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By January 17, 2019No Comments

Source : LIT HUB   –    Tessa Hadley


A powerful idea took hold in western culture, in the early and mid-20th century, that domesticity was bad for art. It probably began earlier in France, where all the ideas used to begin: there’s Daumier’s despised bourgeois paterfamilias, promenading with his pram—or Charles Bovary cleaning his teeth with his tongue after dinner at home, his wife Emma going crazy from tedium and unfulfilled desire. Bourgeois respectability and the domestic are tangled in the same condemnation, the same mocking laughter. Happy endings are for stupid people. At the end of Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education Frédéric Moreau and his old friend, disenchanted with love and politics, reminisce tenderly about a youthful visit to a brothel.

In the English-language novel in the 19th century there were probably too many stories celebrating romantic love, culminating in happiness round the domestic hearth. Who isn’t grateful for Beckett’s grotesques, kicked down the front steps of the family home, expelled from comfort and complacency, outraging all the pieties? Or for Lawrence’s wanderers, shaking the dust of England off their shoes, raging against its false consciousness, its salacious prudery? Nobody could want to undo the revolutionary insights of the modernists, stripping away accretions of fakery, building an art out of refusal and disgust. There was a lot to refuse and be disgusted by. The roots of modernism were in the Romantic individualistic rebellion against consensus, against the received idea.

My hunch is that although the novel can do almost anything when it’s done right, it’s really most at home when it’s at home.

So on the one hand the ruthless adventure of art, slamming doors behind it, despising false consolations; on the other hand home and family, daily housework, intimate relations, a private life indoors. After all, somebody had to push the pram, take it out shopping, park it in the hall, cook, care for the baby. The rearing of children and the maintenance of a home exact, if they’re done sanely and adequately, some of those elements most antithetical to a Beckett-spirit: routines and affections and consolations—even cheerfulness.

Mournful perhaps to think that those doting mothers and nannies might only have been raising modernists to repudiate them eventually. Or that some of the mothers and nannies might have been modernists too, if only they could have got away: because some women writers, given half a chance, or taking the chance for themselves, could be every bit as ruthless as the men. There’s nothing very domesticated, or at least not at first sight, about the novels of Jean Rhys or Elizabeth Bowen.

The novel form, however, has always had a special relationship with the daily transactions of the domestic lives of the middling classes, lived out inside the rooms of their houses. In its very shape and mode—its expansive, meandering formlessness, its sheer extension, the everyday register of its language, its plots made from the real-seeming stories of middling lives—resembles those lives. If aristocratic form is exquisite, exceptional, heightened and stylish, then bourgeois form is everyday, cumulative, prolix. There’s an appealing naivety, almost, built into the foundations of the novel form and its efforts at lifelikeness—however sophisticated its superstructures.

My hunch is that although the novel can do almost anything when it’s done right, it’s really most at home when it’s at home. Born in its true shape in the bourgeois 18th century, that era of burgeoning literacy and print and urbanization and social mobility, and written and read from the very beginning by so many women, it side-stepped the traditions of male education. For centuries men had been educated mostly through the classics, trained in conventions of rhetorical address, fixed categories of subject matter and style. In the novel, women took the pen into their hands and wrote about the daily life they knew, in the vernacular language of everyday. And men did too, of course.

You want unsentimental? Women can be so unsentimental it’s frightening.

Yes, in the novel there were courtship and adultery again—there had always been courtship and adultery. But now the novel wondered newly—in its literal-minded way, which always risks banality—what was she wearing, when she got his letter? What chores was she busy with when it arrived, or was she reading? What did she do the next day after the letter, and the one after that? What did she eat? How did time pass, while her lover was away adventuring, and while exaltation faded? Slowly, slowly, is probably the answer.

Only a novel could have made actual on page after page, dusty hour after dusty hour, the long days while Balzac’s Eugènie Grandet waited for her faithless cousin to return, or Anna Karenina idled away her new life with Vronsky, in which the moral spring was broken because she was ashamed of what she’d done.

Perhaps an element in the brilliant modernist élan was the desire of male writers to seize back the novel from the women whose domesticating agenda they perceived as having controlled it for so long—at least in England and America. You can feel it in Beckett and Lawrence: women are dangerous because they’re sentimental, they want to tell a sentimental story, a banal one. Then there are the women writers like Rhys and Bowen, pushing back. You want unsentimental? Women can be so unsentimental it’s frightening. Yet their terrain is still recognizably indoors, inside those rooms, wearing those clothes, living through those hours, still measured by the patriarchal clock on the bourgeois mantelpiece.


Do we still think, a hundred years later, that domesticity is bad for art—bad for the novel especially? So much has changed. At least these days no one’s dusting the old patriarchal clock. Everyone gets very excited, now, when a man writes about a man doing housework, or changing a nappy. But we may have new doubts, making our material out of family life—especially bourgeois family life —and the intricacies and inwardness of our private selves at home. Isn’t this domestic material too small and cosy, too complacent, in a globalized world where we meet on our screens every day the eyes of the ones who don’t have homes, or have been forced to leave them?

The novel tends to be parochial because it’s so good at representing the particular—this character, here in this place, thinking and feeling now. It’s so difficult to open this work of close representation to the range of abstraction and generality that our global politics requires of us. And then, how to put climate change and its implications into a novel? The crisis can seem to dwarf the scale a novel works at.

In the novel, women took the pen into their hands and wrote about the daily life they knew, in the vernacular language of everyday.

Tolstoy late in his life said that he didn’t want to write novels about adultery any longer, or fine feelings among the privileged classes; he would dedicate himself from now on to reading the Gospels, writing moral fables for the people. Probably his convulsion of disgust and refusal should haunt us every day, when we sit down to write. And yet I still believe that the best things a novel can do are through its minuteness, its parochialism. This particular character, in this particular landscape or streetscape or interior: the reader’s imagination lifts in pleasurable recognition to the truth of the moment as it’s caught, exactly right, in the words and sentences—even if this reader is recognizing something they’ve never seen. A reader in Indonesia, say, coming across a copy of Dubliners, or a reader in Britain picking up a novel set in Nigeria at the time of the Biafran war.

Any novelist now, trying to catch domestic life indoors inside a family in the UK or in America, may also want to mark on their pages the traces of our modern angst, our conscientious unease, that pressure of a globalized awareness. Novelists aren’t required to answer the existential questions—how should we live? how can we change? But they can show how this guilty unease might afflict the characters in their stories. Like the women and men in a Chekhov play, apparently so convinced that generations in the future would live more sanely, more purposefully, with grace and meaning. Chekhov wasn’t really very interested in asking whether this improvement might come about in reality—how could he know, how could anyone? His business was making a portrait of those characters as they lived then, comical and poignant, submerged in their imperfect present and yet dreaming of change, of something different.


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