Monday, 12 October 2009

Honourable Estate by Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain's 1936 novel blends family saga and political analysis. Divided into three parts, the novel opens with a description of the lives of Janet and Thomas Rutherston. Janet marries Thomas, a clergyman, too young and too hastily; appalled by the realities of birth and motherhood, and desperate for an outlet for her talents and intelligence, Janet turns enthusiastically to the suffrage movement. Her commitment to this cause will mean the end of her marriage and destroy a close and significant friendship with Gertrude Ellison Campbell, a playwright, although her son Denis comes to admire the sacrifices she has made. The middle part of the novel concerns the Alleyndenes, owners of a factory in the Potteries (readers with longish memories may be reminded of this television series by the Alleyndenes), and their daughter Ruth, whose early achievements at Oxford will be cut across by the first World War. In the final part of the novel, Denis and Ruth meet by chance while undertaking voluntary work in Russia, and through their marriage some of the frustrations and difficulties of their parents' generations are transformed and resolved.

Mark Bostridge's introduction explains that, after the success of Testament of Youth, Brittain sought to write a novel with the same scope and emotional impact. To do this she married together two existing draft novels; the story of the Rutherstons, which drew heavily on the diaries of her husband George Catlin's mother Edith, and the story of the Alleyndenes which derived in part from her own family background. Sometimes, the reader can see the joins, although some aspects of the novel - the re-appearances of Gertrude Campbell, for example - work well as a thread running through the work and connecting the characters. The defining characteristics of the work, however, are earnestness and exposition. We are treated to long, carefully scripted internal monologues from key characters; the characters all write to each other at great length about their feelings and intentions, and we are privy to a great deal of this correspondence; Brittain is at great pains to ensure that all the motivations and reasonings of her characters are explained in full, whether in their own voices, or through the narrator. This not only makes the book very long but ensures that it mainly lacks the subtleties of ambiguity or subtext. Brittain is also over-fond of the use of adjectives; hair is not just brown, it is sleek and shiny as well; eyes are not just blue-grey (two for the price of one there!) but watery and dreamy. This can make the text seem cluttered with detail that distracts from the narrative and from the political points it is trying to make. For me, it also gives the lie to Brittain's assertion in her Foreword that the characters are not based on real people, an assertion clouded still further by the appearence of real historical figures in the novel and the autobiographical content that will be familiar to readers of Testament of Youth.

Brittain's celebration of her feminist mother-in-law, who died young and without witnessing the achievements of the suffrage movement, is touching, as is the story of Ruth's suffering and eventual triumph. However, both are used to deliver often intrusive polemical statements about suffrage, feminism and socialism that can sometimes seem cut and pasted from Brittain's own journalism, and diminish the strength of the characterisation. The narrative is very frank about sexual matters, although Brittain is not enlightened enough to avoid the stereotypes of the embittered spinster or the repressed lesbian. I found the scene between Ruth and her dead American lover's fiancée, who expresses her joy that he and Ruth had sex before he died, so that he did not go to his grave a virgin, wholly ridiculous and unbelievable. I assume it was included to mitigate Ruth's shame at her descent into what she sometimes sees as fallen womanhood; to help sanctify the act, remove any sense that Ruth has wronged another woman, and separate her from those women who gave soldiers a lighthearted 'bit of fun' before their return to the trenches. To be fair to Brittain, the narrative's difficulty in coming to terms with sexuality is mirrored by Ruth's own feelings about sexual matters; there is often a sense that we are viewing the repression of the Edwardian generation from the perspective of the more enlightened 1930s. Denis is often the mouthpiece of this enlightened view, apparently unworried by such vexed questions as abortion, extra-marital sex and homosexuality.

Personally I found this book more interesting than enjoyable, mainly because of the style of the writing; but it hasn't put me off and I may have a go at The Dark Tide in a little while.

1 comment:

  1. A very fair an enlightening review. I have read and appreciated a great deal of Vera's non fiction writing : The first time I tried reading 'Honourable Estate' I gave up and donated the book to a charity shop. It just couldn't hold my attention. I tried again and had to force myself to start it. The book did improve a little but what I got so tired of was the endless political preaching. The reader just gets no space to form an opinion of their own. Vera should have written a history of the suffragettes rather than a novel.