Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

I never liked you anyway

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Don’t you just love confrontation in fiction? Those flashpoints of drama, whether it’s a blazing stand-up row or a subtle exchange of fire unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, when the characters are pushed to extremes and the reader has the best seats in the house. Of course most of the time the conflict is underlying, like the thrum of an engine on a ship. That’s what makes it so satisfying when the tension surfaces.

I’m just coming to the end of Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and marvelling at her mastery of every aspect of the craft of writing. In scenes of confrontation she has an amazing ability to convey the build-up of tension between characters, through facial expressions, dialogue, the character’s own commentary and the things that are left unsaid.

Take one brief scene in the short story Family Furnishings. Two women meet for the first time at a funeral. One of them, the narrator, whose father has just died, is a writer who once wrote a story based on a personal experience in the life of an older cousin called Alfrida. It turns out that the other woman who approaches her is Alfrida’s daughter, given up for adoption when she was a baby.

Munro describes the moment after the woman (only ever referred to as ‘the woman’) breaks the news of her identity.

“There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power. In this case it was so complete that she felt she needed to apologise.”

From there the conversation becomes more edgy as they reminisce about an old family story, involving the narrator’s father and his first cousin Alfrida, and it transpires that their versions of events do not match.

“… that feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now.
I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“What?”
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light. Smart, too smart, not smart enough.
I said, “Is that all?”
“She said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.”

It’s such a perfect depiction of something we are all familiar with. The gap between our true feelings towards others and what is actually revealed (in some cases even to ourselves). People may go through life harbouring ill-will towards people close to them without ever giving an outward hint of their animosity. If those true feelings are ever expressed the effect is dramatic. And when I say people, more often than not it is family. Like this exchange between another set of fictional Munro cousins, Polly (single and left behind with an extended family to care for) and Lorna (married with children and comfortably off) in the story Post and Beam.

Fresh tears came welling up in her eyes. She was a mound of misery, one solid accusation.
“What is it?” Lorna said. She feigned surprise, she feigned compassion.
“You don’t want me.”
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Family. Family gives Polly the right. She has saved her money and planned her escape, with the idea that Lorna should take her in. Is that true – has she dreamed of staying here and never having to go back? Becoming part of Lorna’s good fortune, Lorna’s transformed world?
“What do you think I can do?” said Lorna quite viciously and to her own surprise.

I think with conflict the real challenge for a writer is to stay on the right side of the line between drama and melodrama. I’m still working on that, and trying to eliminate clichés is part of the challenge. In my novel, Counting the Days, the main character, Laura, cannot accept how unemotional her sister Kate is about their brother’s disappearance five years before. They’ve just spend a day and night together, the first time they’ve been under the same roof overnight since Kate left home for college. For most of the visit they manage to steer clear of expressing the resentment and misunderstanding that lies between them, until a few minutes before Kate has to leave when they finally get to talk about their brother, falling back on the same old arguments until there’s nothing more to say.

“It must be time for you to go.”
We stand in silence, indifferent now to the gentle glory of early summer gathering around us.
Moving closer, Kate puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. You did a good job with the campaign. No one can say you didn’t try your hardest.”
Pushing off her touch, I glare at Kate. “If you could just once show that you cared, that you still felt something. Where is the love for God’s sake?”
Kate shakes her head slowly and looks at me, her bewildered eyes full of reproach.
“You’re too much for me,” she says and walks back to the house.
A short time later, the sound of car doors closing cuts through my cloud of resentment and I hurry back towards the yard, almost tripping in the tangle of undergrowth in my sudden desperation to make amends. Kate opens the passenger window of the car for a final word. “Can I say something? You’re not going to like it.”
“Go ahead.”
“I saw your diary.”
A sudden fury passes through me like a spasm. The lack of respect, I am not imagining it.

First and last time I put my writing on the same page as Alice Munro’s! Some of the participants in the writing course I attended in Dublin last year have got together to meet fortnightly as a writers’ group and I am really pleased to be taking part by Skype. It’s difficult to know when a novel is finally ready and then to let it go. I’m hoping that this routine will give me the motivation and discipline to get the novel polished for submission.

In other news, I have a new writing buddy – Lucky. Isn’t he lovely?

Good boy!