Her Proper Duties

Tessa Hadley

  • Constitutional by Helen Simpson
    Cape, 144 pp, £14.99, December 2005, ISBN 0 224 07794 5

Parenthood happens in sections. The son’s Bildungsroman is the mother’s series of short stories: no sooner has he stopped being the free woman’s dilemma (to reproduce or not to reproduce) than he’s her fat sucking baby; then he’s a needy toddler, then a child bonding and fighting with siblings, then a boy thinking for himself, drawing away from closeness. And so on, until the parenting part is more or less over. Since her first collection was published 16 years ago, Helen Simpson’s stories have charted that succession of stages: sex and pregnancy in Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990), babies in Dear George (1995), in Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000), ‘the squabbly nuclear family unit . . . awful hobbling five-and six-legged races’. In ‘Early One Morning’, one of the stories in Constitutional, Zoe savours the hour and a half spent with her interesting nine-year-old son on the school run. (They only travel – this is London – a total of five and a half miles in that time; most of it is spent in traffic jams.) Simpson writes stories about all sorts of things, but the ones about family life and motherhood set the tone for each collection. And her choice of form (she only writes short stories) may well be influenced by this material no sooner grasped than gone, these shape-changing offspring.

Many writers, even most writers, at least since Goethe and Wordsworth, have explored what it means to have been children; we all have that experience in common. But parenthood has been a trickier and more compromising subject, for women writers in particular. When women first began to write ambitiously, and for a living, they were contending with a perception that theirs could only be a surrogate creativity, a displacement of their natural function. (Southey wrote to Charlotte Brontë: ‘The more [a woman] is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for literature.’) So many women writers weren’t mothers (chose not to be mothers?); mostly, no doubt, because of the practical impossibility of finding enough hours in the day for both things. But it must also have taken extraordinary independence of spirit for mothers to grant themselves permission to make the investments that writing requires, independent of their relations to their children. There were of course mother-writers: Mrs Oliphant, for example, her husband first feckless and then dead, wrote for her children, earning by her midnight labours enough to send her sons to Eton, the novels justified as maternal sacrifice.

Perhaps there’s a deep antagonism, anyway, between parenting and literature, both of them empathetic and imaginative; both looking into the future (the finished book, the grown-up child); both hungry to possess their maker. These tensions for women have written themselves out in literature in various ways. Alongside the sanctification of motherhood in Victorian fiction ran its orphan obsessions; mothers were yearned for but were often dead (one shouldn’t be flippant: mothers really were dead, often); plots tended to cram themselves into the narrow space of courtship between childhood and motherhood. In the Modernist period, Woolf, Rhys, Bowen and others kicked away with relief the hobbles of feminine guilt, and wrote their way into a writer-identity as free as that of their male contemporaries, making a point of avoiding as subject-matter the daily engagements of parenthood (with the significant exception of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse). It’s true that parenthood has hobbled men too, sometimes: to remind us there’s Raymond Carver’s extraordinary and perhaps not quite forgivable accusation, in his essay ‘Fires’, that his children prevented him from working on his stories. The practicalities did for him: a terrible sense of his life having been wasted sweeps over him in the laundromat, as he waits for a dryer.

Somewhere behind every child discovering the wonder and terror of the universe there are harassed parents worrying about clean clothes, and coughs; picking up toys and agonising over delinquent tendencies. At the end of War and Peace, Natasha rushes out to show Pierre the colour of the stains on their baby’s nappy. The drive of the book has been against a current of free, dangerous sexuality and into the harbour of domestic life: what more could anyone wish for Pierre, for Natasha, than this security, this peace? Yet Natasha is so much more interesting earlier, youthful and virgin, deliriously infatuated with the worthless Kuragin. The triumph of the novel’s completion is real, everyone’s end-of-desire: and it’s also a necessary subsidence into a domesticity about which, for the moment, there’s not much more to say. Motherhood has made Natasha boring.

In her story ‘Heavy Weather’, in Dear George, Simpson explores just this nexus of energies and anxieties surrounding the question of what there is left to say. Even Frances and Jonathan’s sex life is on hold, under the pressures of parenting:

They were on ice at the moment, so far as anything else was concerned. The smoothness and sweet smell of their children, the baby’s densely packed pearly limbs, the freshness of the little girl’s breath when she yawned, these combined to accentuate the grossness of their own bodies. They eyed each other’s mooching adult bulk with mutual lack of enthusiasm, and fell asleep.

The story’s title suggests the parents’ shame at their incapacity to carry off their caring labours with grace. One of the aspects of parenting that Simpson writes about so well is the cyclical exchange of energies inside the nuclear family; as if the parents have to become gross, grotesque even (‘her stained and crumpled shirt undone, her hair a bird’s nest, her face craggy with fatigue’), in order for their children to be exquisite and graceful. When Frances gets two-year-old Lorna from her cot, the room ‘stank like a lion house’; as Frances detaches ‘the dense brown nappy from between her knees’, the little girl carols ‘“I can sing a rainbow,” raising her faint fine eyebrows at the high note, graceful and perfect, as her mother sluiced her down with jugs of water.’ Although it’s the children producing the stink and the shit and the heavy labour, all these attach to the parents, turning them into drudges down amid the mess, while their children soar free above it.

While Lorna laughs, dances, throws tantrums, finds out the difference between girls and boys, her mother has to remember all the paraphernalia needed for a morning out in the car. ‘Juice. Beaker with screw-on lid. Flannels. Towels. Changes of clothes in case of car sickness. Nappies. Rattle. Clean muslins to catch Matthew’s curdy regurgitations.’ ‘Don’t talk,’ Lorna shouts at her parents, when they try to discuss the changes the children have made to their relationship. ‘Stop reading, Mummy,’ she shouts if Frances picks up a book, ‘pulling her by the nose until she was looking into her small cross face’. Helplessly, knowing it, the parents become the mere machinery required for nurturing the next generation; and this is precisely the aspect of parenthood that has made writers wary. Literature has preferred to reflect the escapee, not the dreary enforcer of the daily round. Simpson is honestly exact about the sheer materiality of domesticity.

The story doesn’t end there. In the last pages of ‘Heavy Weather’, Frances achieves a moment’s equipoise; after a hailstorm the sky clears, they go to the beach, and walking towards her family along the water’s edge she can see them for a moment in a longer perspective than the usual overwhelming close-up: ‘I’ve done it, she thought, and I’m still alive. She took her time, dawdling with deliberate pleasure, as though she were carrying a full glass of milk and might not spill a drop.’

The domesticity in Simpson’s new collection isn’t of the early-childhood all-absorbing kind; the longer perspective on family life that Frances achieves for one moment on the beach is established at the centre of ‘Early One Morning’, the school-run story. Something in the density of the sentences is changed by this change of focus, reflecting the different position of Zoe, the mother here, in relation to her son George; the writing is looser, more freewheeling and speculative. Instead of mother and child being bound together in the physicality of feeding, nappy-changing, crying and comforting, they begin to observe one another across the separation between two independent individuals; the gap grows wider yearly, daily. Even in ‘Heavy Weather’, when Frances reminds herself that ‘this great heavy child grew in the centre of my body,’ ‘the idea had started to grow blunt, worn down by its own regular self-contemplation.’ Now that Zoe’s son is nine, the astonishing primal connection has sunk out of sight. In place of it, the two build carefully, out of their mutually considerate talk (George is a very nice boy), civilised relations.

Simpson understands that conversation makes all the difference; it’s there in the first sentence of the story: ‘Sometimes they were quiet in the car and sometimes they talked.’ The child-talk is very well observed, without sentimentality. George is talking to discover the world; listening to his mother, but listening also to his teachers and his peers, now; he’s poised at that age of unagonised curiosity before speculation moves inwards, in adolescence. Zoe listens to him; she makes it a rule when his friends get in the car not to interrupt, to keep out of their conversation; not only so that she can eavesdrop – although she does – but also to leave the children free to think, not to weigh in with her adult authority. (She intervenes only when they start discussing pulling tapeworms out through your bottom: ‘Too early in the morning.’) The flow in the mother-child relationship isn’t all one way now, and its developing reciprocity represents a new freedom for the mother, and for the writer too; the narrative feels delicately open, just like Zoe’s reticent listening inside the story. The sentences in ‘Heavy Weather’ are freighted with solid objects and physical contacts, with no room for escape; in ‘Early One Morning’ Zoe’s narrative moves easily out of the children’s talk and round her private thoughts, and back again.

Out of the problematic tedium of domestic routine Simpson makes an interesting subject; offering in the face of its banality and repetition not so much a protest as an inquiry. What is sophisticated educated intelligence to do with these parts of life, down here among the nappies, stuck on the school run; what do these experiences mean, and what kinds of story can we tell about them? Her more realist stories borrow their loose form from daily patterns: a car journey, a walk on Hampstead Heath. Moving round and round inside ordinary things, we are initiated almost off-handedly into their surprises, their secrets: when George ‘was little his hands had been like velvet, without knuckles or veins; he used to put his small warm hands up her cardigan sleeves when he was wheedling for something’; Zoe remembers hearing around her in a café ‘the steady self-justificatory hum of women telling each other the latest version of themselves’.

Released from the absolute involvement of mothering tiny children, Zoe is both liberated and sorry; George when they arrive at school finds a pretext to kiss her surreptitiously goodbye, but he won’t – can’t – go on doing this for much longer. Relinquishing closeness, parents see themselves as being moved aside to make room for the next generation’s story, and this is in keeping with the moody reflectiveness of the new collection: not death-haunted exactly, but death-troubled. A schoolteacher’s walk on the Heath has her poised on a cusp of awareness between a 93-year-old friend’s funeral and her own new, first, late pregnancy (‘Thou metst with things dying, I with things new-born’). An experienced mother, relishing her freedom alone at the swimming-baths, intervenes in a struggle between a sobbing, stubborn little girl and her bitterly resentful Czech nanny, not much more than a child herself. A son, unable to give his ageing mother the unconditional support she asks him for – he has to earn a living after all – takes out his anger on the tree-surgeons she says have cheated her; it turns out she’s remembered the wrong firm. The old dead tree, covered in the strangulating ivy that makes Derek shudder, ‘flies and wasps crawling all over the ivy berries’, is like their past, the old knowledge only they have of each other, haunting and finished with: ‘“I did a good job getting rid of it,” she said down the phone. “I ripped it all out, it took me the full morning.”’

It’s a relief that Derek at least tries to be good to his old mother, because in other stories the men can come over as too uncomplicatedly unsympathetic; the war-mad boyfriend in ‘The Phlebotomist’s Love Life’ and the smug foreign correspondent in ‘If I’m Spared’ are easy targets. In ‘The Door’, though, there’s a sympathetic portrait of male steadiness and strength; Matthew, with his scrupulous knowledge of how to make things work, hangs the door that will let the bereaved protagonist move in and out of the world again. A couple of stories reprise the ferocious fantastical comedy that has always been an element in Simpson’s manner: one a riff on middle-aged mortality, neighbours going down like flies; one a visitation from a spirit-of-Christmas life-coach. Mostly, though, Simpson’s mode is soberly meditative, anchored to earth; and while these realist stories might at first sight look more conventional, they are in their determined everydayness a more interesting experiment.