The Past, by Tessa Hadley
This novel is not called The Past for nothing: apart from the odd mention of mobile phones and one conversation which touches on climate change, it could have been written at any time since about 1930. In another publication such a remark might be considered grudging, but within these pages the reader will understand at once that this is high praise indeed. Tessa Hadley writes as if she were part of the charmed circle of Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann and Enid Bagnold. In this world, well-meaning, well-educated people inhabit graceful rooms with tall windows and try not to allow frantic infatuations or terrible disloyalties to discompose the fragile order of their lives. Novels concerning such subjects are often unjustly considered the poor relations of epic tales of immigration, war and strife. Sometimes such arguments are framed as men’s versus women’s fiction, as if John Updike and William Trevor were weird aberrations for examining the human heart, or Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel bizarrely butch for looking outside the bedroom or straying beyond the sofa. Of course there is no reason why storytelling should not encompass all of our affairs, international and domestic.
At a crumbling former rectory in north Devon or Somerset, four adult siblings and various of their appendages are gathered for an extended summer holiday. It is their intention to plaster over the cracks of familial discord and to decide whether to keep on this house, which belonged to their grandparents, or to sell. So far, so Chekhov. On the surface, nothing much goes on. Plump flies buzz on dusty windowsills, meals are prepared, people go off to walk or swim or sightsee.
As with Elizabeth Bowen, the sharpest observers are often the youngest: here a little boy and his slightly older sister, Ivy – they are perhaps three and five, or four and six – are keenly perceptive of the flaws and insincerities of the adults. Ivy is prone to hysterics and throws a bed-time tantrum, which ‘Her brother, tucked virtuously into his bed, watched with a connoisseur’s calm appreciation.’ Hadley is brilliant, too, at conveying the powerful imaginary world of childhood, spooky and darkly thrilling; to them serious, to us comic and yet infused with anxiety. An abandoned cottage becomes a place of awed dread: ‘The children were aware at once that the cottage smelled awful – not innocently of leaf-rot and minerals like outside, but of something held furtively close, ripening in secret.’
True to the convention of all drama concerning family reunions, discord lies close to the surface. Things may fragment. One sister is flamboyant, something of a fantasist, annoying to the rest. The brother is pompous, slightly disdainful. The eldest sister, an erstwhile revolutionary, harbours a desperate sense of unfulfilment. This last is thin and rather stiff, with cropped grey hair. When she develops a wholly unexpected crush on one of the visitors, she suddenly puts on a frock, ‘emerging with an odd effect as if a weathered old wooden doll had been stuffed into a Barbie outfit’. The object of her affection views her with ‘a rich gleam of contempt, mingled with amused acceptance of the homage’.
There are stolen kisses, some rebuffed, others rapturously received. There is an old and secret love. There are whispered quarrels and loud rapprochements. Dotted among all this are short passages describing English houses and landscape and weather, which recur in short delicious bursts like birdsong: ‘Light, with a ripple in it like water, quavered through the clear glass in the windows, tinged green from the trees outside.’
At the dinner table, one of the company says she never reads novels: ‘Why would you put out any intellectual effort, understanding something that wasn’t actually true?’ Hadley is teasing us, for she knows as well as anyone that a really good story holds up a magnifying mirror to life. The Past does just that. Tender and well-made and poignant, it is a gentle delight.