Faint hopes and the self, Heather Murray

Proud Garments
Barbara Anderson
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 316 X

Proud Garments is a perfect novel for the end of a century,  an elegy for an age, not going out with the atomic bang we might once have reasonably expected but with a whimper. Like the century, this novel measures out its days in an autumnal pavane written in a minor key: worldly-wise, but its energies dissipated, old directions lost sight of, no new directions ahead — enjoyable, nevertheless. Barbara Anderson at 70 years and into her fifth novel seems to have seen it all. She takes one of her long sardonic looks at life’s absurdities and does not much like what she sees, yet hope springs eternal. Anderson has not quite given up on the human condition. Not quite.

The late twentieth century family is her concern. The Feltons, Henry and Rosalind, are outwardly successful, middle-class, well-mannered and discreet but by the time Anderson has stripped away their “proud garments” — the protective coatings they hide behind — they are left in tatters, clinging to the wreckage by their fingernails. In a radio interview Anderson said she was fascinated by the modus vivendi of marriage and family life. It is hard to see how the Feltons will pull through this one and work out any modus worth having but they must, since life must go on. Anderson is sure of that.

Marriage has had a bad press in the twentieth century: designed in heaven and worked out in hell is pretty much the smart wisdom on it. If recent newspaper reports are true, fewer young people are prepared to take it on, even with built-in escape clauses.

Proud Garments will win few converts to the state. Henry and Rosalind Felton seem a normal middle-class couple. Henry is a moderately successful importer of cloth; Rosa keeps the home fires burning, a true helpmate. But it all crumbles away as Anderson reveals that Henry had a long affair on his business trips to Italy. Rosa’s widowed and parasitical sister, Bianca, settles in to live with them. Their only son Rufus returns unexpectedly to live with parents who have been getting on very nicely without him for, if the truth be known, he worries the life out of them, since he seems to have evolved in ways the child development books did not allow for, given that appropriate amounts of care, guidance and stimulation were duly expended on the growing lad. Totally free of any firm moral code and not very bright, he is determined to be rich at 30 and hopes to milk his parents to that end.

Playing a Lady Macbeth role is his unscrupulous girlfriend, the awful Gaby. Bianca plots, sometimes in league with R & G, sometimes on a milk run of her own. Throw in Henry’s deceased brother, who did some unpleasant things with ladies’ shoes, and his mother, “eccentric” in her desire to flee all human contact in the city for a life in the country where she raises animals and reads The NZ Poultry Farmer. As the plot works towards its fiery conclusion it could be that Mrs Felton senior is the sanest, if the cruellest, of all.

They are not a pleasant bunch. But they are very watchable and, as one expects of Anderson characters, full of interesting twists and turns. Rufus is a brilliant creation, wonderfully awful and ominous: is he really the “new man”? Is he the way of the future? How could his parents — his society — have raised him? There is enough material here to keep behaviourists in work. Rufus is the necessary catalyst to the plot: only he (egged on by Gaby) has the energy to set in motion the terrible unwinding of his parents’ lives.

If marriage has had a bad press this century, it has largely been from women writers who, after centuries of silence from their sisters, opened the floodgates of complaint and recrimination. This has led to a reaction from marriage aficionados, who point out that this is an overly gloomy view and in case they (the women writers) hadn’t noticed that there are quite a lot of good marriages about. The Queen is said to be still devoted to the state despite all her recent setbacks.

Thus writers are accused of being a lot of Dismal Desmonds, lighting on the depressing aspects of life, overlooking the cheering reality, out of some sort of dishonest and manipulating writerly purpose. While it must be conceded that writers do thrive on conflict — and it would not make a very good novel if Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy (Miss Eliza Bennet that was) conveyed the only conflict in an otherwise rosy day in asking Mr Darcy whether he wanted his egg soft or hard boiled on that particular morning — most writers worth their salt have a deeper purpose than merely distorting the truth for a banal end. Most writers — I am sure Anderson is one — do cherish a notion, however fragile, that there has to be a better way of conducting our human affairs. By careful selectivity and highlighting the bad they hope to nudge us towards a contemplation of it.

Here we are at the fag-end of the twentieth century as far off utopia as ever, if not further. With human energy and resolution seeming to ebb with the fading century, it is hard to be optimistic that we will ever achieve the ideal society which was the founding hope of our colony. We have still not shaken off the shackles of Victorianism, in particular the shackles of the Victorian family which was for so long society’s main controlling philosophy and ordering mechanism.

This is Anderson’s preoccupation in Proud Garments, not only to show how the traditional family clings and distorts, but to show that without it we live in a vacuum. The human mind has failed to provide an alternative. Dependent on a dominant father figure, a subservient, self-effacing mother and obedient, quiet children, such a structure as the Victorian family exacted a toll on male and female alike. Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, who both grew up under such a regime, wrote to attack it. That Anderson still has to attack it at the end of the century is depressing indeed and evidence of its firm hold on our imaginations.

Henry Felton labours away to provide, his only response to an ingrained puritan work ethic. His son, who bows to no ethic save his own advancement, tells him to relax and enjoy himself. But Henry cannot deviate:

Why not relax? Enjoy?

Because he couldn’t. Because he was involved. Because the blood of generations of hard-working upright men and women pumping through his heart forbade it. He would not admit his fears, not to his inmost soul, wherever that was. He would not admit the questions, let alone the answers. Questions which lay stretched like faceless dogs guarding the entrance to his conscious mind.

Similarly, Henry cannot understand why he forms the Italian liaison when he loves his wife “in my fashion”.  Rosa has put aside self to raise Rufus, to support Henry and now her grasping sister, Bianca. Anderson shows that goodness and self-effacement do no one any good and lead to exploitation. Rosa’s rosy view of the world is not a view that reality should sustain. If the older generations have largely missed their only chance at life, the younger fry, represented by Rufus and Gaby, do not suggest that life will be any better for them and possibly a good deal worse. They may think they have shaken off the inhibitions and responsibilities that hobbled their parents but their new age philosophy, devoted to doing one’s own thing in one’s own space, is a sham. Rufus tells his mother:

“Your trouble, Mum, is you try too hard. You know what you should do? Stop pussyfooting around, be more up front. Honest, don’t give a stuff, state your aims and get on with it. The three of us, me, Gaby, Bee [Bianca], we all know where we’re coming from.”

The old cared too much; the young don’t give a toss. Proud Garments is a novel about self, precisely, the positioning of self at the end of the twentieth century. Rosa’s self-effacement is a wilful clinging to the Victorian female role and has been destructive for her family. Henry as provider has worked hard for his family but as provider has been happy to accept the considerations such a role bestows. Outside the family he has done as he liked. He is unhappy but will not think of a better way. Mrs Felton senior’s sharply intelligent but ultimately selfish response to the idiocies of daily life is simply to cast off on her own ice-floe and head out to sea, thus failing to give help to her crumbling family.

Anderson is asking in this deep and rich novel: Is there a place somewhere between self-effacement and selfishness for a twentieth-century person to stand? How much responsibility and how much freedom from responsibility is just right? These are deep and difficult questions but someone must go on asking them if a new and better way of ordering society is to be found to lead us into the twenty-first century. The female role is particularly fraught and it is that which has provided most grist for the writer’s mill: how to combine mothering with a woman’s right to an independent life since not to demand an independent life condones male domination and superiority.

Virginia Woolf, child of the arch Victorian tyrant, suspected that the female wish to exert self and to demand a better way was impossible, since their demand is “a demand for something — they scarcely know what — for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.” We have yet to prove her wrong.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin writer and scholar

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