Dressed in black

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Furies by Janet Hobhouse
    Bloomsbury, 296 pp, £15.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1270 1

This beautiful, vexed and tragic novel is well served by its title, for its narrating heroine both wrestles with and represents the female forces of retribution; and since Orestes at last escapes maternal retribution, Janet Hobhouse’s Helen is arguably the more tragic character of the two. Yet the saddest page of the book comes before the story: ‘Hobhouse, Janet, 1948-91 ... Copyright 1993 by the Estate of Janet Hobhouse’. I had met (I cannot say ‘I knew’) Janet Hobhouse in her youth, when I was a graduate student at Oxford and she was an undergraduate. I feel embarrassed about surviving such a vital person who was substantially younger than myself. Perhaps the most surprising thing about death, that great commonplace, is that it never ceases to surprise.

The sure touch of the book as a piece of cultural history, of American history, is immediately striking:

That my mother, who viewed herself as related to very few other beings in the universe, should have descended in a mere three generations from this world of wealth and kindness, this reliable multiplicity of connected others, this cohabitation of cousins, aunts, servants, etc, says something about the speed of American life in this century, which can not only provide a solitary immigrant with the means to create, in a matter of decades, a secure and well-populated dynasty, but can also, and at the same rate, take all these steps in reverse, reducing, as in our case, a huge, prosperous, civically active and internationally connected clan to a mere handful of desperate solitaries, operating like loose ball bearings in outer space.

‘Why, this is Edith Wharton!’ I thought as I started reading it: ‘a new Edith Wharton for our time.’ Of course, I was wrong about Wharton, as I found on reading the book further. Janet Hobhouse is concerned with the intensities of the solitudes rather than with the dynasties and their breaking down. Edith Wharton sustains a social vision throughout any given novel: Hobhouse brings one in intermittently – angrily, like an existentialist acknowledging the constraints of history. Yet historical and cultural restraints are very much part of the subject here, along with a romantic desire to transcend or subvert them. The quality of the anger makes Hobhouse a truly American writer. (The English are less likely to experience vivid indignation or contempt at the way in which human beings are shaped by class, periods and settings.) At the same time, Hobhouse must count as an English writer, too. Like her heroine, whom Janet Hobhouse closely resembles, she had an English father, and in part, if reluctantly, she adopted England as a country (not the country) of her own. The Furies can be read as another Portrait of a Lady, the representation of a young woman essentially on her own coping with the experience of existing in divided and distinguished worlds. Hobhouse’s Helen, like James’s Isabel Archer, is perpetually an alien. But there are big differences from the James novel, the most obvious being that The Furies is narrated in the first person, and could not be told in any other way. There is no wise third-person voice to ruminate on history, on causes and consequences. It is left to the heroine, that vibrant sensibility, to supply general comment as well as to describe the impact of living as body and as subject, as an ‘I’.

The truly uncommon fact about this novel, however, is that its central interest is in the relationship of women. The relation of women across the generations, a subject of the first part of the book, has been dealt with by other women novelists; but in this novel, the generational interest is intensely personal rather than dynastic. In The Furies, the central and obsessive love is daughter-mother love. The daughter was the obsession and the beloved of her mother, Bett, a lovely if ineffectual woman who brings her child up during hard times in the Fifties, while fighting off a mysterious mental disease entailing curious absences of mind and heart. Escaping the curse of her adored mother, Helen takes refuge in schoolwork, boyfriends, nocturnal expeditions in New York City – and then, still in her midteens, makes the great escape by claiming the cold, repulsively critical English father she has never known. Semi-adopted by him and his well-intentioned wife, Helen reluctantly comes to terms with England. She attends Oxford, and marries an Englishman. The couple take up residence in New York in the Seventies and Helen finds that her relation with her mother must be recovered, even if the recovery proves fatal. Helen may say that she was the love of Bett’s life, but it is quite clear that Bett is the great love of Helen’s life.

This is disconcerting, even for a woman reader. We are all used to thinking of a woman obsessing over a male lover, or perhaps even over a child. Few have tackled a daughter’s love for her mother as a central fact of her existence. (The mother-daughter relationship has been dealt with more honestly in non-fiction than in fiction – Mme de Sévigné’s great love was obviously her daughter.) Women readers, as well as men, are accustomed to assuming that a woman ought, as Freud advises, to find a ‘mature’ or ‘adult’ heterosexual male beloved. Directed towards the mother, adoration looks ‘unnatural’ – it would even be better, we think, more respectable, if the woman had a coeval female lover, as did Gertrude Stein, who also interested Janet Hobhouse.

Yet Hobhouse is also one of the best writers of recent times at describing female heterosexual love; indeed, in representing this passion, I think she has very few competitors. The descriptions of the full tide of sexual passion come in Chapter Six, the Oxford chapter. The narrator speaks of herself and her peers coming to a town which is already mythological and literary: ‘enticed by centuries of rapt description of the place, and particularly by certain writings of Thomas Hardy, Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm, we know exactly what Oxford will be: unearthly bliss in the moment, and the object of sweet, aching nostalgia ever after.’ The novel appears to be about to deflate this notion of Oxford, treating it sceptically, ironically, with the distances and resentment that Helen, like her author, seems to have felt. Yet this part of The Furies in the end becomes its own kind of Brideshead.

Unlike some ‘Oxford novels’, Hobhouse’s book does not quite ignore academic endeavour. For Hobhouse’s Helen, newly metamorphosed into a partly English and newly non-American hybrid, unsure of her cultural identity, reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics seems to offer a mode of insight. ‘I want to find out how to live, who other people are, who I am and how we can co-exist.’ But PPE offers nothing to satisfy such hunger, and Helen switches to English Literature, despite the doubts expressed by the vice-principal of her women’s college, Miss Hope – a portrait etched in acid. I knew the original ‘Miss Hope’, whom I like, and I think that the stubborn Edwardian gentlewoman and the stubborn Sixties girl had some qualities in common – but it would take about three incarnations apiece for them to discover this affinity. Janet had every good gift of spirit and intellect, I think, except a sense of humour. Wit, yes. Humour, no. I can see her, dressed always in black (like her heroine), tall and alienated and dramatic, stalking through the corridors of Lady Margaret Hall. I had only one real conversation with Janet Hobhouse, and that, as I remember it, was in Oxford train station – a location suitable to the memory of one who was always in transition. Janet said passionately how much she disliked Oxford – surprising myself, who still loved Oxford with a devotion that might have seemed simple-minded even to me if it had not been so iridescent. I was impressed by both the intensity and the sophistication of Janet’s dislike. Now, reading a chapter in which everything in the novel seems recognisable, I imagine that Janet at the time of our conversation must have been enduring the unhappy interval of separation from the man who emerges here as Hugh. The love of Helen and Hugh is at the centre of the Oxford chapter, and the young woman who could announce her dislike of Oxford so firmly was to write a love song to it.

The experience narrated by Helen is an almost defiant discovery of the union of love and sex:

I was now, as I felt, in love for the first time, completely and with my entire will. Sex was therefore an expression of what had already happened between Hugh and me ... What followed was so entirely different from my previous experience that it seemed to absolve me from everything that went before ... That summer in New York had taught me, or I had taught myself, to be an observer at my own dismemberment, a herbivore at the feast. Disembodied, aware only that sex was taking place in the same room as myself, at most involving a detachable part of me, I imagined I could simply take up the pieces of myself and go home. I’d learned a dangerous skill, a ready access to dissociation. Imagining I was not engaged by it, I was nevertheless harmed, and it was Hugh who put me back together.

So far, the sensible sexologist or magazine moralist might agree with Helen. But Hobhouse is willing to let her heroine’s description move beyond the boundaries that customarily apply to modern descriptions of sexual ‘relationships’ or sexual techniques. Her study of English literature was of help to her here, despite the dubieties of Miss Hope. The whole Oxford love section of the novel is richly sustained in literary allusions and recollections. We can recognise, for instance, in ‘sex taking place in the same room as myself’ a reworking of Dickens’s Mrs Gradgrind’s plaintive: ‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room, but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it’. The next paragraph moves us from the 19th century to the 17th, or even the eighth, in a whirl of allusion:

Like two hippies on drugs and religion, we were held in light. Even to us then the experience had an unfamiliar religious quality, and there would be a reliable descent of the Holy Ghost when we were together. Lying side by side, we would sense it approaching and would say, amazed and irreverent: ‘Here it comes again.’ In our dumbness we had no ready language for what was happening to us. It was a mystery for which we needed ancient and poetic explanation. Haelsgebedda we called each other, after endearments in Beowulf, or plundering Milton, ‘flesh of my flesh, bone of bone’. Or, giving up, we used our own unbelieving English: ‘the third person’, we said again and again, as the alien spirit, sensational cloud-form, dropped like a theatre-prop on invisible ropes.

Janet Hobhouse exhibits courage in writing this, for there has been a considerable investment in cultural forgetting, a relinquishment and erasure of the spiritual possibility in sex. The Furies brings back, sharply, the remembrance of the early and mid-Sixties, the last moment (so it seems) in which love-passion, love-devotion was known or even permitted.

Reading Hobhouse’s novel, I want to say yes, that is how it was in the Sixties. But with the advent of the era we now call ‘The Sixties’, beginning with Flower Power in 1967, and continuing through the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and événements of 1968, a new culture emerged. That culture was socially insistent and extroverted. If you were ambitious you joined a corporation; if you were dreamy you joined a commune. Love was to be universal, and sex should not be unsociably limited to a preferred object. This externalisation of emotion combined quite well with a certain hard-edged materialism also characteristic of the Seventies, a period of grumbling because material resources were not good enough – even though the brightest shiniest materialism was to be sacred to the Eighties. Hobhouse’s novel traces that history too, in ironic and often sad counterpoint. Helen at last betrays Hugh, absent teaching in Germany; one is not surprised to find the betrayal happening ‘halfway between the end of the Summer of Love and the Events of May 1968’, when Helen met ‘the brilliant Etonian’, Edward: ‘his apparent pennilessness added to the sense I had of the poetic nature of his universe, its unworldliness and virtue. Add to this the peculiar odour, strong but not unpleasant, which I’d come to associate with Etonians (the smell of infrequently washed adolescents in formal clothes), and that bare modern college room with the two beautiful blue china plates and the 17th-century leather books, but nothing else’.

The appeal of this man stimulates Helen to initiate him into love’s mystery. ‘Despite the irony I am aware that it is Hugh’s gift I pass on: sex undivorced from love.’ Hugh’s reproaches and her own grief make no difference. Helen and Edward are eventually stuck in a marriage fated to be unhappy. Did ‘the Furies’ of maternal inheritance engineer the break-up of Hugh and Helen? Or is what happened an aspect of a historical Fate, the cultural change which made constancy in love seem ridiculous?

Oxford is a great setting for love, in literature and life, and its loves almost always go wrong. Having brought off such an impressive contribution to Oxford’s perpetual plot, Hobhouse is the more impressive in overriding that story, continuing the heroine’s life and adventures and moving towards her story’s real climax, which is the playing-out of the tormented love of mother and daughter. The allusion-studded Oxford style has modulated into a more direct and curiously more sensuous language. Hobhouse is as good at the passion of grief as she is on the passion of heterosexual love; few writers have managed to express the intensity of the experience of mourning, ‘the mourning sickness, the green sickness’.

When I put these things of hers on, they disappear as things, they become magic only, conduits, ways of connecting. I try to put on her high heels but my heels stick out like the ugly stepsister in Cinderella and I’m afraid I’ll hurt the shoes. I touch the bra but I don’t put it on because I’d feel like a pervert ... I’m standing there with one of her shoes half on and her blue T-shirt over her nightgown and her earrings and necklace and perfume and make-up on, pressing myself into whatever is left of her, trying to take her heat and smell and body shapes into me, like some cannibal, like some early Christian getting the Eucharist all wrong, like some drag queen, like some old tart, now with her lipstick on my mouth and my eyes streaming her make-up, like that, hobbling up and down on the one high heel across the room, like that I go back to bed, collapse on the sheets, taking my mother or all that is left of her into bed with me.

Janet Hobhouse’s best writing is undoubtedly found in her descriptions of extreme emotional states. She is a writer of feeling who is in favour of feeling. This makes her atypical of her era, although her kind of irony is familiar to the Seventies and Eighties. The young of the Nineties, who also dress in solemn black and are elegant and serious and caustic and sad, may understand her respect for emotion in a way that her contemporaries rarely could or did.