Laundry

Harriet Guest

  • The Rules of Life by Fay Weldon
    Century Hutchinson, 79 pp, £7.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 09 168680 6
  • The Hearts and Lives of Men by Fay Weldon
    Heinemann, 328 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 434 85192 2

Let there not be a single stripe, a single spot, a single stray grey sock or tartan-bordered handkerchief, implores Miss Sumpter, that goes with the white wash into the tub or into the machine, or pure whiteness will be lost forever. Heavily soiled cotton and linen whites must of course be pre-washed before allowed into contact with more delicate fabrics – woollens and silks and polyesters and so forth: even so, and although quite a quantity of the heavier, tougher fabrics may be allowed to press up close in the wash with one another, be tumbled this way and that and still not lose their purity, it is preferable to wash a white blouse, or white stockings, or a white shirt, quite separately.

The ghostly narrator of Fay Weldon’s novella The Rules of Life pleads for painstaking attention to the laundry. She ventriloquises the instructions on clothes labels, on detergent packages, and in the handbook that comes with the washing-machine, lacing her lessons with passionate commitment. And her imploring advice makes sense – it is informative, functional, factually precise. It resembles the information in thrillers written primarily for men, which retain in loving detail esoteric facts about the structure and habits of the secret services, the customs and tricks of the race-course, or the construction of oil rigs. Like those facts, it has the fascinating tedium of authorised truth or collectable trivia, and it gives the pleasant illusion of useful knowledge available without any painful exertion of thought or understanding. This kind of information offers us partial instruction in mysterious rites whose unintelligible complexity seems reassuringly remote, and it thus nourishes an appetite for the bland irrelevances and disconnected observations that characterise unexplained facts. It is knowledge whose virtue is guaranteed by the almost surreal lack of interest or coherence, the weakness of explanatory power, that it parades.

This ostensible purity and explicitness marks the information about washing that the narrator, summoned from the grave by electronic hi-tec, wants to bequeath to those living in the year 2004. Her narrative is fairly evenly divided between cataloguing these ‘rules of laundry’, and recollecting her amorous adventures, from which she extracts the ‘Rules of Life’. She has been granted this articulate life after death by the priests of the Great New Fictional Religion, who tape the ‘voices’ of the dead, and interpret or construct them into the fictions which make life bearable. For the future Fay Weldon describes is a bleak world where the comforts of technological advance hardly compensate for the constraints imposed by the fear of disease, and especially of Aids. In 2004, she imagines, only fiction will gratify the desires that are otherwise fatal, and the most effective fictions are the reminiscences of the dead.

It is the ghost’s flights into the speculative regions of romance that seem directly to serve this purpose, while the rules of laundry seem merely to underwrite their extravagance with pragmatic capital. But as the ‘pulp-priest’ responsible for the ghost’s memoirs falls in love with the tape he works on, his thoughts turn increasingly to the rules of laundry rather than to the Rules, or the fictions, of Life. When he considers his own marriage, it is not so much the lack of passion that he laments, but that his wife does all the washing in one mixed load, and that the colours and textures of their clothes have therefore degenerated. He becomes entranced by the strange romance of solid facts, rather than by the more volatile visions of amorous conquest, or the Rules of Life that these demonstrate.

For the empirical truths of the rules of laundry turn out, perhaps not surprisingly, to have very little to do with practical considerations, as the novel unfolds their mysterious fascination. The pulp-priest may not be satisfied with the way his wife does the washing, but he is not inspired by the ghost’s imploring advice to take over the chore, and invest it with the meticulous pleasures of ritual observance. The truthfulness and value of the rules is not a matter of exemplary instruction, but rather of the attractive fantasy of absolute purity, ideal cleanliness and virtue, that the rules are designed to construct and protect. It is the idea of a whiteness worth defending with elaborate precautions, or redeeming through extreme sacrifices of labour and pain, that charms the priest, and that provides an almost sacramental justification for the scrupulous attention to detail that preoccupies the ghost.

This fantasy of salvation through the biological pre-wash means that the ghost’s predilection for arcane methods of stain-removal, and her fondness for handy tips such as that ‘the best way of washing linen sheets is in running mountain water,’ can be represented as something which transcends a mere obsession with material detail. The fondness with which the ghost recalls or imagines an age when domestic servants spent days on the napery suggests a misplaced philanthropic zeal, a parody of usefulness, that is otherworldly, and that therefore seems to the priest admirable, and almost saintly. The ghost’s preoccupation with the mechanics of cleanliness becomes here, as detailed information rarely does in thrillers, an effective means of displacing questions about the plausibility of her narrative, or the periods in which her adventures take place – questions that are vainly posed by the priest’s wife – because her rules of laundry acquire an overriding sense of purpose, and assume the heroic proportions of a quest for the holy grail of cleanliness. The pulp-priest is therefore irritated by his wife’s smallmindedness, when she questions the usefulness of the ghost’s narrative, for it is beneath the dignity of the ghost or of her interpreter to consider the practical implications of the labour-intensive methods she passionately advocates.

The ghost’s presentation of washing as a rite of explation and atonement, a romance of self-purification in which labour is invisible or performed by lesser beings, has a familiarity that the priest and his wife, as the official and unofficial commentators on this fiction, do not acknowledge. For it is of course the presentation familiar from washing-powder commercials. The combination of lyrical charm and square-deal functionalism that characterises the irresistibly appealing dialogue of detergent ads, and is reinforced by the visual juxtaposition of ideal housewives and virtuously economical, makeshift sets, becomes, in Fay Weldon’s accomplished hands, the fascinating romance of the ghost’s compelling words: ‘Let a flimsy handful of fabric have a whole tub or machine to itself: let it seethe and swirl and rinse free: and peg it outside in cool blowing air to dry.’ These are the unmistakable phrases of the liturgy of freedom, purchased through the miraculous transubstantiation of the blue tornado with added fabric conditioner.

The Rules of Life exemplified in the ghost’s memories of love, on the other hand, sell a religion that is more concerned with hard-boiled practicalities, and that endorses more extravagant absurdities. The ghost retails with nostalgic fondness tales of a world that is ruthlessly competitive and exploitative, and where the motives supplied by love and ambition are indistinguishable. Her memories produce the less-than-endearing aphoristic conclusions that, for example, ‘it is not the wicked who are punished, merely the dull and the ugly,’ or that ‘from them that hath not shall be taken away.’ Her lovers seem rarely to keep their promises, or to regard her desire for love as anything but a justification for their own opportunism and greed. And while she has difficulty in accommodating them to her desire to remember a rosily romantic past, a historical novel in which she plays the heroine, she relishes their commitment to the enlightened romance of self-interested ambition.

In these amorous memoirs the combination of fantasy and practical precept lacks the seamless continuity of the functional and the lyrical that characterised the rules of laundry. The priest notes sadly that ‘when it comes to describing love, Miss Sumpter’s language becomes so honeyed and absurd,’ but there is nothing honeyed about the rules she deduces from her experiences, and which she sees as her official bequest to the future. In this combination of historical romance and axiomatic advice, the novella again exploits a familiar language – that of chocolate commercials – but the ghost comments on it, unpacks its practical and instructive implications, herself. She feeds her lover soft-centred chocolates, while his wife tries to make him diet, and she explains that chocolate contains phenylalanine, ‘the hormone which is secreted in extra quantity in the brain of those who fall in love – the same hormone which disturbs appetite, makes the eye shine, the skin glow, the whole body receptive to sexual activity, and is as addictive as heroin’. The honeyed absurdities of chocolate-box romance are based on an attention to chemical detail, to the facts of exploitable addiction, that’s more meticulous, though less scrupulous, than the nice observances required by the rites of laundry, and again here the ghost calls attention to the compelling empirical realism of the fictions the priest will employ to sugar the pill of modern life.

It may be that the contrast between the chocolate-box amoralism of the Rules of Life, and the utilitarian chivalric code of the rules of laundry, is explored in this novella in ways that are revealing if pessimistic about the power of advertising. When the heroine finally renounces the Rules of Life that she has, with much painful heart-searching, been extracting from her memories of romance, because she realises that they are merely the truths of expediency, she is left with the meticulous rituals of the rules of laundry, which promise salvation through absorption in material detail, and describe pleasure as the means of ensuring that the rites of washing can be repeated. And it is not only the salvific power of these rules that she values, for she recognises in them a continuity with the past, with the axioms of grandmother’s work-book, that involves a sympathetic perception of the attractions of domestic life. There is perhaps something engaging as well as amusing about the idea that the words that finally cause the priest to experience the shock of love should be these: ‘To remove grass stains from fur,’ Miss Sumpter is saying, ‘proceed in the same way as for removing scorch stains from linen sheets. With a mixture of vinegar, water and fowl dung.’ For this presentation suggests the senses of tradition and of purpose that can make mundane tasks appear desirably absorbing. Insofar as commercial fictions may describe the limits of choice – and the priest thinks that as a result of the Eighties they will – the ghost presents an interesting case for choosing the washing.

The comedy that can be extracted from the idea of a society terrified by disease, and consoled only by memories of past advertising campaigns, is fairly black and desperate, and in this novella humour is mostly a matter of self-parody. For the ghostly narrator is reminiscent of the characters and narrators of Fay Weldon’s earlier novels, many of whom are distinguished by a similar concern to deduce preceptive axioms from the dirty linen of experience, and she mocks their hard-won certainties without either questioning the need for them, or replacing them with convictions of her own. The priest concludes that the ghost was a woman no one could take seriously, because she was single and childless, and his misogynous seriousness exposes him as a figure of fun. There is a pervasive sense of self-mockery, self-parody, in all but the blackest passages of the novel, that licenses but does not relieve the pessimism of its vision of the future. For self-parody doesn’t indicate or supply a satiric edge to this vision, but rather works to reduce the interesting or surprising perceptions the novel describes to inconsequential witticisms, ineffectual defences against the apparently inevitable apocalypse of Aids.

A similar brand of ironised authority, and evasive self-parody, dominates The Hearts and Lives of Men, which was originally written in weekly instalments for Woman magazine. There are no practical sets of instructions in this novel – it doesn’t offer information on how to do or to make anything specific, which may be a pity, because it is this kind of material that Fay Weldon handles with distinctive skill. But the novel does offer itself as a guide to Life. Surrounding and overwhelming the fairy-tale plot are the instructions and aphorisms of the narrator, who reflects comfortably on the progress of the tale, and doles out nuggets of wisdom and homely morality at every opportunity.

The story charts the progress of the lives of three adult characters over the last twenty years or so. The beautiful and virtuous Helen repeatedly marries the rich and ruthless Clifford, and their marriages are repeatedly broken up by Angie, who is neither beautiful nor virtuous, and comes to a bad end. Intertwined with these marital dramas are the improbable adventures of Little Nell, the daughter of Helen and Clifford, who, despite encounters with a child-snatcher, and with satanists, thieves, drop-outs and other more or less suspect surrogate parents, remains relentlessly cheerful, fair-minded and courageous to the end. The lessons these past events offer to the present are spelled out by the narrator, who notes with approval, for example, that Little Nell has learnt that ‘if your environment is not as you’d like it, you’d better not sit about moaning and complaining, but do what you can to improve it.’ Without softening the inexplicable confidence in the social virtues of self-help implied in this familiar-sounding Victorian precept, the narrator firmly steers her characters towards a happy ending in happy family togetherness, pausing along the way, as is the fashion, to condemn various social workers, but to look with charitable understanding at the motives of lecherous stepfathers.

The narrator makes a point of displaying the irony and uncertainty that humanise and thus endorse her didactic authority. She ponders with inconsequential chattiness the explanations for the patterns discernible in Life that have been in modified forms the concerns of Fay Weldon’s writing for the last twenty years. She considers severally the influence of astrology, the power of evil, the forces of destiny, and genetic predestination, and concludes amiably that any of these explanations will do as well as any other. But this good-natured self-mockery does not soften the pessimistic and repressive nature of her advice: ‘Don’t struggle too much. Accept your fate, make the most of the cards you are dealt. That’s all you can do.’ Perhaps there is a sense of self-parody involved in these rules of expediency, and indicated in the breezy familiarity with which the reader is taken by the arm, but if the possibility of irony seems to loosen the narrator’s grip on your elbow, that suggests that the similar editorial manner of Woman magazine doesn’t already have you in a half-nelson. The cards dealt to those who read the novel in instalments did not indicate that this might be a narrative game played with the endlessly receding mirrors of self-parody.

I find it more interesting, and more challenging, to see Fay Weldon’s narrators ventriloquising television commercials than to hear again the preceptive wisdom of the Eighties. And it is, I think, disappointing that these should be the alternatives. For over the last twenty years Fay Weldon’s novels have developed a peculiarly effective skill in presenting practical instructions and didactic aphorisms. From Puffball, for example, her readers gained handy hints about edible fungae, and precise information about the stages of foetal development. The recently televised Heart of the Country offered a quick course in the means of gaining maximum state benefits. In her novels of the early Seventies, she combined this interest in practical recipes and information with a willingness to forgo judgment over, at least, her female characters – a sympathy that her recent novels fail to maintain. The Rules of Life indicates a sensitive understanding of what is involved in the retailing of prescriptive information, but it’s an understanding that is handled with a degree of self-qualification and self-mockery that seems unnecessarily defensive. Her novels have always to some extent been preoccupied with issues which her narrators hoped were not those of the present – they would, for example, return to the hope that in whatever present they addressed women no longer lived through the hearts and lives of men. But in this year’s novels that sense of the present and immediate future as possibly different from the past whose lessons her characters learn seems to have disappeared. Neither attempts to address, rather than to mimic, a present that their narrators describe in hopeless terms. The novelist is restricted to the freedoms and limitations of allegories set twenty years in the past, or in the year 2004, and her humour seems to turn on itself, to reinforce and not to mitigate or question the pessimistic vision that makes it necessary.

In these two novels, aphoristic wisdom is no longer the means of coping with a world that in Fay Weldon’s novels has always appeared perplexing and hostile, without passing judgment on the luckless characters who accidentally visit its cruelties upon one another. It is no longer a means of blunting the sharp end of things through acknowledging the indiscriminate nature of suffering, as it was in the novels of the early Seventies. For the narrator’s axioms, in Hearts and Lives at least, have become the weapons of judgment, and not the means of displacing it. Bad women come to what are seen as deservedly bad ends, and the narrator’s precepts then offer lessons in how to feel good about that. In these novels the narrators look for certainties in the axioms that reinforce their right to judge and to pass sentence, and the evident problem – that those axioms are as confused and hostile in their implications as is the world against which the narrators employ them – is not ironed out by the uncertain ironies of self-parody.