I love her to bits

Deborah Friedell

  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
    Chatto, 419 pp, £20.00, September, ISBN 978 1 78474 232 4

In P.D. James’s strangest novel, The Children of Men (1992), humans stop being able to get pregnant, and no one can figure out why. Scientific research comes to nothing. Years pass without a newborn child. All the nurseries close, then all the schools. With no hope of posterity, landowners let their estates rot; scholars take up golf. Only the richest or best-connected are able to get a place in one of the increasingly rare care homes, run by increasingly senescent carers. Without children or grandchildren, people dote on their pets, and envy them for still being able to reproduce. When a small deer wanders into an Oxford chapel, the chaplain rushes at it, hurling prayerbooks: ‘Christ, why can’t they wait? Bloody animals. They’ll have it all soon enough. Why can’t they wait?’

James had spent years in the civil service before she started writing novels. She had an idea of how a competent government would try to keep the essential parts of the state going until everyone had vanished, and was interested in the way people would behave if they didn’t have anyone to work for, or to be judged by, in the future. When Iain Sinclair wrote about her novels for the LRB in 1994, he suggested that the reason this one never found its audience is that it’s missing the ‘pepper of spite’: there’s not enough anger in it, no one for us to enjoy hating. When Alfonso Cuarón turned it into a movie, he made the government ministers cruel, particularly to refugees – whereas James’s government prudently welcomes in anyone it can exploit to empty bedpans.

I once imagined that The Children of Men was a sequel to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), just set a few years later, and in a less benighted country. In Atwood’s novel, it’s still possible to see a pregnant woman, but she’s a ‘magic presence’, a ‘flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done’, an ‘object of envy and desire’. And also of fear, because the baby she’s carrying is probably dead (a ‘shredder’), or ‘something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart, or no arms, or webbed hands and feet’. In such a world, Atwood asks, for how long would women have access to contraception, or be allowed to have abortions? Wouldn’t they find out that their liberation had only ever been temporary, an ‘anomaly, historically speaking’, as one character says, ‘just a fluke’? The novel’s narrator, a white, middle-class woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thought that feminism had finished its work – her husband does the cooking – but that was before the global birthrate had gone ‘down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down’. There’s unrest, a coup. Just before the novel begins, new leaders – Christian zealots called the Sons of Jacob – have taken over the country, now renamed Gilead, and claimed all the fertile women for themselves and their followers. When extinction is nigh, James’s characters consider how best to deplete their wine cellars (‘still laying down, of course, but on a reduced scale’). Atwood suggests that people – or at least Americans – wouldn’t give up so easily.

American divines have produced some fantastically literal readings of the Bible, but probably none as ingeniously kinky as Atwood’s take on the beginning of Genesis 30, which also serves as the novel’s epigraph:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

Atwood’s narrator has recently been renamed ‘Offred’, as in ‘Of Fred’, the name of the Sons of Jacob ‘commander’ who regularly attempts to inseminate her, Jacob and Bilhah style, while she lies on top of his wife, Serena Joy:

Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.

My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers. This is supposed to signify that we are one flesh, one being … My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking.

Offred wears red because it’s the rule in fictional dystopias that everyone has a uniform. In The Handmaid’s Tale high-class wives wear blue, like the Virgin; their servants wear dull green; and their sex-slaves-for-procreation-purposes-only, called ‘hand-maids’ after Bilhah, wear red because they’re sexy, fallen, still menstruating. If they don’t get pregnant, they’ll be sentenced to shovel toxic waste, unless they can escape to Canada via the ‘Underground Femaleroad’. She remembers our own world with longing: ‘All those women having jobs: hard to imagine now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing.’ She wishes that she’d been less embarrassed by her mother, a feminist activist, whom she’d dismissed as too alarmist, a little ridiculous. She keeps remembering the soldiers who took her away from her husband: she knows that he’s dead, and at the same time believes that he’s still in prison, and that he made it out of Gilead, and that he’s joined the resistance. ‘This contradictory way of believing seems to me, right now, the only way I can believe anything.’ She tries not to think about her daughter, who has been given new state-approved parents, and whom she’s not allowed to see.

When the TV adaptation premiered a few months after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, I watched the first episodes on my computer, toggling between them and the news. Some critics argued that the show’s violence amounted to torture porn, but that’s what I liked about it. ‘It’s a show that takes my anxiety seriously,’ I would say. Some handmaids have their mouths stapled shut to prevent them from speaking – why not? Wouldn’t Trump like to do the same? Atwood has said that she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale as a ‘warning’: ‘I have never believed it can’t happen here. I’ve never believed that. And more and more people are joining me in that lack of belief.’ But the most terrible things that happen to Offred in the novel have already happened to women in America, just not to white ones. There are no black people in The Handmaid’s Tale, even though, as the critic Priya Nair has argued, the story ‘takes from the oppression of black women and applies it indiscriminately to white women’. Once you see this, you can’t unsee it. The narrator is kidnapped and separated from her husband and child; her name is changed and she’s forbidden to read or write; she’s raped in order to have a chance of bearing children, who will be taken away from her. But what’s exciting about The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that we’re made to sympathise with women who were slaves, or who are now in America’s prisons, or who live in Afghanistan or Yemen, but that even the most powerful white women are invited (or ‘warned’) to imagine themselves as victims. It’s the opposite of being told to ‘check your privilege’, and it’s titillating. In an introduction to Beloved, Toni Morrison wrote about her attempt to write about the ‘different history of black women’ in America: ‘a history in which marriage was discouraged, impossible or illegal; in which birthing children was required, but “having” them, being responsible for them – being, in other words, their parent – was as out of the question as freedom.’ That’s the history Atwood gives to Offred, but The Handmaid’s Tale is much more crudely effective entertainment than Beloved: the ending is more hopeful, and the sex is phenomenal. When the commander can’t get Offred pregnant, Serena Joy arranges assignations for her with a studlier guard: ‘The fact is that I no longer want to leave, escape, cross the border to freedom. I want to be here, with Nick, where I can get at him.’

It is, as they say, problematic. And now: the sequel, The Testaments, published 34 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. In between, Atwood has created ever more voguish sci-fi dystopias – she prefers the term ‘speculative fiction’ – chock-full of viral pandemics, antibiotic resistance, mass flooding and forest fires, crop failure, mass extinction. No current anxiety is left behind. Governments become subservient to wicked multinationals; every other child has autism; coastal cities disappear one by one. In these novels, the status of women is no longer in dispute, just in time for the world to end, in a surfeit of ways, including starvation as a result of overpopulation. Atwood herself seemed to have moved on from the concerns of Gilead, even if her fans hadn’t, but then, she says, Trump’s election ‘put wind in my sails’. She wanted to answer the question: how does Gilead end?

The Testaments is careful, too careful, to defer to the television version of Gilead, and is careful not to restrict the television writers now making Season 4. Offred was the narrator of Atwood’s novel, but not its heroine. She does as she’s told because she wants to ‘keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others.’ That won’t do for TV, where she assassinates a high-ranking Son of Jacob in one episode and commandeers a cargo plane in another. She has a baby, Nicole, whom she’s able to smuggle out to Canada while she stays behind to lead the resistance. Rather than engage with Offred the action hero, Atwood politely cedes her to the TV show, and instead focuses on one of the ‘aunts’, the brown-uniformed middle-aged women who in The Handmaid’s Tale are entrusted to discipline other women with cattle prods. The Sons of Jacob decided that the ‘best and most cost-effective way to control women was through the women themselves’, to create kapos, and so the aunts preside over the ‘salvagings’ and ‘particicutions’, where enemies of the state are stoned or torn apart. You can see Atwood playing one in the first episode of the show, just out of focus, hitting Offred on the head.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, novel version, the aunts seemed – at least to Offred – to be sadistic true believers. One of them, Aunt Lydia, likes to make the handmaids-in-training watch pre-Gilead pornography: ‘women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside-down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed’. ‘“Consider the alternatives,” said Aunt Lydia. “You see what things used to be like? That was what they thought of women, then.” Her voice trembled with indignation.’ The actress Ann Dowd didn’t want to play a Nazi bitch, and so for the TV show, as she told Vanity Fair, she instead imagined Aunt Lydia as a ‘shepherd desperately trying to lead her flock to safety’; her methods might seem harsh (she punishes misbehaving handmaids by taking away body parts they don’t need for baby-making – hands, eyes, clitorises), but she’s just trying to get her girls to behave so that they can repopulate the earth. ‘I love her to bits.’ And now Atwood evidently does too, because in The Testaments Aunt Lydia is unexpectedly revealed to have been playing the long game, compiling ‘dirt’ and ‘incriminating documents’ on the Sons of Jacob commanders that, if released to the world, would be ‘instrumental in initiating the final collapse of Gilead’. In a novel in which most women aren’t allowed to have pens, she’s created an entire surveillance network. Her microphones aren’t a metaphor:

All things come to she who waits … It has been so crucial for my own mental development to have had the privilege of being a fly on the wall; or, to be more exact, an ear inside the wall. So instructive, the confidences shared by young women when they believe no third party is listening. Over the years I increased the sensitivity of my microphones, I attuned them to whispers, I held my breath to see which of our newly recruited girls would provide me with the sort of shameful information I both craved and collected. Gradually my dossiers filled up, like a hot-air balloon getting ready for liftoff.

The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that’s more shameful than what they’ve been doing openly? Nevertheless, the novel is one long caper: how will Aunt Lydia get her incriminating information, whatever it is, out to the foreign press and bring down the regime? She contrives for Offred’s daughter, now a teenager, to smuggle herself back into Gilead, so that the documents, reduced to a microdot, can be implanted in her arm; the plan is then to smuggle Nicole out of Gilead, via the resistance network, so that she can release the documents to the Canadian press. I can’t quite work out why it needs to be so complicated – Aunt Lydia has loyal spies, posing as missionaries, who travel between Gilead and Canada. Why can’t she just give them the microdot? Until the end of the novel, I mistakenly thought that it would all prove to be a dark comedy. It might once have been the case that all it would take to bring down a ruler was clear evidence of his corruption. If The Testaments were truly a novel for our times, after Aunt Lydia and her allies had succeeded in getting the documents out, after having risked, as they do in Atwood’s book, discovery and death in almost every chapter, journalists would write about them; and nothing would happen.