Tuesday, July 13, 2010
44. Hounorable Estate
In her best-selling autobiography, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain tried to "describe and assess the fate of a young generation ignorantly and involuntarily caught" in the chaos of the War and post-War years. Last week this earnest British writer offered a novel with a theme no less ambitious but a good deal less sharply defined: the relation of the feminist movement, the War and changing social standards to "the private destinies of individuals." The result is another of those curious hybrid volumes that have recently become numerous in English writing—a long (601 pages), formless book, half-tract and half-fiction, slightly radical, a little scandalous by pre-War standards, not quite a sentimental story, somewhat highbrow, almost good.
I thought that Brittain used Honourable Estate as an opportunity, under the cover of fiction, to explore paths that she couldn't/shouldn' t explore in an autobiography. In some way's was a rehash of her story in both of the "Testaments"
She uses shifting POV's to tell the stories of Janet Harding who as a young woman in the 1890's marries a conservatively minded vicar. She discovers the constrains of life with a clergyman and her dreams of emancipation give way to the responsibilities of an overburdened wife and mother; and
Stephen Allendeyne, smug heir to Dene Hall, who prides himself on his union with Jessie Penryder, an impoverished governess with social ambitions. Generally at odds, the couple find harmony in opposing their daughter Ruth's modern ideas about independence.
Woven into these stories Brittain manages to explore (I think) the questions of
her real life brother's sexual orientation by creating a fictional brother for Ruth as a vehicle;
close, sympathetic and mutually supportive relationships between women (shades of Winifred Holtby) and where the line is drawn before it can be considered a lesbian relationship;
can a marriage be really considered happy when there is strong friendship and compatibility between a couple but a general overall lack of passion, although if you need to ask surely that should be your answer. However she does seem to be asking it;
and to explore paths not taken in sort of a "what if"
Vera and Roland, for whom she felt a great deal of passion (all of it firmly repressed) had managed to consummate their relationship would she have felt more or less by his death?
Vera had run for public office and worked to achieve her goals in Parliament instead of devoting so much energy into being an activist and/or writing. Would she have been more successful?
As you can see Britrain is an author who resonates with me.