She drew from her garter a dear little dagger …

John Bayley

  • In the Tennessee Country: A Novel by Peter Taylor
    Chatto, 226 pp, £14.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6253 8

Perhaps only new countries can have a real past, peopled with genuine ghosts and filled with authentic records. Or it is countries other than one’s own that are so endowed? Any place that peoples the mind and compels the imagination is not likely to be our own: that past and place are founded, for our own self-preservation, on some variety of Larkin’s ‘forgotten boredom’. And only the best writers can deliberately reveal their own past as a foreign country, where things are differently done.

I had not encountered the Tennessee novelist Peter Taylor before, and this book came as something of a revelation. As a writer he has the gift, which seems both wholly natural and yet to go with a very conscious discipline and decorum, of putting the reader calmly inside his world in his first few sentences. That itself is a gift from the past, as in Jane Austen or Trollope, which some writers of the present can learn to make use of without seeming to be at all artificial, or to be going beyond themselves. Peter Taylor’s voice appears to be as inevitably his own, and yet as much at home with past generations, as Turgenev’s or Aksakov’s, both of whom were endowing what amounted to a new country with the taste and feel of an older literary civility, like Siegfried Sassoon’s in his imaginary memoirs or, if it comes to that, L.P. Hartley’s – he who coined that now famous phrase about the foreignness of the past, as his opening for The Go-Between. All these writers seem at ease with their past selves in a densely social and not strongly individualised sense. At the same time that past can create for literature a self and a voice unlike any other.

‘In the Tennessee country of my forebears it was not uncommon for a man of good character suddenly to disappear.’ Taylor’s first sentence possesses all that old art of settling us down, making us feel at home. The man who disappears is Cousin Aubrey – Aubrey Tucker Bradshaw – the natural son of a maternal great-uncle, whose acquaintance the author first makes on a special funeral train, bearing the body of his grandfather, a celebrated senator, from Washington back home to Nashville, Tennessee. Peter Taylor’s grandfather was in fact, as we learn from the sleeve of the novel, a legendary figure in his own lifetime, a much revered governor of the state, and later a senator. But the wholly fictional spell of the novel is not disturbed for a moment by any of these similarities: indeed, the more obvious the equivalence between the real Peter Taylor and Bradshaw the son, husband and art historian of the novel, the more effectively the novel realises itself as an immaculate piece of fiction, and a subtly unpretentious work of art.

The phenomenon of Cousin Aubrey provides what plot is needed; and at the same time his status as a man of mystery – though in the family he is seen as merely outlandish, even absurd – makes a perfect contrast with the intimacy the reader immediately feels with the narrator’s other relatives, and with the general tenor of his perceptions. As a young man Aubrey has his place as the Governor’s dogsbody, hiring carriages, taking a hand at cards, and squiring the Governor’s daughters on their shopping expeditions downtown. In a Gatsby-like manner he seizes every opportunity and odd moment for self-improvement – he was often discovered by the narrator’s mother, a serious miss of 14, reading ‘something profound and arcane’ on a chair near the door of the Governor’s suite.

To little Trudie, and to her two elder sisters, Cousin Aubrey is a somewhat ludicrous figure. One day in the streetcar, and for all the passengers to hear, he suddenly blurts out to them: ‘I happen to have been eating onions. I wonder if you young ladies have noticed it?’ At such utterances Bertie and Felicia might burst into giggles at the time, but afterwards they had a proper and young-ladylike sense of having been ‘humiliated’; and even Trudie, the narrator’s future mother, would later tell her son that she had felt ‘mortified’. A writer with a more conscious eye on the literary precedents and expectations of our own time would be tempted to be knowing here about such things as the juxtaposition of smells and mouths in the senses of adolescent girls, but Taylor avoids anything like that; not so much by reason of an inferred natural refinement, although this may come into it, as from a sure sense of what an art plucked from the past requires, if it is to remain true to its own unseen conventions.

However embarrassing Aubrey’s conduct, loud boyish voice, and East Tennessee speech may at times be to the young ladies, Trudie at least is deeply impressed by his appetite for books and his infectious ability to learn. Finding him perusing Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, names cautiously read over his shoulder, she would go away and look them up in the encyclopaedia; and at last she became emboldened to ask the reader questions about these fabled writers. One thing leads to another, and we are soon expecting some courtly Southern variant on the Paolo and Francesca situation, some equivalent of the moment when, in Dante’s narrative, ‘we read no further.’ In some odd way, however, we are relieved when this does not occur: the true past, after all, has its standards, and has more sense than to mix it with the literary world of archetype and legend.

What does occur is a touching drama, not from literature but from some more authentically individual world. Aubrey does indeed whisper to the girl: ‘Trudie, I love you and I must find a way to make you my own.’ All she can reply is ‘When? ... When?’ and in the following days she packs her satchel and small suitcase, not with schoolbooks and papers but with ‘important items for a long trip’. Yet when they next meet Aubrey tells her they ‘cannot go away tonight’.

‘Nobody would ever forgive me if I broke the Governor’s trust like this, if I broke everybody’s trust.’

    ‘Oh, Aubrey,’ she burst out. ‘You’ll break my heart!’

    ‘I’ve been awake for three nights thinking about what to do,’ he said. ‘I must not take you away. I’m thinking of you.’

    ‘You’re thinking of me!’ she screamed. ‘You are thinking only of yourself! Oh, I’ll go and throw myself out that window.’ And she now ran across the room and began struggling with the big heavy window sash.

The narrator’s tones remain resolutely unemphatic when he talks about this early episode in his mother’s life, but there is no mistaking the genuineness of her feeling, and its almost Shakespearean strength. The unfortunate Aubrey is honestly torn between the turmoil of his own feelings – the outsider who finds himself beloved from the inside – and the realisation that it is the very impossibility of her youthful emotion that makes it so intense. Henry James could have imagined the scene with a similar sympathy, yet he could never have brought himself to ‘do’ it in a novel. The quiet contrast between the onion-eating young man who makes the sisters giggle and the romantic would-be scholar who has unwittingly produced such feelings, is wholly convincing, as is what follows.

At last she allowed him to take her to the settee again and to go through the motions of comforting her. She did not afterward remember what he had said in the hour that followed. She was never again to listen seriously to anything he said to her. She seemed afterwards to hear him only through the ears of her sisters and to see him only through their eyes. Her papa returned at nine that night, and neither he nor Bertie nor Felicia were ever aware that the scene in the Governor’s suite had taken place.

When the narrator was given his mother’s account of those early events in her life ‘she was very nearly ninety years old, but she was able to speak of it as if it had only happened yesterday ... the shock she underwent as a motherless girl was very great. Perhaps she never allowed herself to face anything again.’ That was indeed how things used to be, in the foreign country of the past; and – more important – the way it was assumed they would go on being.

The effect on Aubrey Bradshaw was possibly no less great, except that there was no one around to observe or to record it. His disappearance after the Governor’s funeral is taken as much for granted as are the studied rituals of decorum that accompanied that slow, prolonged, and fairly eventful funeral progress, in the course of which two uncles become so quietly but firmly intoxicated that they have to be put off the train, and temporarily lodged in a sympathetic Southern doctor’s establishment. The narrator as a small boy on the train is of course unaware of this; and it was one of those things which his mother – no doubt like most other women of the time – faced by not facing it. Taylor’s friendly, unimpassioned prose is extraordinarily good at conveying some unspectacular but bedrock element in the society of that time and place: its conviction that what distinguished man from the brutes was not his passions, which seethed and bubbled with such occasionally destructive or self-destructive fury, but his powers of remaining gentlemanly or ladylike in the face of all this – his powers of keeping up appearances. Whether you spoke with the voice of Tennessee or with the Tidewater Diphthong which showed you had been raised further east in the Carolinas; whether your father had ridden with General Longstreet in his attempt to win all Tennessee for the Southern cause, or had been with those soldiers of the same state who fought for the Union, the same kinds of values were universally taken for granted, if not always upheld.

The many episodes that demarcate the novel’s masterfully subdued pattern draw only this kind of polite attention to themselves. The disinclination of the narrator’s mother ‘to face anything again’ appears in a scene at once touching and comical when her husband, who died very young, becomes angry at the way she drives his pony and chaise.

I remember particularly how she stepped forward and kissed my father on the mouth. But then she quickly stepped back from him and turned away as though she were afraid of him. I recognised a strange fury in the expression of his face, which so often seemed immobile. I saw his two hands were drawn up into fists.

   But I’m sure that in his entire lifetime he never struck mother, any more than he would have struck me. He was always too much in control of himself for that ... It was part of the control he had achieved as a young man. Yet mother did continue to take several steps backward, as if to be sure she was several steps beyond his reach.

When he tells her that two men have stopped him that day in the street to say they would never let any woman ruin a horse of theirs, ‘my mother took still another step backward and said: “Indeed! Indeed!” My father said nothing more except once to repeat her “Indeed!” ’

When mother and son scorched along the dirt roads outside the town, as they had done on that day, she sometimes recited a mysterious poem called ‘Lasca’ about a spirited young lady in Texas who ‘sighed for a canter after the cattle’.

A crack of the whip like a shot in a battle
With the green below and the blue above
And dash and danger and life and love.

The spirited young lady came from East Texas, like the actress the narrator met long afterwards in New York – the only other person he ever met who knew the poem, and who proceeded to recite it to a party of polite but embarrassed Greenwich villagers.

Something in her instep high
Showed that there ran in each blue vein
Mixed with the gentler Aztec strain
The royal vintage of old Spain.

The actress gives him a wink as she declaims those lines, and at a later hour they leave the party together, but she resists all his attempts to ‘see her home’ and vanishes into a solitary taxi. Where his mother’s version of one of the lines was ‘she drew from her bosom a dear little dagger,’ the actress’s preferred ‘she drew from her garter a dear little dagger’; and the narrator found himself afterwards puzzled to say ‘which version represented the gentrification of the text’.

These and so many other charming details, and the pure undoctored solution of the past in which they swim, keep the reader quietly and happily absorbed. So much so, that it is quite a surprise to discover, after the narrator’s happy marriage and modestly successful academic career have been dealt with, that we still have unfinished business in the shape of Cousin Aubrey, who has now transformed himself into Colonel Aubrey Bradshaw-Tucker (to transform yourself into a colonel in the South involves no great strain on either the personal or the collective conscience) and who has made a species of career among elderly ladies, one or two of whom he not unprofitably marries. Such a destiny oddly parallels, or rather complements, what he must have seen as his failure with the 14-year-old who became the narrator’s mother. No wonder she remembered him, and no doubt associated him with that unfulfilled side of life which caused her to recite the thrilling lines of ‘Lasca’ to her son, whose love could not quite get over his embarrassment at the recollection of her ringing, ‘poetry-reading’ tones, so different from the gentle and gentrified daily persona which he depended on in her.

The Henry James of the late A Small Boy and Others, whose most subtle short story is ‘A Landscape Painter’, the second he ever wrote, would have adored this book, even though he was himself too busy writing to read often or much. The narrator of In the Tennessee Country wished to become a painter, but settles to be an art historian, while seeing his son become a famous artist. This says something about the modesty of the actual Peter Taylor, now nearing the age of 80, who has had a distinguished career teaching English, and whose earlier novels and short stories I shall at once take pleasure in getting to know.