or out to the bald cemetery at St Austell; and few of the new cottagers were here on winter weekdays. Their windows were dark, their shingles rocked in the wind on the ends of their chains.

At night the streets of St Cadix are empty, as the inhabitants retreat behind closed doors to play computer games or watch the video. During the day ‘the angry children of St Austell’ storm St Cadix on motorbikes and deface the telephone kiosk and the ladies’ lavatory. This ‘strange village England of the young’ strikes George as ‘squalid and graceless’, while a visit to London to see his daughter Sheila discloses ‘a lawless country’ and scenes of dereliction which remind George of the ‘dirty protest’ of H-Block prisoners in Northern Ireland. When George pays a sentimental visit to the village near Winchester where he used to live as a boy, he sees ‘a minimarket, a video club and a terrace of breezeblock Costa del Sol-style houses with windy balconies and carports where there should have been a hummocky common of gorse and bracken’. Yet amidst all the tawdriness of this new Britain, the self-satisfaction of the English manages somehow to persist: in the routine insincerities which pass for conversation at the Royal St Cadix Yacht Club, and in television soap operas like An Englishman’s Home – snobbish, unfunny and parochial.

George fails in his attempt to re-enter a community whose main channels of communality seem to be gossip and the television. Homesick for Africa (‘it was England, not Africa, that was so far away’), increasingly lonely in the chilly discomfort of his parents’ old house, he makes his escape to sea, buying a boat called Calliope and moving his belongings there. For his first voyage he plans to sail to London to visit Sheila, but his resolve doesn’t hold beyond Rye. Taking on board fresh charts and supplies, he changes course for Biscay and heads for the open sea.

‘It was all perfectly foreign to him.’ By the time we reach the end of the novel, we feel much the same way as George. Raban’s success in portraying England in the 1980s as a foreign land is due to the completeness with which he has conceived the character of George Grey, and this in turn is inseparable from his sympathy for the existential intensities of being alone at sea in a boat. Sailing and George Grey, and George Grey as a sailor, dominate Foreign Land. The image of England the book leaves us with is that of a coastline seen from half a mile out: ‘He went out on deck to get the sails down. Between the boat and the shore, the twilit water had the metallic iridescence of a pool of mercury. It was joined to Devonshire by a fine seam of wet sand. At the edge of the sea, the land was a long low strip of grassy dunes and straggling villages: from half a mile off it was as remote as a little world inside a blown glass paperweight.’ The realities of life on land, and of the characters whom George has left there, seem pale and undeveloped by comparison with the vividness of life at sea. I am not sure that this is what Raban originally planned. He opens his book with a chapter about Sheila and her placid, even tempered, do-it-himself builder boyfriend, Tom. This led me to expect that the main preoccupation of the novel would be Sheila’s relationship with George: their discovery of themselves through the late flowering of a father-daughter relationship that got off to a bad start and stayed that way for 60 years. But Sheila and Tom soon drop off to the side of the picture, and Diana Pym, the only other active character of any importance, suffers the same fate. Diana shares George’s dislike of St Cadix society. Like George, she is beached in Cornwall with nothing in prospect except a lonely old age. A relationship between them kindles, but almost immediately goes out, extinguished by the flood of memories that take up more and more of George’s mental attention. When George casts off for his last voyage, he is casting off from the present as well as from England. This happens about half-way through the novel at the point at which it seems fully to recognise its destiny.

The failure of his attempt to return to England brings George up against the failures that have characterised the whole of his life. This process of confronting his past is involuntary and uncontrollable. It starts on land, as he rattles about in the gloomy shell of his parents’ house surrounded by the musty relics of their life, and reaches a hallucinatory pitch as he sails from St Cadix to Rye. Scenes and encounters return upon him, then voices, even visions, and with them a growing understanding of why things turned out as they did. Raban’s technique here is simple and effective. The painful episodes of George’s past are punctuated by sudden returns to the dangers and uncertainties of his voyage: a near-collision with a tanker, a ferocious tide-race off Portland Bill, gale warnings, mist. The excitement of the front-line narrative holds the story of George’s past in a tight grip. And with it our attention.

If George Grey were an ‘interesting’ character, if his past was less dreary and uneventful, Foreign Land would be a less enthralling book. As it is, Raban has managed to breathe individual life into a character who is recognisably a general type. The models for George’s inadequacy and loneliness are pedigree English. His consistent failure to communicate with those near to him, to correct misunderstandings before they become irremediable, to seize the fateful moment – in short, his failure to get the hang of life – is the failure of a certain common sort of Englishness, muted, passive, buttoned-up and sad. It is a failure articulated and mourned elsewhere in English literature – for example, in the poetry of Hardy, Stevie Smith and especially Philip Larkin:

Only a numbness registered the shock
Of finding out how much had gone of life,
How widely from the others.

It may be that England is now becoming a cheap and nasty place, but Raban allows us no consolation in nostalgia. Emma Tennant is less bitter, more worried. Where Raban offers us a critique, Tennant is prophetic. As is appropriate to her more oracular style, she writes of Britain allegorically, while Raban grabs the subject by the lapels. On the face of it, Black Marina is not primarily about Britain at all, but the fact that it is set chiefly on a small (imagined) island off Grenada, does not make it effectively about the West Indians either. Black Marina is a parable, oblique and elusive in its message, working more by allusion and the suggestion of a correspondence in the underlying forms of things, than by unambiguous and open statement. It succeeds less in the portrayal of particular places and people than in the evocation of a mood and the intimation of certain general truths about the way our world works these days. The mood is one of apprehension and unease, the truths, broadly speaking, that the forces which govern events are far more complex and sinister than they seem, and that evil walks along paths which even the vigilant may overlook. The malignity at work in Tennant’s imagined world is not, however, motiveless, and the baddies are clearly identifiable: big business, big politics, big news. Their theatre of operation is the Grenadines, those ‘sad thickly green islands in the blue’ to the west of Trinidad and the north of Venezuela.

On 27 October 1983, two months before the events described in Black Marina, the Americans invaded Grenada, displacing the extreme leftist regime of Hudson Austin and Bernard Coard, leaders of the coup which only eight days previously had ousted the populist government of Maurice Bishop. Now there is a rumour that Austin and Coard’s party is planning to infiltrate St James (a tiny island, four miles to the south of Grenada), intending to use it as a base for their subversive activities in the region. It’s thought that a landing has been planned for Christmas Eve and the action of Black Marina is taken up with this possibility.

The story is divided into three parts – ‘Afternoon’, ‘Evening’ and ‘Night’. It is told, for the most part, by Holly Baker, an English woman in her mid-thirties, who came to St James in the Sixties and ended up staying 16 years, working as the island store-keeper. Holly’s narrative is suspended between two violent events, the shooting of a man and the occurrence of something unspecified but dreadful which took place late on Christmas Eve. Although she is only an incidental player in the drama which unfolds, her position as trusted bystander gives Holly an insight which no one else possesses into the links between events. Her narrative is an attempt to join these links into a coherent and consequential chain. Like all acts of remembering where the recollection involves a complex history going back many years, Holly’s story proceeds associatively. Her mind moves back and forth across the hours which led to the nameless tragedy, sometimes casting the story in the past tense, sometimes in the present – as one might retell a long and complicated dream. Gradually, the various pieces begin to fall into place. We learn about Sanjay, the last remaining male representative of the Allard family, landowners in St James since the 17th century, and of his doomed marriage to Dora and of how his daughter Pandora went mad. We hear of the consortium, a business group representing American interests on the island, poised to snap up the last morsel of Sanjay’s land when his lease finally runs out in the New Year. We hear of Ford, the local boy who was carried off to London by Holly’s friend Teza, and who made it big in Britain, first as a poet fêted by the London literary world, and then as an activist in the Black Power movement. We meet Maldwin Carr, correspondent of a leading London Sunday newspaper, who has turned up on St James to find out exactly who it was who was shot two months ago; and we meet Marina, the young woman who believes herself to be Ford’s daughter and who has come with Carr to St James to search him out.

A picture of international intrigue emerges, of powerful and sinister forces pitted against one another for the possession of the island, of callous manoeuvring and cynical manipulations. Shadowy figures detach themselves from the penumbra: Jim Davey, who is working for the Americans and is in touch with Washington; Lockton, the newspaper tycoon who owns Maldwin Carr’s newspaper; Julian Byrne, a corrupted and corrupting figure, woman-hater and aesthete, London littérateur turned left-wing agitator. At the centre of all this, drawing the threads together, is Holly, a sort of gentle Cassandra, on the edge of the action, aware of the magnitude of what is developing but unable to do anything effective against it. She warns Sanjay of the approaching catastrophe and urges him to leave the island. When Marina turns up looking for trouble, Holly tells her to keep well clear. Neither of them heeds her advice. They are looking, it transpires, for each other.

The sophistication of Emma Tennant’s narrative technique in Black Marina is considerable. At times it seems to borrow from the minimalist procedures of the Nouveau Roman, elongating over fifty pages or more a sequence of actions that lasts only a few minutes. In the sky a helicopter buzzes, a girl’s head bobs on the surface of the sea as she swims towards the shore, a man walks down the beach, the girl approaches Holly’s store, she asks a question. Each shot in this slow-motion sequence is the starting-point for a digression or train of association. By such means, Tennant succeeds in creating a disorientating uncertainty in the reader’s mind. The constant references and allusions forwards and backwards to mysterious acts of violence and imminent disasters produce a generalised anxiety and undefined menace which is the book’s main expressive achievement. Reading Black Marina, I felt exposed and vulnerable, as if threatened by a blow but unsure of the direction it would come from. At times, however, I found the portentousness of the style, its heavy load of dark hints, veiled allusions and questions left hanging in the air, monotonous and tiresome. And the dénouement, held back until the last few pages of the novel, is too cryptic to be altogether satisfactory.