Just finished: Hester by Margaret Oliphant (Oxford World’s Classics) & remembering Broken by Jimmy McGovern

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Trumpet-vine blasting it out, Bay of Kotor, 18 July

I’ve been reading Hester non-stop for three days, wishing someone could write a novel about people and banking for our own times that would be anywhere as near as good as this.  Is it because we’ve created the discipline of psychology – as a sort of separate place – that this kind of writing has ceased to be of interest to novelists? If so, what a waste, because psychology, though it provides lots of interesting stuff for us, can’t do this. The novelist’s use of imagination to enter the mind and feelings of characters, to tell us what is  going on it there, to help us feel other peoples feelings and to know it through language,  is unique. But we don’t get enough of it. Or I am reading the  wrong contemporary novels? and then there is telly, the box-set, film. Soon, possibly, gaming will do this for us.

I’d been meaning to mention Broken by Jimmy McGovern. I’m sure everyone will have seen it by now but I’ll mention it anyway: here’s McGovern at the height of his considerable powers.

Film can’t do what novels do, it is a different medium, image not language-based. With language you can know, and experience, because you take the language into yourself, what a character is thinking and feeling. With film you guess, imagine, intuit.  With great film a lot of  imagination, intuition is happening.  Of course, lots of film and telly (like lots of fiction)  is also absolute dross and then a piece of work comes along that is  something else, and Broken is one of those. Jimmy McGovern said he cried writing it and I believe that’s true. Sean Bean plays the Catholic Priest at the centre of the drama and gives the performance of a lifetime, grim, loving, angry, full of feelings. The seriousness of  having  a life, inner and outer, the  strange, unfathomable  complexity of human feeling came to life as I watched  Father Michael Kerrigan, lying on an airbed beside the bed of his dying mother,  singing ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’.  Yes, this was the same mother who had terrorised his early childhood, and yes, that  pain was till in him, and  yet…he wanted to love his mother and be a good son and her to have a good death: they enjoyed the singing and McGovern helped me remember how complex and multi-dimensional human family relationships are…Great writing, because great understanding of and feeling for human beings. Thing is, if  Jimmy McGovern had written it in a novel, I’d be able to read it over and over…

Hester has made me think I’d like to have a year of reading Margaret Oliphant –  novels I barely remember, Salem Chapel, Miss Marjoribanks…but what I really want is someone noticing as much about human beings and getting it down in sentences… Here’s Edward, for years, almost against his will, a steady leader at Vernon’s  Bank, considering doing something really dangerous, partly for financial gain (and the freedom it would bring him) partly for the sheer self-willed hell of it :

 As his ideas disentangled themselves, there seemed to be two possibilities before him. If he threw himself into Ashton’s scheme at all, to do it as a partner in the business, not indeed with the sanction of his other partners, but, if there was risk to the firm in his proceedings at large, to make them profitable to it in case of success. In case of success! Of course there would be success. It was inevitable that they must succeed. On the other side, the expedient was to use the money and the securities of the bank, not for the aggrandisement of Vernon’s, but for his own. This would leave the responsibility of the action entirely upon his own shoulders if anything went wrong. And he did not refuse to give a rapid glance at that contingency. What could it mean to the bank? Not ruin—he half-smiled as he thought. It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank. And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.

It’s  interesting to read it slowly and follow the movements of Edward’s mind as he imagines what might go wrong:

Not ruin—he half-smiled as he thought. It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank. And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.

That half-smile is weird, as if the thought of ruin actually partly  appeals – which it does because it would be a kind of punishment to Catherine Vernon, the  old lady who Edward feels rules him. His cool estimation of the damage to the Bank – ‘It would mean coming down perhaps in the world, descending from the prestige and importance of its present rank’ –  feels almost vicious, a punishment for her for which  he is willing to pay everything:  ‘And to himself it would mean going to the dogs—anyhow, there could be no doubt on that point.’

How can a sensible, long-standing man of business make a really crazy decision which seems – on the top-level – so against the cut of his character? Oh, look beneath the clothes to the  feelings of the man who has paid for his success and standing with his pride. The destruction he so easily contemplates for Vernon’s is both destruction of Catherine and of self…he despises both.

And it is not simply that desire to punish, which might be enough motivation by itself – there’s  also a kind of longing for change, for air,  for something new and lively…

But on the other side! that was better worth looking at, more worthy of consideration. It would be like pouring in new blood to stagnant veins; it would be new life coming in, new energy, something that would stir the old fabric through and through, and stimulate its steady-going, old-fashioned existence. It would be the something he had longed for—the liberating influence, new possibilities, more extended work. He thought, with an excitement that gradually overmastered him, of the rush of gain coming in like a river, and the exhilaration and new force it would bring. This idea caught him up as a strong wind might have caught him, and carried him beyond his own control.

This too is about  his position as the chosen inheritor of Catherine. He has not had a chance to be ‘new blood’, he has done her will, not his own, the ‘fabric’  is all hers. the dangerous change he is going to choose is a chance to exert his own will, ‘it would be the something he had longed for’, and this is not about money but about the chance for the play of self, the use if one’s own energy: ‘the liberating influence, new possibilities, more extended work’. Finally, he feels the power that  new money will give him and it is this that pushes him over the edge of  rational thought: ‘he thought, with an excitement that gradually overmastered him, of the rush of gain coming in like a river, and the exhilaration and new force it would bring. This idea caught him up as a strong wind might have caught him, and carried him beyond his own control.’

He has changed his mind and become a man who will now act dangerously. Small restraints have led him to the  place where he will burst his bonds.

Hard to know how you’d do this in visual. I can imagine seeing a Sean Bean from the outside, but hard to gauge or to spell out those gradations of  change?

I keep thinking, this is one  worked  example but I can  imagine the same  mental/spiritual process in  lots of different examples. In McGovern’s Broken, for example, the woman who covers up her mother’s death in order to claim her pension. In real life, the child abductor who has decided to snatch a child. (This morning I read in The Times Sara Payne, mother of murdered Sarah Payne, describing seeing Whiting (the murderer) in court for the first time and realising he ‘wasn’t a monster.’ ‘I realised, he’s just a sad, lonely person that goes after children because he can’t have a relationship with an adult.’). Whiting went through some kind of thought process before snatching that child.

Or you want to  keep your thoughts on  something more commonplace and less noticeable – the relationship between Father Michael and his  brothers: brilliant. McGovern’s Broken is full of  such moments.  He has noticed everything.

Please, write a novel, Jimmy.

Some say that  the age of the novel is over.  It is all visual now, and future is in Sky Box Sets and gaming – there’s a game of Walden now and there will be more and better to come… but  I’d argue there is a need for language that only literature answers.

But save that argument for tomorrow, time’s up, must go swim.


The Risk Business: Just Started Hester by Margaret Oliphant


Tradescantia growing from a rock face at a bus-stop, Kotor Bay, 17 July

Loubyjo tweeted me yesterday to say  ‘You can’t have started all these books at the same time!’

Quite right.

I’m just trying to catch up on my holiday backlog, now I’ve decided to list everything I read.  It’s not going to be a very long list once I am back at work: I’m lucky to get through a book each month then – which is partly the reason for instituting Daily Reading Practice here. But now, on holiday? With nothing to do all day but swim and find food – sometimes I’m reading more than one book a day. So I want to get them on my ‘Just Started’ list help my annual record… Everything started will be listed, but only things I really want to recommend will be  listed as ‘Just Finished’.

About two days ago I started Hester by Margaret Oliphant. Not finished yet but  must start recommending.

I’ve read it before, maybe twice, but a long time ago, at least ten years, perhaps more like fifteen, twenty years. The edition I’m reading is the OUP World’s Classics – edited by Philip David and Brian Nellist. Excellent edition! I remember them working on it and  the date inside is 2003. But I don’t remember rereading then… They were the early days of starting The Reader  – everything is a blur.

Initially, I read Hester along with a lot of other work by Margaret Oliphant, while writing my Ph.D. – A Beleaguered City (1880) was a key text  for me – something to come back to here another time. But  the  ‘Chronicles of Carlingford ‘ series – Salem Chapel, Mrs Marjoribanks also really enthralled me. How can there be such a great writer who hardly anyone has heard of?

And so to Hester.  it’s about two women, rather alike, clever, proud, judgemental, certain of themselves, one a teenager and the other aged sixty-five… and how they do or don’t get on. It’s about being a  powerful woman in a man’s world.  Its a story set in and around a bank, and is partly about risk. Not many novels enter this territory! I’m absolutely loving rereading it.  It has made me wonder why so few contemporary novels  care about the complex inside of human experience. Are we done with that? Obviously not, if you read Home by Marilynne Robinson, or The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. But they are rare beasts. Most novels don’t come close.

But back to Hester. You can read it online here.

Just one example for today. There has been an odd pause in a conversation, where Mr Rule, who has worked at the bank, seems to imply some problem, if Catherine Vernon were willing to look at it. But she is not, she passes the pause as if it were nothing. At Some level she can afford to. Nothing has hurt her for long while. She’s not looking for problems.

“We will not inquire too closely what he means,” said Catherine Vernon with a smile. “Anyhow it is very sweet to be able to retire while one has still command of all one’s faculties, and see the young ones come in. Of course one does not expect to live for ever. We are all in the Sunday period of our lives, all of us here.”

“Not I,” said the old clerk, “with respect be it spoken: I have had my Sunday and am ready to begin again, if there should be any need of me.”

“Which there is not, thank God,” she said heartily. And again there ensued that little pause. Was it possible she did not observe it? No one echoed the sentiment, no one even murmured the little nothings with which a stillness, which has a meaning, is generally filled up by some benevolent bystander. What did it mean? Hester asked herself. But Catherine took no notice. All had gone so well with her. She was not afraid of evil tidings. Her affection for the young men, her relations and successors, was calm enough to secure her from the anxious prescience of love. She took her life and all that was connected with her, with that serene and boundless faith which is the privilege of the untried soul. Catherine would have resented beyond everything else the imputation that her life was without experience. She had gone through a great deal, she thought. The evening long ago, when she had been told that the credit of the Vernons was at stake, and had roused herself to redeem it, had been the highest crisis and turning-point of existence to her. What had happened since had been little in comparison. She had not known what anxiety meant in the deepest sense of the word, and what had happened before was so long over, that, though she recollected every incident of that early time, it was apart from all her after-life, and never influenced her practical thoughts. She did not pay any attention to that pause which might have awakened her suspicions. There was no foundation in her for suspicion to build upon. She was so sure of all connected with her, and of herself, the first necessity of all.

This is a long hard look at a moment in a life where something happens that can easily be ignored,  is most often ignored. But Margaret Oliphant – look her up, read  the excellent Autobiography – had had a very hard life, had taken all the responsibility for  supporting a family, knew what trouble was, knows that these small moments add up. The novel, in one sense, is about such moments.

So you don’t read a  tiny pause on a conversation, so what ?

Hester, nineteen, is able to read it well enough to know it means something, though she can’t make out exactly what. Hester hasn’t the experience yet to understand  the detail of such a moment. But she’s got a kind of survivor’s instinct about it. Catherine, for all her sixty-five years doesn’t have that.  Prior hard experience might have taught Catherine to feel the  little wobble in the moment, but ‘all had gone so well with her. She was not afraid of evil tidings.’ A kind of  mental, emotional cushion,  or is it a callous, grown by absence of hard knocks, wads her against potential damage.  But we need to feel the real knocks, don’t we, to know where the obstacles and dangers are. Or instead of pain, Love might have given you ‘prescience’, but Catherine didn’t love, just lived a ‘calm affection’.  So another potential danger-spotting faculty is  cut-off.  Catherine suffers ‘the privilege of the untried soul’  – a fine privilege when  all is well,  but a deep disability in hard times.

There’s a lot more of this – the novel is absolutely full of, it’s made from,  such psychological observation. but I must stop writing now as I need to get back to my reading…