Womanism

Dinah Birch

  • The Temple of my Familiar by Alice Walker
    Women’s Press, 405 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7043 5041 6
  • The Fog Line by Carol Birch
    Bloomsbury, 248 pp, £13.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 7475 0453 9
  • Home Life Four by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Duckworth, 169 pp, £9.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2297 8
  • The Fly in the Ointment by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Duckworth, 132 pp, £10.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2296 X
  • Words of Love by Philip Norman
    Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp, £11.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 241 12586 3

American black people describe their wildest girls as ‘womanish’. Alice Walker recalls that traditional usage in defining her own work: she is interested in ‘womanist’ rather than ‘feminist’ writing. ‘Womanist’ texts proclaim a double rebellion, fusing the long-suppressed anger of women with that of blacks. Alice Walker’s most forceful books to date (the novel The Color Purple, published in 1982, followed by a collection of essays, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, in 1983) locates the identity of black women in the troubled perspectives of the past. In this she shares in a wider movement. The growing body of black literature in America asserts a need to make good what has come to seem one of the most damaging depredations imposed by slavery and exploitation: the loss of a known place in history.

The Temple of my Familiar is a massive expansion of this ambition, in terms of geography and of time itself. The book has an extraordinary range, including North America, South America, Europe and Africa within its compass. One of its central characters is a prosperous black man called Suwelo, bewildered by the loss of his wife Fanny. Suwelo is a history teacher. ‘He wanted American history, the stuff he taught, to forever be the centre of everyone’s attention. What a few white men thought, and did.’ The changing mind of Suwelo, as he painfully learns to place the definitions of academic history in a different context, is one of the threads that draw together this complicated book. His wife is caught up in another story, for she is a granddaughter of Miss Celie, one of the sturdy heroines of The Color Purple. Fanny looks to the future, sharing the resilience represented by the continuing love between Miss Celie and Miss Shug.

But the most inventive and controversial aspect of the novel is its contemplation of the past. Fleeing his dejection, Suwelo comes to stay in an inherited house in Baltimore. There he meets Lissie – small, old and very black. Lissie has an extraordinary gift. Having passed through multiple generations of lives, she is able to remember them all. She embodies what Suwelo would prefer to pass over: the unrecorded experiences of suffering which lie beneath the authorised versions of history. Suwelo’s uneasy success floats on a sea of defeat and misery. The strongest writing in The Temple of my Familiar plumbs the forgotten lives of the servants and slaves who are the ancestors of America’s black communities.

Lissie’s memories, however, reach beyond the origins of slavery in Africa. Alice Walker wants us to think about how it felt to be human before history wove its corrupted web round our lives. Like other novelists meditating on that inscrutable question, she comes up with answers that reveal more about her own convictions and aspirations than they do about the possible conditions of prehistory. The Temple of My Familiar is founded on an ancient utopia. Lissie recalls an immeasurably distant past when men and women lived apart, coming together only for the purposes of procreation. Power-seeking entered the scene when the sexes attempted co-habitation, and men began to claim proprietorial rights over women and children. The aggression that resulted poisoned not only the lives of warring humanity, but also the intimacy that had previously existed between people and animals. The novel’s ideal of a better past includes a fantasy of a time in which apes and lions shared our world in a peaceful companionship.

It isn’t hard to warm to the notion of neighbourly relations with the apes: but even the most sympathetic disbelief begins to lose its suspension when asked to assent to the age-old benevolence of lions. We’ve seen too many meticulous documentaries to believe that those big cats ever confined their predatory attentions to injured and dying herbivores, as Alice Walker’s improbably gentle beast suggests: ‘It is our nature to be peaceful, to be nonviolent, to be calm.’ But of course she isn’t really proposing an alternative natural history for lions. She is asking us to think again about our deepest assumptions about all life, or about nature itself. The novel argues that the ferocity of competition, with its inevitable consequences of suffering and loss, is simply the result of some mistaken choices made a very long time ago. The Temple of my Familiar offers a zealous vision of happiness and peace as a natural condition. Once our birthright, it is always available for reclamation – if only the right kind of will can be asserted.

Such high and hopeful thinking runs counter to the deepest convictions of Western culture. Christian theology may have loosened its hold over the collective mind, but the belief that man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble, is as strong now as it ever has been. The professionalised view of history, with its accounts of selfishness and deceit, has done nothing to dispel such pessimism. Alice Walker’s revisions of history give full weight to its reports of sorrow, but scant respect to the pursuit of documented accuracy. Magic transforms the fictions of history, for a woman with a supernatural gift for recalling past lives can afford to dispense with libraries and accumulated card indexes. Only an academic bothers with such things, and perhaps only an academic will worry about Alice Walker’s breezy way with facts.

After all, why complain? A novelist is not a historian. When Alice Walker is writing about people close to home, her writing strikes clear and true. The tale of Fanny, Suwelo and Lissie is interwoven with a story of tyranny and resistance in South America, and here the design carries solid conviction. But when she begins to write about 19th-century England, including extracts from a diary that read as though the archives of Mudie’s Circulating Library had suddenly thrown up an issue of Spare Rib, objections come crowding in. ‘This journal had a faded red velvet binding and a green, very faded, satin-ribbon marker. Its leaves were yellowed and water-stained, and many words, in the cramped, even script of a young woman writing by flashlight under the bedcovers, difficult to decipher.’ By flashlight?

Incredulity at such moments is partly a matter of offended taste. The literary training on offer in most of our universities inclines their graduates to jib at a novelist whose acknowledgments solemnly ‘thank the Universe for my participation in Existence’. Such prejudices may be best discounted. The fact remains that Alice Walker’s fiction rests on suppositions quite alien to the British palate. She insists that all of her characters (including men, black or white) are capable of renewal and education. No one is damned; no final refusals are uttered. It is not reassuring to discover that unbounded optimism can look so banal.

Carol Birch’s tough and gloomy new novel seems to emerge from a different world. The beleaguered life of Gloria, disillusioned heroine of The Fog Line, doesn’t leave room for Alice Walker’s sanguine visions. Yet she, too, is sustained by an image of primeval harmony. An unhappy child, tormented by the enmity of her disappointed parents, she finds refuge in an imagined forest: ‘She loves all the animals and they love her with a solemn, peaceful, wordless kind of love. She rides around on a gentle moose, whose tremendous prehistoric antlers, lined with flowers and moss, form a wide bowl that sways majestically ahead through the forest ways. Sometimes she climbs into the fragrant bowls and lies down and sleeps under blankets of moss.’ Gloria can hardly hope to preserve that nurturing retreat in the face of betrayal heaped on misfortune. Her education is abruptly curtailed when she accepts a lift from a man who rapes her. The child resulting from this brutal union is cared for by her joyless mother, left perpetually griefstricken from the death of Gloria’s twin brother in babyhood. Meanwhile, Gloria has a spectacular nervous breakdown, withdrawing from a life that has become intolerable: ‘I’ll walk on. I will walk into the fog line and vanish.’

Carol Birch records these catastrophes with piercing distinctness, her writing quite unclouded by the mists that have closed round Gloria’s mind. The processes of the breakdown of distance and control intrigue her, and she records the blocked rages of frustration with devastating lucidity. Anger is not an abstract moral force in The Fog Line. It is a seething mass of inchoate fury which periodically and unpredictably explodes. The consequences are terrifying. This is a novel about life on the edge: the edge of success, stability, survival. Grown-up Gloria is no more secure than she was as a child. She is not helped by adult love. What first presents itself as a redeeming affection between Gloria and a gifted young poet turns into a degenerate muddle of dependence and resentment from which only violence offers a prospect of escape. ‘I try for the moose’s antlers. They don’t come. They never do these days.’

Yet The Fog Line, too, is seeking modes of salvation, though they are very much more tentative than Alice Walker’s beguiling vistas of time. Gloria’s release is bought at a high price. If she is wiser as the novel concludes she is also very much sadder, and just as lonely. Birch reminds us that the public claims of history don’t mean much to Gloria and her kind. She never gets the chance to see beyond the mesh of her own entanglements. But she does, finally, win the forgiveness of the wild and innocent child she used to be. ‘In the end, there is only this: she is the little girl in the moose’s antlers.’

Alice Thomas Ellis would sympathise with many of these bleak insights. Her weekly sketches of domestic disorganisation used to appear in the Spectator and are now published in the Tablet. A new collection of these pieces, Home Life Four, reflects the most engaging disregard of the decorous façades we like to construct around our fraught family lives.[*] The Fly in the Ointment concludes a trilogy of novels which has wittily laid bare some of the least comforting aspects of human existence. Lili, half-Egyptian and half-English, isn’t quite at home anywhere. Badly behaved and utterly cynical, she has no illusions about humanity or herself. Lili conducts a wonderfully indecorous conversation with her readers, giving unchecked vent to the worries and exasperations that beset her as she repeatedly yields to the temptations of promiscuity, drunkenness and deception. She draws us irresistibly into her confidence, for this is a novel with a practised sense of what mischief has to offer by way of charm. Our sympathy is guaranteed by a gift that outweighs all her world-weary scepticism: Lili is able to make life’s vexations ridiculous rather than depressing.

But Lili’s life is no comedy. For all its glitter and flippancy, The Fly in the Ointment is a sober exploration of the nature of sin and the possibility of pardon. A series of transgressions leads to a carefully staged debacle that is likely to put a permanent stop to all Lili’s precarious happiness. Her account of these disastrous schemes becomes an act of confession, and we are asked to grant a kind of absolution as the price of our entertainment. For Lili has been burdened with the unwelcome trust of those who have been hurt once and might be hurt again, and she chooses not to let them down. ‘I am not a very good woman and I am not fond of children, but I know what every human being knows in the depths of his soul – that to hurt a child is a crime for which there is no forgiveness.’ The seductive irreverence of this book accompanies an unwavering allegiance to a stern moral framework. Sin and suffering cannot be evaded in a fallen world: but goodness can assume odd disguises, and the worst among us can still hope for grace. There is nothing new in what Alice Thomas Ellis has to tell us. But then, innovation has never really been among her interests.

Philip Norman isn’t much given to making it new, either. Words of Love is a collection of short fiction haunted by memory. The title story nostalgically records a shabby childhood made bearable by music. It revisits territory that Philip Norman has charted before. The Skater’s Waltz, his previous novel,[†] also recounts boyhood difficulties on the Isle of Wight. Here, however, compensation outweighs suffering. ‘Words of Love’ is a tribute of admiration to Buddy Holly, the bespectacled benefactor of youngsters looking for life in a cheerless post-war Britain. Philip Norman’s passion for music leads him to offer one of the oldest secular solutions to the problem of pain. Music solves nothing, but makes up for everything. ‘Rats in my Kitchen’ imagines an encounter with a blind Blues singer, raddled by a lifetime on the loose. He neither trusts nor much likes the old travelling companion he lives with. But the music they have made together counts for more than all the missed chances of a better life, and their bond is more enduring than a marriage.

Not that any of the marriages in this book afford much of a palliative for loneliness. Philip Norman has a dourly disenchanted view of family life. ‘Susie Baby’, a censorious tale, probes the subterfuges of an empty-headed girl in relentless pursuit of a husband. ‘Only the Lonely’, another variation on The Skater’s Waltz, records the long misery of a child neglected by callous parents. But the longest and most distinguished story in Words of Love avoids both sourness and self-pity. ‘Spring Sonata’ records the life of Arthur Hallett, a 96-year-old violinist living alone on the coast of Suffolk. In this story Philip Norman enlarges upon the idea of music as a redemptive force in a soiled world. Hallett is non-political, unworldly, curiously disengaged from life. His wife Delia, dead for twenty years, had aroused feelings of pitying responsibility rather than passion in her husband, and Arthur’s relations with his untuneful son have never been much more than benevolently distant. None of this matters, for Arthur Hallett’s real existence is in music. Having enriched thousands with his playing, he is now rewarded with an untouchable serenity. Music has made him into something approaching an unofficial saint.

What rescues the tale from mawkishness is the luminous precision with which Philip Norman constructs the details of Hallett’s unexceptional childhood, his musical training, his work in the music halls with ‘all the ballet girls laughing and chattering, and there was a gap along the bottom where you could see these feet in little coloured pumps running to and fro. And all the gold tassels on the red velvet were shining and shivering, and the folds of it were sort of billowing out as if there were a great strong wind behind, that could hardly wait to get free.’ An old man’s voice, rambling but purposeful, is allowed to persuade us that innocence can survive every kind of hard time, and still make music at the end of it. This is history as we wish it had happened.

[*] Home Life: Book Three is out now in paperback (Fontana, 160 pp., £3.99, 23 November, 0 00 654381 2).

[†] Now reissued by Hamish Hamilton (331 pp., £13.95, 26 October, 0241 10255 3).