Tag Archives: Tessa Hadley

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Eva Trout was Elizabeth Bowen’s last novel, published in 1969. It is a daring and extravagant novel. The main character, Eva, is not a very sympathetic one and although her story has great comic scenes, she behaves in a way that the author refuses to judge. The reader is left with work to do, and I admire Elizabeth Bowen for that.

 

The Story

At the start of the novel Eva Trout is the heiress to a huge fortune, her parents both being dead. She is still the responsibility of her guardian, Constantine, her father’s former lover. She has endured a motherless and peripatetic childhood, and two boarding schools. As she approaches the birthday on which she will inherit she is living with her former teacher Izzy Arble and her husband, and has befriended the family at the vicarage, the Danceys. This is how Mrs Dancey sees Eva, who was very tall, in the opening chapter.

The giantess, by now, was alone also: some way along the edge of the water she had come to a stop – shoulders braced, hands interlocking behind her, feet in the costly, slovenly lambskin bootees planted apart. Back fell her cap of jaggedly cut hair from her raised profile, showing the still adolescent heaviness of the jawline. (12)

Mrs Dancey’s observations show us a character not interested in how she appears to other people, and one who has not studied how to look feminine. It emerges that Eva has few social skills, little awareness of what others think or feel and so creates chaos around her. Her guardian and Izzy consult about their difficult charge. Eva disappears, as she does frequently in the novel. As soon as she comes into her money she runs away to Broadstairs, Kent, to a broken down house by the sea. She is found by Eric Arble, who has a bit of a thing for her, and by Constantine. So she disappears again, announcing that she is pregnant.

In Chicago she meets some old school friends and acquires a baby illegally. Returning to London after 5 years she sets off another chain of events for the Arbles, the Danceys and Constantine, whose lives have all changed while she was away. The baby Jeremy, is now growing up both deaf and mute. She escapes to France in search of treatment for him.

As her relationship blossoms with Henry Dancey, the vicar’s son, she returns to London and they stagger towards a decision to marry. The final scene assembles all Eva’s circle at Victoria Station as the couple prepare to depart for a wedding on the continent. But a shot is fired …

Adventurousness of the novel

There are many daring features of Eva Trout. In the first place, the heroine is unusual and behaves in a way that challenges the other characters and the reader. Her name is a little off-putting, suggesting fishy features. However, she is not unpleasant, simply unaware. This provides comic possibilities, as when she interacts with Mr Denge, who manages the property in Broadstairs. He is out of his depth in dealing with her, and is frankly afraid of her and her wealth. In contrast, while Jeremy is clearly important to her, she has no dilemmas that we are told of in acquiring him illegally, and is rather cavalier in her attempts to bring him up.

The plot itself is unusual. The events become more and more extravagant, beginning with a claim of an engagement, phantom, and culminating in the shooting on the final page. The narrative makes no attempt to explain, or to explore the inner lives of the characters. We learn about their actions, and surmise some motivations, from their conversations and letters. The action is revealed in scenes that are rich in description and sensual perceptions.

The narration is largely sequential, although Eva’s time at the two schools is revealed in an extended flashback. While it is mainly sequential it leaps forward from time to time, and the reader must find what has happened to the characters in the intervening years or months from the dialogue.

Much of the plot and delight of this novel comes through the dialogue. In this extract Eva is talking to a priest, Father Clavering-Haight. He is trying to put her right but she remains innocent while not unravelling the situation. Having discussed her father he asks whether she resents anyone else.

‘Yes, I resent my teacher.’

‘We’re not speaking of the subsequent Mrs Arble?’

‘Then you do know.’

That’s a business, apparently, that nobody can make head or tail of. What – exactly – took place?’

‘She abandoned me. She betrayed me.’

‘Had you a Sapphic relationship?’

‘What?’

‘Did you exchange embraces of any kind?’

‘No. She was always in a hurry.’

‘Good,’ he said, ticking that one off. (184)

Elizabeth Bowen is famous for her ‘prickly sentences, resisting conventional word order’. This too can slow the reader and force her or him to consider the meaning contained and what is revealed by the prickliness. The description is from Tessa Hadley who wrote the introduction to the Vintage edition.

Success of Eva Trout

Elizabeth Bowen’s style of writing, the absence of explanations force the reader to ask questions: she says, look at this unusual person, and these people and think about what they are doing and why, how they are reacting to each other and why, and watch how this unfolds. What forms a person’s life, she asks. Izzy, the teacher, has an interesting conversation about the possible effects of nature and nurture. Chance seems to play a very big part as well, according to the author. Perhaps that is what we are to make of the novel’s full title: Eva Trout or Changing Scenes.

I liked the audacity of this book, the challenge it presents to the reader, and recommend it as I do all her novels that I have reviewed so far on Bookword. It was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1969 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize the following year. It is a shame that it has rather slipped the public consciousness since then.

 

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in 1969. I used the Vintage edition of 1999. 268 pp

Related posts

Cosy Books blogger reported that Eva Trout had swept her away, like previous novels by Elizabeth Bowen.

And reviewed on this blog:

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen in February 2013

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, her first novel, in May 2013

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen in September 2013

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2014

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen in June 2016

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In praise of short stories

Short stories are flourishing at the moment. Both the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) are applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. It’s a form that embraces many genres, styles, plots, and approaches. A recent innovation was the sale by Penguin of a single short story, in electronic form (£2.99) well as in hardback (£7.99): The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. It’s an attractive innovation and has probably only happened because electronic versions are economically viable.

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I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral tradition (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer says that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend recently introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

Short stories have often provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention just a few. There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s (see for example the Showalter Collection below) and women have continued to make significant contributions to the form ever since (see the Angela Carter anthology for a superb selection).

Perhaps because the platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great novels, publishers don’t like collections of short stories, except by established authors, or so we are frequently told. But this is hardly true of some of the smaller publishers (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what sections of the reading public say they want to buy.)

Most how to write fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

Here is are five of my current favourite short story writers (not in any order and not necessarily the top five either – just five to celebrate):

62 Carver

  1. Raymond Carver (Vintage)
  2. Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)
  3. Molly Panter-Downes (Persephone)
  4. Angela Carter (Virago)
  5. Flannery O’Connor (Faber)

And five of my favourite anthologies (again, not in order and five to celebrate):

  1. Persephone Book of Short Stories
  2. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series (Salt) – annually
  3. BBC National Short Story – annually
  4. Angela Carter (Ed), Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (Virago)
  5. Elaine Showalter (Ed) Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle. (Virago)

62 Best

Regular readers of this blog will know I am reading through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels at the moment. When I have read them all I will start on her collected short stories. What a treat that will be.

Tessa Hadley’s top ten short stories can be found here. Her list is dominated by established novel writers: DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Nadine Gordimer, John McGahern, but includes stalwarts such Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka and, of course, Alice Munro. She has identified particular stories.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

Being told you are clever when you are young is not necessarily a compliment. There is the problem of being too clever by half. And if you are a girl it can be a disadvantage in the eyes of those who believe it is your mission to get a man. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but the words of the song The Dumber they come the Better I like ‘em (by Stephen Derosa) is a warning that all clever girls of the ‘60s will recognise. Clever girls, educated babies, wisenheimers, smart girls, they don’t know how to make love and men don’t want them.

There are plenty of clever girls in fiction, and on the whole they do get their man, but after a struggle. Clever girls write fiction after all. Jane Eyre, poor but clever, marries her employer. Dorothea (Middlemarch), first marries the dry, arid Casubon before giving up her inheritance to marry Ladislaw, who better appreciates her. Elizabeth Bennett’s fine eyes and wit are sneered at by the Miss Hurts, but capture the proud and brooding Darcy and his huge fortune and beautiful house. Sydney Warren (The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen) is awkward in relationships, but at the end of the novel is off to make something of herself. Maggie Tulliver, Lucy Snowe, I’m sure you can name many more.

In the sixties girls were divided into those who were clever and those who weren’t. Cleverness and prettiness did not coincide, we assumed. And clever girls, we were told, would find it harder to get a man and were advised to hide or deny their smartness and limit their education. What use is cleverness when your destiny is to marry and have babies? In a twenty-first century twist Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, believes that women go to university today in order to find a husband.

42 Clever Girl

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (2013) has another take on the clever girl. Stella grows up in Bristol in the ‘60s and excels at school. But being clever does not save her from falling into a series of unfortunate relationships and non decisions. In the first place she finds secondary school unbearable.

By the end of the first week I knew I had found my way, through some terrible error, into enemy territory where I must as a matter of life or death keep my true self concealed. The school was a mill whose purpose was to grind you into its product. Every subject shrank to fit inside its exam questions; even – especially – the books we read in English lessons. (67-8)

Stella becomes pregnant and leaves school before taking A levels and acquiring the passport to the clever girl’s life at university. She runs away from home and lives with a number of people who take pity on her: an aunt, a housemother at the local public school, a teacher who had loved her soul mate, a commune and then with a friend. The impetus to change her life comes when she reads some lines of poetry by Whitman.

It wasn’t their meaning that affected me, it was the words themselves – the solidity of them, their being assembled together in that particular order and rhythm – which stopped my breath. They seemed a signal from another, bigger life than the one I was in, as if a smothering blanket had been torn through. (142)

Having seen the other, bigger life, Stella once again engages with the words of others. She acquires a degree in English literature as a mature student and could have continued into postgraduate education, but decides that this kind of formal education is not for her. Stella appears to survive a series of episodes in her life, more or less passively. Indeed the only thing she is good at is escaping. She runs away frequently: from home when pregnant, from Mrs Tapper (who saved her by providing home and work and Walt Whitman), from Fred who also gave her a home, and from time to time from her much older husband. But gradually and despite some uncertainty Stella changes so that she helps others, providing in her turn a home for the daughter of a friend and raising the child as her own.

The story is told in the first person, in rather a flat tone, which reinforces her experience of life as a series of episodes that happen to her. Tessa Hadley’s skill is in the language she uses, which pinpoints details making the narrative compelling, as these two extracts illustrate. Stella’s cleverness, we come to see, is not a worldly awareness. We find out on the first page that she has never questioned what happened to her father, having been told he died, but she doesn’t notice the absence of grief, mementos, what ifs or anniversaries that would confirm his death.

The episodic style fits the passive aspects of the story, and one can see how two chapters were published separately as short stories in The New Yorker. I’ve read Tessa Hadley’s earlier short stories and admired her ability to confront human failings, and the rather grim aspects of being alive. The collection was called Sunstroke, which illustrates my point. In Clever Girl Stella acquires enough wisdom to steer herself adequately through life after about 50 years of experience of it. That’s one form of cleverness. Some reviewers have been unconvinced by aspects of the novel – (Stella’s choice of career Elaine Showalter in the Guardian, for example). But I think Tessa Hadley has an eye for the unlikely details in life, such as clothes, novels, décor, career choice.

I’ve been to college, I’m full of knowledge, go the lyrics from The Dumber they come. That’s one form of cleverness. In Clever Girl Tessa Hadley has offered us a more uncomfortable version of cleverness.

What clever girls have you met in fiction? What did you think of this novel?

 

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