My blogging is still decidedly patchy but I really enjoy Kaggsy and Simon’s Club weeks, so I was determined to take part in this week’s 1976 Club. So far it’s shaping up to be another excellent selection so do head over to their blogs to see all links to reviews 😊
I decided to go with two authors I’m very fond of, but who perhaps don’t provide the sharpest contrast… these are two short, spiky novels, darkly humorous and incisive in their portrayals of ordinary lives.
Firstly, A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge. The cover of my edition has a quote from Hilary Mantel calling it ‘one of the funniest books I have ever read’, which tells me that Hilary Mantel and I have very different senses of humour. There are definitely funny moments in A Quiet Life but, like a lot of Bainbridge’s writing, I found it pretty bleak too.
Set just after the end of the Second World War, it tells the story of a family from the point of view of the eldest son Alan. Living in a coastal town near Liverpool (probably Formby, where Beryl grew up), his parents are very much unhappily married.
Once well-off, they now live in straightened circumstances. His mother expected more, going to a finishing school abroad and marrying a self-made man, who now unfortunately, has lost all he made. Theirs is a house of loaded silences, resentments, bickering, secrets and frustration.
“The marble statue of Adam and Eve, recently brought down from the landing, was shaky on its pedestal. Even the row of decorative plates, painted with roses and hunting scenes, might roll on their shelf above the door and bounce upon the red carpet. Madge said it was like walking through a minefield.”
Bainbridge captures perfectly the constant repressed tensions of living in such a situation. There is no honesty here, just lives of quiet desperation as his mother reads romantic fiction and his father struggles in isolation.
“Though the war was over, Father was still caught in a cross-fire, harassed by battles, by phantom cities tumbling about his ears. This moment – as then – he could be slumped over the driving wheel, hands raised in an abject gesture of surrender.”
Meanwhile their two children muddle through. Depressingly, Alan sees his future playing out just like his parents. This doesn’t particularly bother him, despite the fact that:
“He always did as he was told and he resented that no-one noticed.”
Meanwhile, Madge his sister runs wild, doing exactly what she likes and knowing how to manipulate her way out of any repercussions. She isn’t remotely vicious, she just knows what will enable her to do what she wants.
“She didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past marshalling the reasons for his parents behaviour […] All he wanted was for Madge to stay indoors at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.”
The dejection and anxiety of all their lives – except possibly Madge, who seems determined to carve out something more – is brilliantly captured by Bainbridge in small, telling details. In a world where no-one says very much and very little happens, she manages to build the tension to breaking point, to an ordinary, sadly predictable tragedy.
‘We had a garden when your father and I were first married, big enough for a game of tennis. We had a maid called Matty. We had so much space…You have no idea what it was like.’ She stood by the hearth, one foot resting on the cracked tiles.
‘We’ve got space now,’ said Madge from the floor. ‘You won’t let us use it.’
Alan thought suddenly it was why Madge went out so much, why he did himself. There wasn’t room for them. If he had his way he’d light a fire every day in the lounge and lie full-length upon the good-as-new sofa.”
Secondly, Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden. The titular woman is Penelope, ironically named as she herself observes, as she is not a faithful wife but plans to leave her husband Eddie and her two daughters for her lover, after she has finished her afternoon’s work as a Justice of the Peace.
“Will they blame me? I hope not. I have taught them to be tolerant as I have taught them regular habits and sound ethical principles. The only thing I have failed to teach them, I sometimes think guiltily, is how not to be boring.”
The afternoon she spends in court sees her reflect on her life so far, her choices and attitudes. It is not only her major life-altering decision that is prompting this introspection:
“Someone has sent me twenty aspirins in a brown envelope, and that anonymous accusation rumbles on in the depths of my mind like a monotonous menacing drum, sharpening my sympathies with all accused persons, alerting my memory, forcing me to examine my own failures, seek out my own guilt.”
This unnerving situation adds a sense of foreboding, or even slight menace, to the day. Yet there is insidious violence throughout Penelope’s experiences, which gradually emerge.
Penelope sees herself at the more liberal end of society’s views:
“ ‘Do you think old, respectable aunts should not be listened to?’ The Judge smiles politely. He knows about compassionate lady magistrates, that smile says; all their soft-hearted arguments.
I am stung. Does he think I am not worth listening to?”
Yet some of her views expressed in this novel are deeply disturbing: “Some women invite [flashers] behaviour”; “Girls often pretend to be more upset than they are. It’s expected of them.”
As well as her internalised misogyny, Penelope has to manage the daily sexism of a 1970s workplace, a mix of being patronised and/or lusted after. The condescending Judge invites her to a lunch that is clearly more than a meal…
As she reflects on her relationship with her step-brother Steve, step-sister April’s violent marriage, and her step-mother Eve’s mental ill health, I think Penelope is supposed to be callow and unthinking, certainly in terms of how she viewed April’s violent marriage when she was younger. However, Penelope is not wholly unlikable, mainly because she doesn’t cut herself much slack and she does try to help people, however misguidedly. She doesn’t justify what she’s doing or try to make it better than it is. She simply explains how she reached that point:
“My life, my active, happy, purposeful life suddenly seemed empty to me, dreary and useless. The speed with which this had happened was terrifying. One minute I was walking calmly along, feet on firm ground, the next I had tumbled into this frightening black chasm. How had it happened? Why did I feel like this? It was more than unhappiness.”
Afternoon of a Good Woman feels like a snapshot in time, not only of Penelope’s life but also of 1970s attitudes to women, violence, crime, sexual behaviour (Eddie’s preferences are detailed and Penelope’s affair is a somewhat contentious relationship, even without the betrayal), sexual assault, work and family, public versus private personas. For a short novel it covers a lot of ground, and manages to do so with ease. I’m really glad I read it for the 1976 Club as it felt very much of it’s time.
“And indeed, to be fair to myself (and if I can’t be fair to myself, how can I be trusted to be fair to others?), in the magistrates court, where I sit almost weekly, the margin of error that puts me on the side of the judges and not of the judged sometimes seems very narrow.”
To end, of course the 1970s give me an opportunity to indulge my love of David Bowie. In 1976 he starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth: