The potter William de Morgan, finding himself at the age of 65 without a studio, decided not to look for another but instead to change his trade and become a novelist. Not so long ago the lucky and the cunning were picking up de Morgan tiles for a song, but it is altogether otherwise with his novels. Almost nobody seems to have picked them up for at least half a century The best-known, or anyway the only one that ever gets mentioned, is Joseph Vance, the first of them, which was published in 1906; the best, or at any rate the most interesting, is Alice-for-Short, which followed, in spite of its great length, only a year later. De Morgan lived to be 88 and wrote seven novels, as well as two more which were completed by another hand and published posthumously. They were mostly long books, and the first four came out at annual intervals, for de Morgan seems to have found fiction very easy after all that arduous tiling. He was writing at a time when such masters as Henry James, Conrad and Ford were agonising a lot about modern technique, but although he seems to have found the business of technique quite interesting – or rather, although he made a few knowing nods in that direction – what he really liked was to get on with his solid and complicated stories. According to the Cambridge Bibliography nobody has had a go at de Morgan since 1926, and there is clearly a case for fishing the novels out of oblivion.
In Penelope Fitzgerald’s last novel, Offshore, the wide distribution of which may have had the fortuitous effect of sending up the price of de Morgan tiles, two rather forward little girls conspired to fish two out of Battersea Reach, when the tide was down and the afternoon sun level enough to cause them to glitter. They sold the tiles, to a rather devious antique-shop owner in the King’s Road, for £3. All this is held to have happened about twenty years ago: Mrs Fitzgerald, like the novelist de Morgan, is fond of what he called ‘dichronism’ – tales which belong to two different periods, the past looked at in terms of the present. A dash of modernity is a good thing, for, as the little girls remark when the dealer tries to fob them off with very old toys in exchange for their tiles, very old toys ‘may have been all right for very old children’.
After a splendidly late start. Mrs Fitzgerald has been producing a book a year, much shorter, it must be admitted, than Alice-for-Short, but equally dichronic. The Bookshop belongs to 1959, Offshore is early Sixties, Human Voices is very exactly 1940-41. She has become, like Mrs Verrinder in Alive, a sort of human time-machine. And she is expert in picking out, by the long level light of late afternoon, the glint of objects worth retrieving, even by means of a quite difficult balancing act, bits of the past fished out of the mud, washed under a churchyard tap, and given their proper lustre. One longsightedly identifies some interesting group of persons, far down the reach, as it were, and then notes, not their ordinary comings and goings, but the random glittering which promises, to a closer examination, some beauty of design or finish. The method is one that calls, like de Morgan’s, for an assured elegance of workmanship as well as the ability to surprise.
Human Voices is about life in wartime Broadcasting House, about the voices of prime ministers and generals recorded on fragile and losable discs, and the tones, confident, serious and vain, of chief announcers, but also about the note of tired authority in the vocal communications of the Director of Programme Planning, and the lingering consonants of the girl from Birmingham. BBC servants, some old and some new, roar and chatter round the great building, are silent only in the Concert Hall, now a sexually undifferentiated dosshouse. Accuracy of notation is important: Kensington Gardens full of Free, and not so free, French; plans to defend Langham Place; the Hammersmith Palais acquiring a thousand pairs of shoes for dancing soldiers; one-spoon canteens, patriotic lunches, first-aid lectures, intrepid American war correspondents. All this is fine, except that the BBC cannot reasonably be supposed, in 1940, to have been paying its juvenile help at a rate of £378 p.a., a salary here curiously mentioned as inadequate. Still, it all sounds and feels real as well as odd, and so does the atmosphere of innocence and good will in which all the characters, even the middle-aged, the desperate and the selfish, are situated, It reminds me a little of The Girls of Slender Means, though it lacks the theological ruthlessness of Muriel Spark. One sees these people not as caricatures but as somehow unsoiled by the next forty years, capable of simplicity and unconsidered goodness. This applies even to the principal male characters: the selfish Director of Recorded Programmes (institutionalised as RPD), a lost soul who needs girls only to comfort him during his search, doomed by the impersonal Corporation, for the perfect microphone windshield and recordings of all significant sounds; and the DPP, mentioned above, the pillar, though disliked and indifferent to dislike, which supports the crazy structure. It applies more to the girls, and especially to Annie Asra, who comes from Birmingham.
Mrs Fitzgerald has done nothing better than the flashback explaining how this daughter of a piano-tuner profited, not only from that ‘inexhaustible fund of tranquil pessimism’ which the Midlands provide, but from her acquaintance with the technique of piano-tuning. She has perfect pitch, in music, but also in the perception of human beings; and she has the unimpassioned resourcefulness and candour that derive from the refined natural stoicism of her region: ‘We’re never sent more than we can bear,’ said her father’s friends; or ‘You begin life helpless, and you end it helpless.’ Birmingham being north of Watford, she arrives at Broadcasting House a foreigner. At her interview, DPP asks her whether Birmingham is North or South.
‘I imagine that perhaps there’s only one way to settle it. Are there pork butchers, separate from ordinary butchers?’
‘Of course there are, Mr Haggard.’
‘Then it must be north.’
A useful test. Ever since I was told that ground elder grew only in the South I have imagined a line across the country, passing, say, through Stoke, on one side of which a Northern gardener was free of the pest, while his neighbour a few yards to the south looked enviously over the fence in brief periods of rest from his endless struggle to eradicate it. Pork butchers, more readily quantifiable and identifiable, serve much better.
Human Voices ends with a plausible though unlikely love affair, and a plausible death. It has a cool tenderness that lingers in the memory; among the human voices to be heard is that of the narrator; describing a farcical fight between rival groups of French soldiers, she can surprise us by adding, ‘There was nothing to laugh at, the sight of the homesick boys battering away at each other was like the naked spirit of hate itself,’ or by saying of the BBC personnel that they were ‘broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of the few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news-readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the Canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.’ There are moments when one wishes, ungratefully, that there was a more positive cohesion of incident rather than a succession of brilliantly-lit set-pieces, but the whole thing has such extraordinary self-assurance that complaints soon die away.
That calm eccentric boldness is, for reasons I can’t pretend to know, a stylistic habit of the present moment, but only of some women writers. Perhaps they have rediscovered and modernised kinds of attention, kinds of wit, that belonged to novelists who were not trying to be men, like George Eliot; anyway, wit is now female, and so is bravado in the choice and handling of themes. Mrs Fitzgerald used to be published by Duckworth, as were or are Caroline Blackwood, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge: all practise surprise and cultivate oddly-angled observation. There remains a certain strained resemblance between Fitzgerald and Bainbridge, though the latter is less elegant and altogether more wicked – I think because she is understandably more scared by what she sees, hears and writes down. She often chooses dichronical subjects, too – the Forties in The Dressmaker and A Quiet Life, the Twenties in her Hitler book; she has often contemplated suburban scenes in which Northern stoics, their complacent pessimism disturbed by events too strange or terrible to be accommodated by it, begin, within their limits, to act up. The strongest resemblance, though, is in the confidence both writers have that they can absolutely trust their eyes and ears, but most of all their pens, which produce, as required, clarity and wit, or grotesque enigma.
The new Bainbridge as usual challenges the reader to catch clues to its tone, and also to what is actually supposed to be happening. It is, in fact, a bit baffling. The story is of a decent but very dull, virtually frozen man, who tells his wife he is going to Scotland for a rest, but instead goes off to Russia on a sponsored trip with some artists, including Nina, wife of a brain surgeon, with whom he is having (after many years of boring marital fidelity) an unsatisfactory affair. The Winter Garden is, primarily, a flowerless London backyard, but the title, like the cunningly-written opening chapter, requires to be taken rather carefully. Ashburner steals clumsily out of his wife’s bedroom at dawn, a hopeless innocent, incapable of decently deceiving her; the tone is sourly jolly, so that one might miss much that for good or ill crops up again: the recumbent wife’s blue-cotton gloves, the allusion to dead uncle Robert, who once posthumously materialised in a bus queue at Hendon, and later in the winter garden. The winter garden of Russia is the scene of a good deal of materialisation. Ashburner loses his suitcase but it turns up, interfered with; Nina disappears more or less on arrival, but is glimpsed in brief appearances at the opera, in a monastery. The churlish painter Bernard comes and goes. Ashburner, having had what felt like a wet dream in the Leningrad train, discovers that he had had a real woman but doesn’t know who – she just materialised and disappeared.
A dose of clap, and the pills to cure it, pass round the little party; this little plot is of course subsidiary to the main one, which is a conspiracy against Ashburner, or anyway looks like that. Meanwhile we have a record of the bureaucratic muddles and general bizarrerie of Russian life. There are some good jokes and some not so good (for one of each see page 38), a lot of local colour, and plenty of odd behaviour, some potentially sinister and some not. Enid, the other woman of the party, and a bit of a bore, might be expected to enjoy the Russian climate, for she ‘often read for pleasure Cherry-Gerrard’s chilling account of the worst journey in the world, the dreadful polar trek north’. She more than once alludes to this work, though she has evidently never looked closely enough at the title-page to get the author’s name right; nor perhaps at the text, though the theory that Scott was going in the wrong direction offers an attractive new explanation of the ease with which the crafty Amundsen beat him to the Pole. Are we to infer, from this odd passage, something about Enid?
For there are clues of varying force and validity scattered about – an oddly-placed rug in an artist’s studio, Ashburner’s horrifying experience when, mistaken for Nina’s surgeon husband, he is forced to witness a brain operation on some poor forked thing which turns out to have on its shaven head a scar resembling one on Nina’s. These hallucinated glimpses of an overplot intrude into the narrative of normal behaviour with unfailing wit and laconic accuracy: ‘The ground in front of the Metropole was being dug up by lady road-menders,’ and the like. Equally intrusive are a number of gnomic remarks, by no means as lucid as Mrs Fitzgerald’s obiter dicta, though no less confident: ‘love depended on the ability to like oneself and required an understanding of eternal regret’ is one instance, and the last page is even more enigmatic. The decent hopelessness of Ashburner makes him a natural and uncomprehending victim, but at the end he is said to understand everything – the pattern, the lumps of paint that make the picture a picture, even without a bounding frame, if seen in their proper relations. This is an intelligible, if high-handed demand that the reader do likewise: then he too may see, as an emblem of the whole, ‘a man and a woman in a bleak landscape, frozen in their tracks’.
It is useless, though, to pretend that the misfortunes of Ashburner make even that degree of unambiguous sense. Nothing is straight-forward; the flattest and most informative passage may look suspicious in this suspicious context; piecing this world together is a formidable, perhaps impossible task. It is not the first time Beryl Bainbridge has set such a task: unfocused or not quite focused terror is one of her interests. To achieve it she must sacrifice some of the aplomb to be found in other writers of the school to which I have, perhaps arbitrarily, assigned her, but there is, all the same, something about her sense of the world and its obscurer designs on our peace that may all the better match some of our own anxieties.