Speaking for England

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble
    Weidenfeld, 396 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 297 79095 1
  • Change by Maureen Duffy
    Methuen, 224 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 413 57640 X
  • Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 208 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 233 98107 1
  • The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg
    Hodder, 415 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 340 40173 7
  • Stray by A.N. Wilson
    Walker, 175 pp, £8.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 7445 0801 0

Here is the note of a quite distinctive sort of English novelist:

Not everybody in Britain on that night in November was alone, incapacitated, or in gaol. Nevertheless, over the country depression lay like fog, which was just about all that was missing to lower spirits even further, and there was even a little of that in East Anglia. All over the nation, families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said, ‘Goodness me,’ or ‘Whatever next,’ or ‘I give up,’ or ‘Well, fuck that,’ before embarking on an evening’s viewing of colour television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country, people blamed other people for all the things that were going wrong – the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honourable silence.

That was The Ice Age (1977), but there are very similar passages in The Radiant Way. Margaret Drabble’s later novels are settled, capacious, Condition-of-England chronicles, prolonged ruminations on the way we live now. Echoes of the classic novelists are much in evidence. There is an abundance of lists of small facts and of local colour, and yet a slight fuzziness in the colour. We hear of people saying ‘Well, fuck that’ in front of their television sets, but we can’t actually hear those people – hear, that is, which of the three or four possible meanings they are giving to the phrase. And why is the value of ‘honourable silence’ finally offered, in this passage, with such evident approval? If silence is a sign of superiority, how can it be that the subdued mockery and brittle, hectic tone of this narrative are felt to be able to ‘speak for England’ and say it for all of us?

The central characters of The Radiant Way are three women: women who, ‘it will readily and perhaps with some irritation be perceived, were amongst the crème de la crème of their generation’. (We are duly irritated, but of course we read on.) The three women are Cambridge-educated, professionally active, and in their mid-forties. One is single, one is happily married, and one is on the threshold of marital breakdown at the time when the novel opens. It is the evening of 31 December 1979, and we are to be present at a fashionable New Year’s Eve party in Harley Street. Besides the main characters and their partners and close friends, the guest-list includes a number of walk-on players, one or two thinly-disguised historical personages, and the odd hanger-on from an earlier Drabble novel. ‘The house was full of trend-spotters,’ writes the author, attempting to explain what it is these people have in common. Trend-spotting is the occupation of the crème de la crème. Two of our three women, Liz Headleand and Alix Bowen, are superior trend-spotters, being earnestly concerned (like their creator) with making sense of the society in which they live. ‘What was going on, behind those closed curtains? Were people peacefully frying up potatoes, or were they hitting one another on the head with their frying pans?’ Alix asks herself as she drives to work on New Year’s Day.

Both Liz and Alix belong to the caring professions. The one is a psychotherapist, the other a teacher employed part-time at a women’s remand centre. Caring for others, they are inclined to neglect themselves. Esther Breuer, the third of Drabble’s women, is an art historian whose preference for remaining on the sidelines of experience amounts to full-scale emotional withdrawal. Her detachment seems more perilous than her friends’. She has a lover who is a satanist, she shares a house with a young man who will be exposed as a mass murderer, and yet she comes untouched through it all.

The answer to the frying-pan question is that people are hitting one another over the head, or worse, and some who aren’t perhaps ought to be. This is what Drabble calls the ‘spirit of 1980’, a spirit which, however, you don’t need to see behind curtains to be able to discern. In England in 1980 innocence and idealism are things of the past, factories face bankruptcy and closure, and violence and social division are on the increase. British society is seen to have abandoned ‘the radiant way’, a title which sums up the welfare-state optimism of earlier decades. The Radiant Way was the title of a child’s reading primer, and then of a television series portraying the diversity of the British educational system. Now the assumption that individual and social salvation could be pursued in harmony with one another looks distinctly outmoded, a diehard, not an avant-garde attitude.

So this is a novel about the fate of British socialist culture? Not surprisingly, key episodes are set in Northam, the ‘figurative Northern city’ which has featured in several of Drabble’s previous novels. Northam is simultaneously the site of industrial collapse and of a metropolitan socialist revival. But though Alix and her husband eventually move there, we are, as it were, driven around Northam without ever properly getting inside it. Equally, the madness and violence lurking behind some of those closed curtains are only ever shown through the window. Drabble’s three women remain intelligent onlookers, well-meaning but detached. In part, this may be because the novelist is concerned to avoid the kinds of melodramatic resolution which are suggested by her closeness to the 19th-century novel tradition. Liz Headleand, though a psychotherapist, spends most of the novel putting off her need to enquire into some traumatic secrets in her own past. Though a good Harley Street doctor, she cruelly neglects her shattered and withdrawn mother who lives on in the grim family house in Northam. There is the material of Dickensian revelations in this. Finally, in a rather half-hearted way, one mystery is cleared up, but others remain unsolved. The full ramifications of the social network are not drawn out, perhaps because Dickens and George Eliot did that sort of thing so thoroughly. Another strand in the narrative is the sequence of sex-killings, done by Esther Breuer’s fellow tenant whom the media have christened the Horror of Harrow Road. We see nothing of the murderer’s mentality, and very little of the victims except for their severed heads (‘The horror, the horror,’ etc) which the young man leaves behind as his calling-card. But the novel does end with a sunset, which might be interpreted as a kind of Conradian nudge towards a vision of a future England as one of the earth’s dark places.

There is an unlooked-for carelessness at times in this voluminous narrative chronicle. Both Northam’s resident poet and Alix (who becomes his amanuensis) apparently believe that the journal transition proclaimed ‘the revolution of the world’. (One is relieved to see that Margaret Drabble’s new edition of the Oxford Companion to English Literature gets this right.) Alix is prone to other small mistakes, but so is Margaret Drabble. There is an occasional wobbling of tenses, as the historic present is taken up and suddenly abandoned; once this even happens in mid-sentence. There are banalities of expression, such as the suggestion that we should look back at Cambridge in the Fifties from the standpoint of the ‘eclectic seventies, the essentially post-sixties seventies’. But what is most disappointing in The Radiant Way is the novel’s limitation to the standpoint of the onlooker, the frame of mind of liberal bafflement. ‘The world is full of mad people, and I suppose we all come across them from time to time,’ opines Alix. Drabble’s protagonists are sane and well-meaning, but they belong in the end among the complainers, those who don’t know whose fault it is, and their author stops well short of suggesting – as Conrad in Heart of Darkness did – that the fault might lie in themselves, ourselves.

There is, it must be said, no easy formula for writing a successful way-we-live-now novel. Doris Lessing offers one of the main precedents for a book like The Radiant Way, but her realistic chronicle-novels, such as The Four-Gated City, have not worn as well as most readers expected they would. (And this despite the fact that Lessing’s heroines are not merely onlookers: the madness, the violence, are known from within.) In any novel attempting a broad record of contemporary life, the writer must put forward generalisations, vouched for as historical truths, which may strike any particular reader as being profoundly and intimately false. Where even the recent past is concerned we as readers take less for granted, we have forgotten more, and we are inclined to give more credit for the pleasures of recognition, than in a strictly contemporary narrative. Legends and historical patterns are already in place, and by following these it is much easier for the novelist to achieve a consensual voice and exert an acceptable degree of narrative authority.

The ‘in’ period in historical writing just now seems to be the period of the post-war Labour Government. In fiction, the Second World War novel still has a long way to run. Every British novelist born since 1930 seems to find it necessary to write one. Most writers now use historical and documentary sources in order to do so. The mass of war films, war histories and war memoirs affects these novels, but in a sense it is irrelevant to their existence. For the Second World War is the only recent time at which mundane English reality was able to match up to the demands on the fantasy life which novelists set out to express. One of the war’s prime characteristics, as is registered by Maureen Duffy’s title with its Spenserian echo, was, quite simply, social upheaval. ‘If your life does not please you,’ Wells’s Mr Polly discovered, ‘you can change it.’ But the change, in the peacetime world of Mr Polly, was from social realism to a mode of comic utopian fantasy. Wells also wrote Tono-Bungay, in which the main characters’ lives were profoundly transformed by business success: but there the broad social changes taking place remained unperceived by all but a small minority of the socially mobile. In a war novel change can be made real for everybody.

Maureen Duffy begins with a series of evocations of a vanished but not quite forgotten England. Since the characters at this point are still adolescents, it is a matter of aertex shirts, Hornby trains, and the click and soft whine of trolleybuses. When a London teenager switches on ‘the wireless’, she has to wait for it to warm up. Change, by paying attention to details like these, warms us up in no time at all. The novel switches back and forth between several different narratives, allotting approximately equal space to each. This vox pop, Mass-Observation approach gives us wartime Britain as represented by a bomber pilot, a Naval rating, a Land Girl, a female munitions worker, a Polish refugee officer, a German-Jewish refugee student, a black American Air Force mechanic, and so on. (Just to register the war’s global effects, there is also a party of wild chimpanzees.) ‘Now everyone can write and we are all the keepers of history,’ as one of the characters (not the chimpanzee) observes. Duffy’s method has its drawbacks, however. Inventive and absorbing to begin with, it comes to seem external and a tiny bit mechanical. The characters are changing, their world is changing, but the focus is too wide for the reader to react very much to all these changes. The individual voices get lost in the medley of voices.

A consensual voice does emerge, though it is rather like that of yet another potted and illustrated Second World War history. Change succeeds in deflating some myths – it deliberately sets out to correct the sentimentalisation of Dunkirk, for example – but it uncritically endorses others. A black US serviceman makes a white English factory-worker pregnant, much to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. A single boy sailor on a raft heroically survives to tell the tale of his sinking ship. Rather oddly, an analytical view of Britain’s role in the war is provided by the memoirs of an unconventional army officer, Brigadier Pearmain, which are placed so as to round off each chronological section of the book. In Londoners (1983), Duffy’s narrator remarked that the best English novels are about class and betrayal: but the Second World War, as presented in Change, is the nostalgic Orwellian vision of a time when solidarity saw us through to victory, and class divisions no longer seemed to matter. This, in fact, was our finest hour. But not for the chimpanzees – for no consensual voice can include them. They would be hard put to it to distinguish between Hitler and Brigadier Pearmain. The chimpanzees are finally shown learning to make war, in imitation of the ‘smooth apes’, and this is more eloquent than many of Duffy’s human tragedies.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is a Second World War story concealed within a broader narrative. Claudia Hampton, a best-selling popular historian, looks back over her life from the hospital bed in which she is slowly dying. She claims, perhaps deliriously, to be writing a history of the world, and her reminiscences are similarly all-inclusive. Nevertheless, there is a centre to her life, which threatens to reduce its other relationships to an irrelevance. The novel’s main concern is to evoke Claudia’s love-affair with Tom, a young army captain whom she met while serving as a war correspondent in Egypt. Their love was quickly frustrated, since she was not allowed at the Front and he was killed in a tank battle. According to Penelope Lively, who spent her childhood in Egypt, the moon tiger is a ‘green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash’. The Egyptian scenes are the incandescent tip of this particular moon tiger, which does not, however, burn brightly all the way through. A final section, reproducing Tom’s diary written in the heat of battle, shows Lively’s imaginative ability to evoke, at least briefly, the sweat, dust and chaos of the desert campaign. But this poignant story has little of the wit and poise of the author’s earlier novels, and one cannot help feeling that her best talents lie elsewhere.

The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg is a full-blooded historical novel, with a wealth of invented incidents, a use of picturesque Cumbrian landscapes and a degree of psychological melodrama belonging in the tradition of Scott. The outlines of Mary Robinson’s story are to be found in de Quincey’s Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets and in the 1805 Prelude, where Wordsworth notes that it had quickly become one of the lurid entertainments of the London stage. In fact, it was Coleridge who had first made the story public, by writing it up and sending it to the Morning Post. Mary, the Buttermere beauty, was an ‘artless daughter of the hills’ in Wordsworthian parlance – that is, an intelligent and sensible young woman who worked as a shepherd and served the travellers in her father’s inn. To Wordsworth, her beauty and modesty were a living proof of the whole-some influence of the natural world on human character. Coleridge, on the other hand, hinted quite baselessly in one of his newspaper articles that she might be more highborn than appeared on the surface: the working classes, after all, were expected to be small, ugly, ignorant and coarse. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge had known her before she met John Hatfield, a bigamist who tricked her into a fraudulent marriage, and both men were united in their venomous hatred of her seducer. Yet Hatfield, whose exploits eventually brought him to the gallows, was, as Bragg shows, one of the popular heroes of the age.

Though the novel is named after her, and though Bragg (following a scholarly article by Donald Reiman) expatiates on her significance as a Romantic symbol, Mary is not the principal character here. The opening scene prepares us for the theatricality of what is to come. Hatfield is shown walking across the sands of Morecambe Bay at low tide, in search of solitude in which to rehearse the false identity he is about to assume as a Lakeland tourist. So solitary is his walk on the sands that he manages, in the course of the day, to seduce one willing farm-girl and to earn the lifelong devotion of a female cocklepicker, who will later help him when he is on the run. Hatfield is Byronic in his charisma, and behind him is the sinister, blackmailing figure of Newton, his criminal associate. His task while out on the sands is to play himself into the role of the Honourable Alexander Augustus Hope, eligible bachelor, tourist, and Member of Parliament for Linlithgowshire. Having once seen Kemble in Coriolanus, and having taken some tips from a man who claimed to have acted with Kemble at Drury Lane, Hatfield is soon ready for the part. He drives to Keswick in a coach-and-four (this at least appears to be historically accurate), and begins to put on a superb act of imposture. The story is told with gusto, by a novelist who relishes every minute of it. Hatfield is blind to the scenery of the Lakes, though he must pretend to be a connoisseur of it: for him, it is only a plasterboard backcloth for the money and women which are plentifully at hand in any fashionable resort. But Hatfield is also a guilt-ridden man (though it is a long time before we are let in on the secret of what he is actually guilty of). A strongly religious sensibility and a desperate longing for salvation from the consequences of his multiple crimes explain the strength of his attraction towards poor Mary, who is scarcely the appropriate object for a fortune-hunter. The Buttermere beauty, for her part, finds him irresistible, just as nearly everyone else does.

Hatfield may be seen as a gay Lothario, or he may be seen as the devil incarnate. His populist sympathies for Tom Paine and the French Revolution, which help to give him away, incline some of his hearers to the latter view. For Coleridge, however, his worst crimes were against the family: here was a man who had abandoned his wife and starving children and set out, under a false name, to enjoy (in every sense) the beauties of the Lakes! Melvyn Bragg is rather sparing in his account of Coleridge’s apoplectic reactions to the whole affair. Coleridge himself was about to desert his family, not for the first time, and he was an accomplished literary plagiarist if not a common impostor. If the Lives of the Poets had been written two generations later, we might have relished Samuel Johnson’s comments on Coleridge’s character. Can we, however, accept the latter’s description of Hatfield (reported by de Quincey) as a fiend in human form? Melvyn Bragg’s rather glamourous portrayal of Hatfield does not entirely dispel the idea of diabolic possession. Such is the extraordinary mixture of sincerity and self-deception in his protagonist that he is shown as being doubtfully sane, and possibly schizophrenic. His trial in the summer of 1803 (for forging bills of exchange and defrauding the Post Office, both capital offences at that time) was a cause célèbre. Hatfield was a fitting personage to inaugurate a century which ended with such literary creations as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Fr Rolfe and Alec d’Urberville. Without indulging in the sham antique – his tendency is rather to modernise – Bragg most infectiously transports us into a romantic past in which life ran higher and everyone took laudanum with their brandy. The result is a first-rate entertainment.

Pufftail, A.N. Wilson’s veteran alley-cat, is another rogue male, and Stray is his life-story. Cat-lovers and children may appreciate it most, but even a dedicated ornithologist and cat-hater such as myself can find a good deal to enjoy here. This does not mean that Wilson does not have palpable designs upon us. Pufftail’s worst experiences take place in a cosmetics laboratory, from which he is liberated in the course of a violent break-in by an Animal Rights group, and then in a sinister left-wing cats-only commune based too clearly on Animal Farm. His best times come when he is hunting or making love or – a likely story – being cherished by the nuns in a secluded convent. Otherwise this cat’s-eye view of life is engagingly low, with some neat floor-level observations of the human species. I am not sure why Pufftail has such a coy way of speaking of the natural functions, which he refers to as ‘lavatory activities’. Perhaps this is an alley-cat determined not to bring a Blush to the Cheek of the Young Person.