Great Fun

John Bayley

  • Gossip by Patricia Meyer Spacks
    Chicago, 287 pp, £9.25, November 1986, ISBN 0 226 76844 9
  • The Bonus of Laughter by Alan Pryce-Jones
    Hamish Hamilton, 263 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 241 11903 0

In Northanger Abbey we learn that nothing very awful in the way of immurement or assassination of wives, or any such Gothic goings-on, can occur in an English village, because of its ‘neighbourhood of voluntary spies’. In this chilling phrase Jane Austen indicates the social benefits of gossip, and also implies with secret amusement that the moral benefits of novel-reading follow from the fact that the novel is a licensed vehicle for gossip. In the course of an intelligent and informal analysis of the concept, chiefly in its relation to literature, Patricia Spacks remarks on the absence of adolescent pregnancy in China, and connects it with the compulsory retirement, under the Communist regime, of men at 55 and women at 50. There is thus a vast reserve of voluntary spies whose socially acceptable – indeed more or less compulsory – occupation is to keep an eye on young love and nip it in the bud.

Jane Austen, and Georgian and Victorian society, would hardly have been surprised at this. For comprehensively ideological motives, a Communist society applies exactly the same sort of social pressures to its members as did an old-fashioned ‘free’ society. Both have ways of making you conform. In such an environment gossip is an instrument with real teeth: your job and your home may depend upon it. Is gossip still a killer in the Western world? Liberalism has gone to a lot of trouble to draw its teeth, and to make sure that whatever you do you won’t have to suffer for it physically at society’s hands. In her novel The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy has a no-good college teacher who can’t be got rid of, in the earnestly liberal atmosphere of a campus, once he has cunningly spread the rumour – quite untrue – that he had been a member of the Communist Party. This bestows tenure, a job for life: a modern version of the secret sexual licence acquired by Horner in Wycherly’s play The Country Wife when he has gossip give out that he has been made impotent by venereal disease.

The author of two good books about poetry, and of two studies on fashionable contemporary themes, The Female Imagination and The Adolescent Idea, Professor Spacks is also listed on the cover of her new book as chairperson of the English Faculty at Yale, once an academic centre for the more arcane sorts of abstract literary theory. Perhaps this means that the teaching of literature is reverting to its old comfortable function of gossip about the people in books. Is Satan good or bad? Why exactly did Iago hatch his plot, or Isabel Archer decide to marry Gilbert Osmond? Such speculations need the exercise of just as much intelligence as does the higher jargon, and for most people they are more fun to make. Dr Spacks ends her preface with the comment that although the ambiguities and perplexities associated with gossip appear endless, ‘to explore them has been great fun.’ A heart-warming point, and we can have it both ways because, as she implies, there is just as much material for class or seminar in this way of doing things as there is in the verbal meccano-work of literary theory.

In conclave with her admiring if sceptical husband in Henry James’s novel The Golden Bowl, Fanny Assingham remarks of her efforts on behalf of the Prince and Charlotte – efforts which involve, at the highest level, resources of query, speculation, understanding – that whatever happens it will all have been ‘great fun’. To which her husband retorts: ‘And you call me immoral?’ The notion of ‘fun’ is indeed compromised in the context of gossip, but Dr Spacks is surely right to bring it sturdily back into the world of academic thinking and reading, as of conversing and living. In both fields, she suggests, the effect can only be therapeutic. She does not mention Mary McCarthy or Fanny Assingham, both of whom seem to claim that the gossip market can be played – judiciously – for higher stakes than that. Nor does she make much of the gossip industry as it is harnessed and manipulated by government and publicity media, usually for shabby purposes, although it is possible now to imagine a crisis in which we should have to be encouraged to report on Aids-risk rumours, as the older Chinese are said to be enlisted to keep an eye on youthful sex. Even among us today gossip can still ruin a politician or make a lot of inside money.

But, like white magic, it can be a good thing, and never more so than between the pages of a book. Or in a bookish context. Side-stepping the traumatic link between gossip and power, Dr Spacks suggests that throughout history it has been chiefly both the weapon and the consolation of the powerless, a special bond of female solidarity. She begins the book on a personal note. Over a number of years she and a woman colleague, equally ‘beleaguered by trying to sustain families and careers’, used to meet every morning for half an hour of coffee and chat.

Sometimes a male colleague would come in, his expression conveying, or so we fancied, contempt at our verbal trivialities as our talk moved from details of our own lives to speculation about others, or from discussion of novels to contemplation of friends’ love affairs. Our husbands couldn’t understand why, considering our frequently proclaimed, desperate need for more time, we counted these morning minutes sacred: only dire emergency interfered with them. Both married to unusually sensitive, understanding men, we felt shocked to discover their incomprehension of this essential part of our lives. But we couldn’t explain to them; nor did we ever fully explain to ourselves.

This sensibly asserts what women were once conditioned to deprecate, or even masochistically hold up for masculine ridicule, as in the case of Clare Booth Luce’s play, The Women. The extraordinary success of Barbara Pym’s novels in America shows they seem to minister to the same assertiveness, and the same desire for separation. A perennial Pym scene, drawn from life once or twice in her Diaries, is of the women’s part of the office, and the calm insolence with which they treat male incursions, continuing to discuss their own affairs. It seems that the strains of sexual equality require a stylised separation into two camps, in which the ‘sensitive and understanding’ man and the emancipated woman can none the less assert their ritual difference from one another: the point being that such a difference is no longer involuntary and fundamental but deliberately chosen.

This seems to be what drew Dr Spacks to gossip as a theme for exploration. It is the handiest medium for deciding what sex you want to be. In practice, one suspects that men’s gossip is no different from that of women, although it may take pleasure in a masculine setting and flavour, as theirs in a feminine one. Significant that Henry James’s two greatest gossipers are a married couple, as if he felt – rather touchingly – that the principal pleasures of marriage must be sharing impressions of other people’s lives. As with Jane Austen’s ‘neighbourhood of voluntary spies’, there is something a bit chilling in the lifestyle implied in Dr Spacks’s personal account: only the women gossiping together, with the men doing their thing in lordly incomprehension. On the other hand, it must be admitted that something historically feminine in the nature of gossip has contributed one of the most important elements – perhaps the most important – to the deep structure of the novel form.

This is the element of equivocation, or at least indirection. As Dr Spacks points out, Fanny Burney’s Evelina, one of the liveliest novels of the late 18th century but fully embodying its moral norms, is built on a hidden paradox. Evelina can only achieve her womanly goals, a good marriage, an intelligently loving husband, by pretending, at least till she gets them, to be what she isn’t. Lord Orville rewards Evelina for her good behaviour by marrying her, and good behaviour means that she is gentle, silent, discreet, not a gossip – the gossip’s role being insensitive, malicious and dangerous, ultimately alarming to the male persona. Yet the novel in itself articulates those tendencies, and the will to use, exploit and embody them. As teller of her story, Evelina is the opposite of herself as character in it: and this will become something deeply true of the autobiographical aspect of the novel in general. In being Madame Bovary, Flaubert necessarily forsakes the persona and the intelligence which contemplates her.

The juxtaposition in Evelina is cruder, of course. The young woman reporting – judgmental, necessarily malicious, confident, observant, highly verbal – is the opposite of the young woman set up for judicious appraisal: kind, timid, quiet, vulnerable, always frightened of causing offence. The paradox is notable in Jane Austen, in a much more subtle and humorous way, and is one which used to produce, and perhaps still does, a common masculine reaction to her. How reconcile the virtuous heroines of her humane comedy with the harpy who wrote the letters, and of whose tongue, as Mary Mitford said, ‘everyone was afraid.’ The answer is that it is the contrast and Jane Austen’s ways of dissembling it that make the novels the works of art they are. The true moral discovery comes out of the dissembling. Jane Austen was more like Isabella Thorpe than Catherine Morland, and her ‘Evelina’ characters – Fanny Price, Anne Elliot – have a relation to their creator which is ingeniously compounded in Emma, the heroine whom ‘no one but myself will like’, who said things that Jane Austen would probably herself have wished to say.

The novel never admits that gossip is its life, moral matters only its underpinning. As Dr Spacks remarks, ‘fiction exercised subversive pressure on the standards it apparently upheld ... fiction by women explicitly preached doctrines long enforced in female lives.’ But its plot and technique suggested a ‘problematising’ of moral doctrine. Without this unconscious advantage George Eliot runs the risk, it seems to me, of being a sibyl with too simple and explicit a message – a risk evaded by Jane Austen or the Brontës because of the way women’s fiction worked in their day. The mainspring of fiction may be the equivocations and uncertainties of the gossip world, or the Olympian and scientific urge to get things defined, sorted out, pinned down. A combination of the two is not uncommon, but can have its drawbacks, exemplified in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the ideal person to be talked about, and Nick Carraway, Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator, come to New York from the Middle West, can both identify with Gatsby as a figure of mystery and charm, and also consider him objectively as a focus for speculation. Gossip and speculation go together. Anthony Powell’s narrator, Nick Jenkins, has the engaging habit of pondering, on our behalf, the possible implications of others’ behaviour. Surmise and romance go together, putting fascination in the place of knowledge. In Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth Lawrence Selden sees Lily Bart at Grand Central Station, and wonders ‘what she was doing in town at that season’. He entertains various possibilities because ‘he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always aroused speculation.’

So does Gatsby, but in order to make his story come out Fitzgerald has to explain Gatsby, refer him to his origins, terminate our own and the narrator’s speculation. This in itself is effective, but it has the drawback that Gatsby’s romance can no longer be situated in the realm of gossip, but has to be generalised at the rather lush level of the narrator’s sententiousness about boats against the current and the dust that floats in the wake of dreams. Ideally Gatsby should have remained a man of mystery, in the unknowable world in which Henry James is careful to keep Millie Theale, his fabulously rich young lady in The Wings of the Dove. The rich, as Fitzgerald knew, are different from us, and hence ideal inhabitants of the gossip world.

The ideal gossiper is an outsider with no hope of penetrating the secrets that absorb him. Dr Spacks says that she and her friend ‘moved from details of our own lives to speculation about others, or from discussion of novels to contemplation of friends’ love affairs’. A natural transition, seemingly, and yet there is a big difference. One’s own love affairs are as vulnerable as those of the friends who may be even now discussing them; and however engrossing, such a mutuality is both dangerous and self-limiting. True gossip should not only offer a state of perfect relaxation but of perfect ignorance as well, with only imagination to do the work.

At which point what should fall into one’s lap but the most perfect gossip book imaginable: perfect, that is to say, if the addict feels like contemplating real people rather than fictitious ones. Alan Pryce-Jones’s recollections – ‘autobiography’ would be too pompous a word for them – are incredibly readable. Page after page is turned in utter fascination to see who will next appear and to listen to what they did and said, how they carried on. This enchanting book performs the almost unbelievable feat of putting us, in literary terms, in the position of auditors below stairs sitting saucer-eyed and murmuring ‘Go on,’ and ‘Well I never,’ while cook or butler relate one marvel after another about life up top. The only danger is that we might choke – like Philip Larkin turning the pages of the young lady’s photograph album – on such nutritious images. Towards the end Alan Pryce-Jones chooses a more suitable metaphor: ‘As the years pass just to name old friends is like playing an electronic game in which shapes dart across the screen in a dizzying pursuit, feebly controlled by a master lever. They collide, they explode, they are present for a bright flash and are then engulfed in darkness again.’

Over the years and pages he introduces us with incomparable geniality to all his friends – from Cyril Connolly and the Duke of Wellington to ballet dancers and Balkan countesses. Mary McCarthy makes an appearance, as target of a tale rather than begetter of one. An elderly and extremely rich New York spinster, proud of her cousinship with Lizzie Borden, the celebrated axewoman of Falls River, asked Pryce-Jones if he did not find Mary McCarthy malicious. When he said no, she agreed. ‘I’ve never heard her say an unkind word about anybody.’ Then, after a pause: ‘There’s nobody she cares enough about.’ He particularly commends to us one couple he knew, who lived near Newmarket until the wife died in a hunting accident, because ‘they were latterday Edwardians, with instinctive access to thirty years of gossip, comfort and scandal.’ Nice verbal positioning for this chosen trio of social pleasures.

Anyone acquainted with some or all of these celebrities will no doubt be on the lookout for further information, and will be checking Pryce-Jones’s version against his own store of gossip, but a purer version of the same experience is available to readers whom the author is taking under his friendly wing, offering an entrée. It is clear that he gets on with everybody, and never quarrels or makes bad blood. It is true that Osbert Sitwell inexplicably never spoke to him again after a mutual consultation in which both were in friendly agreement over the shortcomings of Edith Sitwell’s posthumous autobiography. On the basis of this agreement, Pryce-Jones wrote an amiable but candid review of the work. ‘Have you been bitten by a bat?’ was the last outraged cry to reach him from the gloomy Tuscan castle of Montegufoni.