In the Company of Confreres

Terry Eagleton

  • On Modern British Fiction edited by Zachary Leader
    Oxford, 328 pp, £14.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 19 924932 6

During the half-century since 1950, Lindsay Duguid writes in an essay in this collection, ‘the lady novelist turned into the woman writer,’ the historical novel became respectable once again, crime fiction became respectable for the first time, and the English novel was reborn as the British novel. Indian novelists revealed a ‘fondness for identical twins’, while angels, giants, babies and women who pass as men grew curiously fashionable. ‘In 1999, three British novels and one American novel featured a heroine in a coma.’ Stuffed with literary graduates, publishers’ offices are increasingly coming up with paradoxical comparisons for dustjackets: ‘Brighton Rock written by Charlotte Brontë’; ‘the Camus of the backpacking generation’.

Not all ladies have become women. In a chapter here on P.D. James, Martin Priestman records her distrust of ambitious professional women, approval of loyal housekeepers and disdain for people who say ‘toilet’ when they mean ‘lavatory’. At one point she feels the need to remind herself that not everyone wants to live ‘in a quiet Georgian house in Greenwich’. Indeed, some of James’s characters would much rather live in Elizabethan manor houses. Stepping out of his car to survey one, James’s detective Adam Dalgleish instantly registers its symmetrical mullioned and transomed windows with a heavy carved coat of arms above the dripstone, while his plebeian sidekick murmurs that it’s a ‘nice-looking place’. Of such aesthetic distinctions is Jamesian humanity composed. Her more recent novels, Priestman concedes, have grudgingly gone in for a spot of incest and unmarried motherhood – in A Certain Justice we are even given a ‘black smudge of pubic hair’ – but they still feel more at home grousing about the lower orders or condemning as racist the charge that the Metropolitan Police Force is institutionally racist.

One might define fiction as the kind of writing in which it is impossible to tell the truth and very hard to make a mistake. If authors insist that what they are saying is actually true, we would take this as a fictional pronouncement. If they place the Prado in Lisbon, we would assume that this, like everything else in a piece of prose labelled ‘novel’, is to be taken as deliberate. Novels come complete with a number of invisible instructions, one of which reads: ‘Take everything here as intentional.’ Martin Priestman’s essay, by contrast, suggests a new definition of literary criticism as a form of writing in which you are allowed with impunity to give away the endings of whodunnits. We are told on page 248 who strangled Sally in James’s Cover Her Face (it wasn’t, of course, the loyal housekeeper), and a page later Priestman coolly lets the murderer of A Certain Justice out of the bag. If this kind of thing catches on, one can imagine the Crime Writers Guild threatening to withdraw their labour.

Whether Iris Murdoch was a lady or a woman is hard to say. In a busily energetic, impressively wide-ranging chapter, Valentine Cunningham lavishes the customary critical praise on her conception of human life as sprawling, contingent and delightfully muddled. This delight in messiness was not in fact confined to her art, as Martin Amis points out in a brief, reprinted piece: in the Murdoch-Bayley ménage, ‘even the soap is filthy,’ while odd shoes and socks lie about the house as if, in Bayley’s words, ‘deposited by a flash flood’. No wonder her most famous essay is entitled ‘Against Dryness’. A large meat pie is simply swallowed up by their crammed maw of a kitchen, never to resurface. Murdoch and Bayley, Amis comments, are ‘the kind of people who like being ill and like getting old, who prefer winter to summer and autumn to spring’. These Babes in the Wood crave the rainy, stained and soggy.

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