Labels can be pretty annoying – I’m sure there’s many a female author who grits her teeth when she hears her fiction described as ‘chick lit’, or is simply perplexed, as I would be if anyone referred to me as a chick. (Chicks are young, cute, vulnerable and clueless, right? I guess any of us might fit the bill on the last two counts, but as for young and cute, well, now I’m 39 I think that boat has sailed.)
But… labels are also jolly useful; and perhaps we only really chafe under them when we begin to feel that they diminish rather than strengthen our appeal. And now that I’ve written one, I’m beginning to realise that the description ‘Oxford novel’ is rather handy.
In my last blog post, I explained that I didn’t originally intend to set my forthcoming novel, After I Left You, in Oxford at all… but that’s where it ended up, albeit a lightly fictionalised Oxford, just to stop ye olde dreaming spires from taking over and trying to make it all about them.
Here are five rules that all those who write about Oxford students are likely to find themselves up against, whether they choose to comply or not.
1. Thou shalt have read Brideshead Revisited, and Evelyn Waugh’s novel will engender more Anxiety of Influence than Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, though you’ll have that somewhere in the back of your mind as well.
You will also, more problematically, have vague memories of Antony Andrews and Jeremy Irons looking fetchingly pouty in cricket whites in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Which is still blooming brilliant if you catch an episode now, btw. Even after the great Age of the DVD Box-Set, and The Wire and Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica and everything.
Because they did make great telly back in the olden days, though not all the time, as you will realise if you ever catch any of old Poldark.
2. Thou shalt find thyself tackling at least some of the subject matter that the mention of Brideshead Revisited evokes.
In no particular order: youth vs experience, privilege, aristocracy, searching for a home and finding it and losing it, drunkenness, alcoholism, addiction, religion, sex, sexuality, the backwards glance, what the passing of time does to people, betrayal, friendship, responsibility for a friend who is self-destructive, love, art, and what it takes to make or recognise good or bad art, and to find the good and bad in both oneself and the people one loves.
What’s that you say? Oxford possibly can’t lay claim to all that territory for itself, because, come on, zillions of novels from all over the world touch on those themes? Quite so. The Oxford novel must always be more novel than Oxford. Otherwise it’s just a tour guide.
A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee is not an Oxford novel, but a novel about India and England with some early chapters set in Oxford, which it captures brilliantly. This is an Oxford of hit-and-miss socialising, institutional toad-in-the-hole, cold, rain, and cottaging at St Giles’. It is also where Ritwik, the Indian student who has come to Oxford after the funeral of his parents, begins to write his novel, and it is in words, as much as with anyone or in any place, that Ritwik finds fleeting comfort.
‘At the lit display window of Blackwells, a shy, uncertain Mary looks down from her home in the shiny open pages of a luxury art book at some unspecified spot near his feet.’ Mary-in-the-book looks as if she has just finished ‘doling out some grace’; but if so, where has it gone? Ritwik, who has just used a helpline to confess a terror from his past, ‘almost looks around him to see if it is still dispersed in the restless air.’
3. Thou shalt feature a home, maybe stately, maybe run-down, which the protagonist gains access to because of Oxford. (The stay is not quite free, but the true cost may be unclear.)
Brideshead’s wartime neglect and decline frames Brideshead Revisited and it is a visit to the house that tugs Charles from the present back into the past. ‘I have been here before…’
Nick Guest (and of course he is a guest) feels he can appreciate the beautiful things in the Feddens’ plushy place in Notting Hill rather better than they can – and I think of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty every time I catch the Oxford tube, and pass those white stucco-fronted houses with their secret gardens. (I’m including The Line of Beauty here as a post-Oxford novel that elides the student bit.)
Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons casts a less than flattering light on the posh and their property, suggesting that people are likely to be as careless with their belongings as they can afford to be. Mark is absolutely loaded, and uses his money to buy himself friends (though he likes to keep them a little bit insecure, too, and deploys sex to help with that). However, the Oxford house that he installs them in is rather grubby and unloved and unappealing. Also, the object d’art that comes James’s way because of Mark, the music box, is a rather hideous thing that no-one really seems to want. Mark’s flaws, and the effect he has on others, suggest that wealth may have a corrupting effect, quite possibly on a person’s good taste as well as the capacity for other kinds of judgement.
Mark’s funds are limitless, and prone to being wasted, as the brilliant opening scene, with a spoilt feast sinking in the swimming-pool of an Italian villa, makes clear. In Brideshead Revisited, by way of contrast, Rex Mottram points out that the Flytes are much less well-off than they appear, and are heading towards financial disaster – though in their different ways Cordelia, Sebastian and Julia all appear to be willing to renounce their riches.
‘Creamy English charm’… and the lack of it
In The Lessons, though his apparent generosity helps, it is Mark’s self-destructiveness that is his most seductive characteristic. He is in many ways a bit of a git, and knows it. From the yobby food-throwing opening onwards, he is generally lacking in the ‘creamy English charm’ that Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited tells us Charles Ryder’s paintings convey, even when Charles attempts to ‘play tigers’. (Charles agrees.)
Blanche describes charm as ‘the great English blight’. Nick Guest has creamy English charm in abundance, but in the end it is not enough to save him.
NB: where would British fiction be, without its great houses? What would Darcy be, without Pemberley? Or Rochester, without Thornfield? Which has to be razed to the ground before Jane can meet him as an equal.
That’s the problem with the property of the wealthy. The act of visiting may close the gap, and marriage can establish the right to remain, but even that falls short of the entitlement bestowed by inheritance.
Ownership can be undone, though. Rebecca does pretty much force the de Winters into exile from Manderley. Popular fiction can be enticingly subversive in fulfilling the fantasy of taking over from the old guard; take, for example, Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, in which Emma Harte eventually gets her own back on the Fairley Hall lot after her time in service there ends in her apparent ruin.
4. Thou shalt also have read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
This demonically clever novel is a very different beast to Brideshead Revisited, though in some ways they are flip sides of the same coin.
Now, if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers, and you’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, or Antonia White’s novels Frost in May and Beyond the Glass, you’re going to need to skip the rest of this, because I’m going to talk about endings.
The Secret History is, to me, a truly terrifying novel, a horror story almost, that ends on a note of damnation rather than redemption. Its conclusion reminds me of the end of the film of Carrie, when Carrie’s dead hand reaches up from the grave to grab the penitent, remorseful schoolmate who has survived her.
And yet, how could the narrator of The Secret History have possibly avoided arriving at his final bleak vision? His loyalty is with the lost. His life has been saved – who could forget the scene in which he nearly freezes to death over the course of the university vacation? – but who has he really been saved by, and what for, and at what cost?
The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited is the inverse of this, a glimmer of salvation rather than a glimpse of hell. Brideshead Revisited strikes me as being at least as much a Catholic novel as an Oxford one – but does anyone talk about Catholic novels any more? Perhaps it is a label that has fallen into disuse, if it was ever much used in the first place.
5. Thou shalt consider redemption, though it is bound to be, at best, ambiguous.
In Brideshead Revisited, God is going to get you in the end whether you want Him to or not, however much you resist, and Charles, the narrator, does resist, as far as he possibly can, but in the end, it’s no use.
The conclusion, when Charles Ryder reflects on the lamp burning in the chapel – ‘it could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians’ – is despairing and sardonic and redemptive in quick succession, and ultimately, I think, cathartic; it certainly lingers in my memory just as much as Sebastian Flyte’s throwing up and teddy bear, and eventual strange fate. And I say that as someone who is not in the least devout, and who likes lighting candles in churches very much and does so rather superstitiously, but has not actually been to church, apart from on obligatory school visits, for a very long time.
Also, who could forget devout Cordelia fretting about her vocation, the deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain, Julia’s decision not to go with Charles, Sebastian with the monks? (NB – Cordelia is thrown out of her convent school for something she is writing, and the heroine of Frost in May suffers a similar fate for a story about a lurid bunch of sinners, though of course her intent in making them so lurid is only to make their eventual repentance the more powerful.)
Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the religious faith of the characters shapes what they do, and what they choose to deny themselves. When Charles says to Sebastian that Catholics seem ‘just like other people’, Sebastian says, ‘My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not – particularly in this country, where they’re so few.’
The rosary in the hand and the man in the mirror
So, Catholicism is written through Brideshead Revisited like Brighton through a stick of rock… and yet it manifests itself as a source of mysterious comfort as well as playing a part in Charles Ryder’s heartbreak. The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited reminds me of Clara Batchelor at the end of Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass, turning away from the darkness because of the rosary in her hand; faith is something to live for, a reason to carry on when it seems all else has been lost. (That is a heartbreaking novel, too.)
It is a very different matter in The Lessons, where Catholicism is associated with Mark’s mother’s rejection and attempted repression of his sexuality, and with the expectation of suffering. James is not in the least drawn to Mark’s faith, and concludes that there is ‘only one subject on which life’s lessons are in any way informative’ – the ‘man in the mirror’.
So who is the man in the mirror? At the end of The Lessons, James is free to be who? What? He hardly knows, although he has decided what he is not willing to be. Like Paul at the end of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, it is in moving away from the past, alone, unmoored and insubstantial as a ghost, that he is finally able to save himself.