Familiar Passions – Nina Bawden (1979) 160 pages
Trigger warning: this post mentions rape and sexual assault
Like Eudora Welty who I wrote about yesterday, it was last year’s NADIM that saw me finally pick up one of Nina Bawden’s novels (for adults, despite the fact I’d loved her as a child). Devil by the Sea was truly unsettling and I was keen to read more. The lovely Ali over at heavenali had sent me this novella with another which I won in her giveaway, and its confirmed my childhood view that Bawden is a brilliant writer 😊
Familiar Passions begins with James telling Bridie, his much younger wife of 13 years, that he wants to leave her.
“After a brief interval he went on speaking flatly, in a measured voice, like a chairman reading a company report. ‘There are a couple of things I feel I ought to say. To sum things up. One is, that considered as a parental team, we haven’t done too badly. Adrian’s defection from the middle class norm, though disappointing, is not unusual for the times we live in.”
James is repugnant. At first he seems cold and self-serving, but its worse than that. The night they split up, Bridie wakes to find James raping her.
“She did not know she was afraid of James. If she had been told she would have laughed.”
Although James has suggested she stay on as a housekeeper so he has a nice home to return to in the UK while he works abroad (!) Bridie decides she is getting out.
“ ‘You don’t have to stay, you know,’ as if consoling a scared child.
The words came unbidden, without conscious thought, but as soon as she had spoken them she understood why she had addressed herself like this, as if she were someone younger and weaker than she was. It was the only way she could force herself to act.”
Bridie never seems a victim in this. She is still young – only 32 – having married James at 19, when he was a widower and raised his two children, as well as having a daughter together. She has no work experience and worries how she will get on in the world, but she is a good mother and her step-children both like her, probably more than they like their horrible father.
“The children’s faces sustained and calmed her. It came to her with the force of something she had always known but only now acknowledged, that they were the only reason she had stayed so long; their pictures, the only thing she would take with her.”
Bridie goes home to her parents. They adopted her as a baby and she has no idea about her biological parents. Her father Martin is a psychologist, her mother Muff was a nurse.
“She had always orchestrated her emotions in this way to get and keep her mother’s sympathy; softening down the discord of her coarser feelings and playing up the tender sounds that pleased her mother’s ear. Perhaps Muff’s liking for a sweet, clear tune was what was called bringing out the best in people. But it wasn’t bringing out the best in her, Bridie began to feel. Only something that, although not altogether false, was never quite the truth.”
Bridie housesits for a patient of her father’s, in Islington which is portrayed as rather rough and down at heel – how times have changed! She gradually adapts to and starts to enjoy her new life, but the ending of her marriage prompts her to find out about her birth and origins. In doing so, she uncovers way more than she ever bargained for…
Familiar Passions is a pacey novella but it never feels overplotted. The betrayals and revelations that emerge are the type that can exist in any family. It’s very much of its time – particularly regarding Bridie’s rape (and her later sexual assault) with her awareness of how few options she has. There is anger here for sure, about the limited roles and choices for women, but it never overwhelms the narrative or characterisation.
Familiar Passions is resolutely unsentimental about families but also shows how valuable they can be: how destructive but also how nurturing, in their own unique and deeply flawed ways. Ultimately it’s a hopeful novel, about realising who you are and finding your own way; bound up as both those things will be in who you have been in the past and where you have come from.