Strangely compelling, Jane Stafford

Tamar
Deborah Challinor
HarperCollins, $21.95,
ISBN 1869504089

The Trespass
Barbara Ewing
Times Warner, $34.95,
ISBN 0316860573

The Stove Rake
Denise Keay
Flamingo, $24.95,
ISBN 1869504062

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the reading experience, encountered frequently at this more leisurely time of year, is the sensation of reading a novel which one knows, simultaneously, to be both bad and unputdownable. How can this be? How can the discriminating part of the brain recognise bad writing, shoddy plotting, and unconvincing characterisation, while at the same time the other more frivolous part is racing happily towards the denouement?

There must be some aspect of literature which overrides the discriminatory senses, some core feature so compelling that we read despite our better judgement, something which can be deployed by even the most unimaginative of authors – in fact, the more unimaginative the better. It is, I think, the choice of narrative form which is crucial here. Some stories are so basic, so compelling, that discrimination becomes irrelevant. In particular, melodrama, and its ironclad conventions, carry even the sloppiest writing.

2  

Consider the first two books reviewed here, Tamar and The Trespass. Both are page-turners. Both are without originality of any kind (Clarissa, Jane Eyre, with a strong dose of Georgette Heyer). Both are overlong and leaden in their prose style. Both are remarkably similar in plot and characterisation: pale, pure young girl (plucky but at the same time a welter of sensitivity) is sorely put upon by family, friends and society generally, and is vulnerable to threat from palpably evil but strangely compelling hero-villain. In both novels, the action is set in a cardboard caricature of Victorian England and entail a voyage to an exotic but equally caricatured colonial New Zealand. Both plots have the staples which (according to the American writer Grace Paley) any story needs to be of interest – blood and money. Both dwell on the central conflict that dominates the English novel from the 18th century onwards – snobbery and, at the same time, the histrionic rejection of class. Both manage, in consequence, to be superficially subversive and fundamentally deeply conservative

Some minor plot adjustments are necessary in moving the traditional melodrama from the home counties to the antipodes, and the 21st century requires some augmentation of the sin level involved – we aren’t as horrified at threats to chastity as we used to be. Harriet, Ewing’s heroine, is pursued by both a dastardly but possibly redeemable aristocrat (very conventional) and an incestuous father with a foot fetish; Tamar, Challinor’s leading lady, is beset by an abusive husband with a drinking problem (pure Victorian – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and by the suspicion that her dusky baby may not be his. Both heroines make spirited moves towards independence, and mouth feminist slogans – Ewing’s Harriet supposedly by virtue of Mary Wollstonecraft (rather old-fashioned reading for 1849), Challinor’s Tamar under the influence of a madam with a heart of gold, who initiates her into the brothel business in 1880s Auckland.

Why is it that so many historical novels see prostitution as a symbol of liberation and self-determination for women, when all the evidence points to it being an agency of miserable oppression? Come to that, why are all present-day characterisations of the Victorians pullulating with sexuality rather than showing them as concerned with other issues the historical record suggests possessed them – religion, say, or money or self–improvement or empire? This surely says more about us than about them.

Still, I don’t want to complain about lack of historical veracity in these two novels because one of my chief objections to them is that there is too much. Both Ewing and Challinor have done a great deal of research, which is inserted, nay, crammed, into their text to the point of overload. We find out about the cholera epidemic of the 1840s, Victorian public health, women’s education, morality, the class system, conditions for emigrants, commerce and the Auckland waterfront, the Boer War – all with little attachment to the plot and characters, there as an earnest assurance that the author has been doing her stuff. Why bother? Why not make it up? Why not admit to the fundamental melodrama of both plots, their unreality, and concentrate on the strengths that the form provides?

This done, the historical setting could function as a mythical and metaphorical backdrop for the black-and-white depiction of evil and deliverance. The 19th century world provides colour and gorgeous frocks, the trip to New Zealand danger, storm and tempest of a quite Shakespearian kind, the Maori another element of allure, romantic savages, at once cruel and erotic. Proud, evil parent; saintly, crippled sister; handsome Maori lover; noble, doomed soldier: the stereotypes bob about as they should; each plot twist rears up predictably as one expects. We read quickly without reflection, and then forget.

3

The Stove Rake by Denise Keay is an entirely different proposition. It is an unsettling and unusual book outside the conventions that Ewing and Challinor depend on. Although it is set in the past and relies on the culture and mores of that time, it does this without signalling its historicity, or relying on the overt products of research. Although the plot centres  – unexpectedly and shockingly – on violence at least as terrible as anything that happens in Ewing or Challinor, it is not in the slightest degree melodramatic. The action is fuelled by the sharp and novel representation of character rather than by literary convention, a far more difficult task. From the first paragraph one feels in the hands of an author who presents character and period in a novel, disquieting and compellingly manner:

The men had gone outside to see the foal and lingered in the yard, talking. They were talking about the devil, of all things, and Mrs Kelly didn’t care for it. Hell’s a thriving enterprise and Lucifer has his agents: suave Mephistopheles and lazy loitering Beelzebub, Apollyon the bully boy and moony Ashtaroth. The men spoke of them as they might a troop of vaudevillians. She shut the kitchen window, briskly enough for her husband to notice , but not with a bang that would startle  his friends.

 

In contrast to the attenuated stereotypes in Ewing and Challinor, Keay’s heroine has a veracity and directness, a quirky originality that convinces as it surprises. Lily Macgregor is both part of the community and an outsider, her mother having misbehaved and disappeared, her father’s identity uncertain, her grandparents remote. There is sense of a small community, with the inhabitants intensely aware of each other, and, at the same time, a community, in its colonial and rural rawness, shifting and unstable, open to any new influence. Enter the honeymooning Harraways, and Mr Fernon the remittance man: “Lily saw remittance men in the hotels. As a rule they had beautiful manners, no money, and were seldom sober.” While the treatment of sex in Ewing and Challinor is both prurient and disapproving, Lily’s encounters convey both her curiosity and her recklessness, as well as the vulnerability of a young woman of the time. The romantic clichés of Ewing and Challinor have no place in her pragmatic, ironic view of the world: “Lily is of the opinion that there are few who would have fallen in love if they’d never heard of it.”

No writer is entirely original. Though Keay chooses not to deploy the melodramatic conventions of Ewing and Challinor, she is indebted to a rather more local writer. The Stove Rake’s tone, the character of Lily, the society that is depicted, reminded me of Katherine Mansfield. Not the crafted, self-conscious, rather cute writer of the later stories, but the “little savage from New Zealand” (as her London teacher described her), author of the early “The Woman at the Store”, where the harshness of the colonial social landscape takes no prisoners. Keay’s Lily is the Mansfield of the notebooks which describe her turbulent and dangerous adolescence in New Zealand.

There is the sense in Keay’s novel, as in Mansfield’s early writings, of a community both rigid and moralistic, and loose and unformed. Single women who are original and spirited do not do well in such societies. The fear of what happens to Lily in The Stove Rake is exactly what motivated the Beauchamps to send Katherine back to London in 1908. Keay, like Mansfield, demonstrates a sensitivity attuned to place and its detail, seen not as tired convention or melodramatic enervation, but with a startling clarity and precision:

she was drawn by tiny memories so remote that they seemed lodged in her stomach rather than her head: the kindly, black curves of the kettle, the monkey faces hidden in the rug, the clock’s bolder tick when her grandparents were in bed. Those things didn’t change even if they were never quite as she expected them to be.

 

Jane Stafford is currently working with Mark Williams on a study of late 19th century colonial New Zealand literature.

 

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