Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fortunately, as the years have gone by, the word "spinster" has gone out of fashion. We no longer fear Miss Havisham or pity old maids. This may change after reading Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home which, like the Grey Gardens or Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Mr. Midnight, might be subtitled "A Cautionary Tale."

It starts with a delightful (though not surprising) premise: Rachel Waring, a middle-aged spinster (there's that hated word) has been left a Georgian mansion by her mad great-aunt. It has been left in decrepitude and some work is required to fix it up. With wild abandon, Rachel throws off her grey pre-inheritance life, her desk job and chain-smoking roommate, and immerses herself in a life of determined vivacity. She begins a garden, discovers the house’s history, and starts to write a historical novel.

But, with more than a little Blanche Du Bois and Scarlett O'Hara, Rachel's gay enthusiasm and imagination is tainted by a whiff of delusion which grows steadily throughout the novel. Rachel begins to look a lot like her great-aunt Alicia. “Is she mad?” Rachel once asked her mother of her great-aunt. “…she’s perfectly happy,” was the reply, “There are many who’d even envy her that type of madness.”

The book is a pastiche of fantasy Hollywood-style: obsessions with youth and beauty, actresses of the Vivien Leigh variety (“kittenish but strong”), dreams of Lawrence Olivier, and frequent snatches of Bing Crosby songs. There is a very pointed connection to A Streetcar Named Desire throughout:

…I loved that bit where Blanche sings in her bath,

O, it’s only a paper moon,
Floating over a paper sea,
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed me…

and I was very much moved once more by her pathetically brave declaration: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Many years ago I had been told I looked like Vivien Leigh. This was the only meaningful compliment anyone had ever given me and I tried to savor it sparingly. Over the years, though, it had gradually turned sour….

This gives us a clue, a twinge of uneasiness. Because it’s clear that Rachel sees the character of Blanche Du Bois as “pathetically brave” rather than a deluded woman rather like herself. And if a one-time comparison to Vivien Leigh is the “only meaningful compliment” she has ever received, this is evidently a lonely life.

Benatar’s first-person narrative mixes inward observations with external activity so well that one is unsure – and terrified – of how much of Rachel’s thoughts are voiced aloud. Here: in the church, near the end of the sermon which is not a happy text of welcome, but a prompt of social responsibility Rachel finds grotesque and insultingly uninviting:

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”
“Some hope!” I said – quite wittily – staring around me in defiance.
He ended as though he had decided to simply throw this in for good measure: “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”
“Do we indeed? That may be what you think. But take a referendum among the rest of us.”
There was a pause. I almost picked up my handbag and gloves and walked out right there and then. That might have stirred things up a bit. Yet just in time I stopped myself. People mustn’t, absolutely must not, be allowed to see how deeply they hurt me.
But during the next hymn I didn’t sing.”

An exuberantly explored text-book example of the unreliable narrator.

My response to the novel was similar to when I watched Notes on a Scandal. I wanted to call up all friends and hug them and yell “I don't want to be alone” like a mantra. Of course, that is why the novel succeeds. We recognize that Rachel is an exaggerated example of a person suffering from extreme versions of the neuroses we experience regularly: the close measuring of social situations, sudden changes in mood, the endless second-guessing of motivations, hoping for the best, glossing over the worst with optimism.

John Carey’s introduction to the NYRB edition says “The veracity of her psychology is worth emphasizing, because a mere summary of the book might give an impression that it is fantastic or comic. Though it is composed almost entirely of Rachel’s fantasy, and most of its events are ludicrous, it is terribly and seriously real. It is also, I believe, wholly original. Theorists hold that there are only a dozen or so fictional plots, all of them present in classics of early literature, which later works re-jig. But Benatar’s work does not correspond to any of the prototypes…or only in ways that are so remote as to emphasize its singularity…”

Presently, I’m pushing Wish Her Safe at Home on almost all of my co-workers. The Times ran an article about Stephen Benatar worth reading here.

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