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Orphans and Oracles: What Clara Knew

The Widow’s Children

by Paula Fox
Dutton, 224 pp., $8.95

Lady Oracle

by Margaret Atwood
Simon and Schuster, 345 pp., $8.95

These two novels share a concern with the status and sufferings of the orphan or outcast. Neither of their heroines is technically an orphan, but each of them is thought to resemble one. The adventures of literary orphans, who are liable to be both cast out and imprisoned, locked out and locked in, can resemble a certain experience of family life: the experience of those who feel themselves excluded and who wish to escape. To think about orphans can look like a way of thinking about the family, whose members will sometimes be exposed, and imagine themselves exposed, to the orphan’s double trouble of coercion and neglect, and the literature of the orphan includes the adventures of many such imaginary orphans as the heroines of these novels.

The preoccupation with this subject gives the impression of passing from a world of tribal magic, of mangers and bullrushes—where, by virtue of hidden powers and entitlements, outcasts and strangers could be sacred and successful—to a secular world consisting of the immediate family and its surrounding communities, and of rather more stubborn afflictions. And yet misfortune and its secrets can still be revealed as powerful and enchanted. In Europe and America, since the eighteenth century and Romanticism, the preoccupation has been keen; it is bound to have expressed, or continued to express, a variety of needs and constraints, some of which I do not mean to discuss; and it has been associated with invention and achievement.

Orphan Annies and orphan authors—real and imaginary—have grown rich and famous. On the page, orphans have tended to win, though the material rewards are no longer what they were: at the end of the day, the stricken deer sits down to dinner in a splendid mansion. The literary tradition of Gothic “strangeness,” which appeals to Margaret Atwood, rests upon imagined states of estrangement, but it also rests upon imagined states of advancement. Many of the early Terror novels, and of their successors, comforted the public by finding prospects and heritages for the forlorn: once the mysteries of places like Udolpho were solved, estates and annuities came to light, and fainting Emily was revived by a good marriage. On and off the page, orphans have been imitated, and sensibility, susceptibility, suffering, solitariness, darkness, and mystery, envied

The image of the orphan, who is both weak and strong, both silent and outspoken, embodies one of the contradictions inherent in romantic preconception: it is likely to be admired, that is to say, by those for whom both privacy and publicity are very appealing. Fictions of all sorts have echoed the blubbing and blabbing of the inscrutable orphan child, and have done so in what can appear to be a social setting of small, well-disciplined families, where it may be necessary to affect to be such a child. It has been said that the novel has had to pretend to be other, more authentic forms of writing, and one of the things it has pretended to be is some miserable person’s confession or complaint.

Lady Oracle is confessional, while Paula Fox’s novel is not. Lady Oracle has a first-person narrator who tells her secrets and the story of her terrors, sensibility and multiple personality—a story in which the other human beings seldom distract one from the teller—while The Widow’s Children is a drama of rival presences and outlooks. Nevertheless, the books have a common interest in what it is like to be an orphan. An old solicitude, indistinguishable at times from an old self-pity, is renewed. “No sooner had I wiped one salt drop from my cheek than another followed,” confessed Jane Eyre. Such tears can still flow.

Let me try to say broadly what happens in the literature of the subject. A real orphan may write about his troubles, as Keats does in taking flight with the nightingale and returning to earth. Equally, a writer may be thought to imagine himself an orphan, perhaps by writing about one, and a character in fiction may imagine himself one too, or behave like one: so there’s resemblance here between Dickens and his sensitive, crafty Skimpole. Behaving like an orphan is likely to signify a rejection of parents: both the girls in these novels are rejected by, and reject, parents, with the girl in Atwood’s book fancying herself a changeling. A writer or character may be drawn to fantasies of duality or multiple personality, whereby the self-imagined orphan gains, as such, a second self or double life which may enable him to break, but not completely, with his relatives. The literature is full of escapes, and it is full of impersonations which promise the escapes which they may also postpone. Lastly, real or imaginary, the orphan may be an outcast, but he may be more like an outlaw, or he may experience, as Jane Eyre occasionally does, a “sense of outlawry.” And the outlaw is capable of constraining the outcast, as happens in Paula Fox’s book.

Her remarkable novel describes a grisly family reunion, summoned by Laura as a send-off for her husband Desmond and herself, who are leaving on a trip to Africa, and sited in a New York hotel room, over drinks, of which Desmond flings back implausible quantities. Laura is a monster—impulsive, domineering. Her daughter Clara, whom she rarely sees, is at the party, and so are her brother Carlos, homosexual, once a music critic, and her friend Peter Rice, a dry, mild publisher, who admires her and stoops to announcing himself with an imitation of birdcalls. Another brother of Laura’s, Eugenio, is absent: a travel agent, proud of his impressive blood. That blood is Spanish, or Gypsy: but maybe it is secretly Jewish. Her mother Alma—fetched from Spain to Cuba to be married, then cast away for good in America—is not only absent but recently dead: Laura conceals her death from the others for the duration of the party, and later seeks to conceal the funeral arrangements from her daughter. Ed, an artist, Laura’s first husband and Clara’s father, is absent, but his decline is a welcome topic of conversation.

The hotel is awful, its plants plastic, and the room has its strange weathers, which can seem like the weathers of Clara’s captivity. Her mind moves among private matters: there are items to be kept from her mother, and, with some detachment, she pictures her own married lover. Meanwhile the party moves through phases of alcoholic intensity, with nearly everyone insultingly overwrought. The quarrel adjourns to a smart restaurant, the Canard Privé. According to Rice, the name means a decoy: but Larousse allows you to guess that it might also mean a lame duck with secrets, which would be a description of Clara (and of the Gothic novel). Laura’s temperament explodes, she storms out, and Rice travels New York’s dangerous dark to let the rest of the old woman’s relatives into the secret of her death.

Rice’s gathering sense of Clara’s predicament, the predicament of some-one who needs to refuse an unkind and strong-willed mother, is felt by the reader to be authoritative. At one point, the party meets the overflow from another party in the hotel, a shenanigan to launch a book by Miss Randy Cunny of blue-movies fame (a less reticent naming on Paula Fox’s part). And Clara is accosted by a man in an apricot suede jacket. Presently.

there was a loud thud as the elevator doors opened on the floor above them. Carlos was staring at Laura intently. Suddenly, he fell back against the elevator door, his features convulsed with laughter. “Randy Cunny!” he cried as Laura pulled him by the coat away from the door. “Autobiographies! Publishing…editors…interviews…leather…the world of literature!”

What better place for a cocksucker?” asked Laura.

Rice reflects on Laura’s violent and offensive joke about literature’s deep throats:

The savagery with which, a few moments ago in the corridor, she had delivered her “literary” comment had shocked him because, he had imagined at first, of her daughter’s presence. All evening, he had seen Clara as an outsider, somewhat pathetic, but young and attractive, and who wasn’t a little undone in the bosom of the family? Especially this family. But wasn’t there always a latent witness in the outsider? And on the face of this uneasy young woman, hadn’t he seen, up there in the corridor, an expression of utter repugnance? Wasn’t that why he felt at this moment, after Laura had behaved toward him with such atrocious rudeness, that he was the ignominious one?

Here Rice imagines Clara as a kind of orphan, and conveys why, in the books which uncover the latent witness of the outsider, the situation of the pathetic outsider who nonetheless is or has been in the bosom of a family has never been neglected. It is clear that Rice, too, is an outsider. Elsewhere we hear of the “estrangement” sensed in him by Clara, of the “solitary wounded self” kept by him in a “private dark.” Such clandestinity is a more serious matter than Carlos’s “stupid secrets which everyone knew anyhow”: these might suggest that style of affected secrecy favored by the first romantics, and popular ever since.

Late in the novel, Clara accuses Rice of pressing her to attend the funeral—over Laura’s dead body, as it were—for reasons, or treasons, of his own. She calls her mother “that outlaw,” and Rice concedes: “Maybe it is between Laura and me. She is outside the law. It’s why I’ve loved her, hung on to her all these years.” Laura, who had been quietly alienated from her own mother, Alma, is the outcast as outlaw or imprisoner.

It has long been possible to suppose that to be outside the family is to be outside the law. In Jane Austen’s Emma, the heroine tries to excuse an orphan’s barely excusable consent to a secret engagement, devised to hoodwink the aunt who is constraining the orphan’s lover. And in doing so, Emma alludes to another excusable secret engagement, the one that occurs in Romeo and Juliet, from which she quotes in defense of this orphan: “Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not theirs, nor the world’s law.”’ But if those outside the law may be outcasts, for whom you are sorry, they may also be outlaws.

It’s not always easy to think of Clara as Laura’s daughter, even as her rejected daughter, or to think of Laura as anybody’s mother, or even as a woman at all. Rice is a good portrait of a sad publisher, with the world-weariness of the profession: he can manage his sprightly birdcalls (not that this is made entirely convincing), but is soon smelling the end of the world in a gray afternoon. Laura, however, is less securely characterized. She is multiple, impersonative, in a sense that has nothing to do with notions of duality. She nags in a low way about Jews and coons and restaurant reservations, while also rising to the classiest invectives and teases. “Certain seagulls are being beastly this evening and shall not be given their delicious sleepy-time helpers,” she says to the mewing Rice in what used to be the accents of high camp. The range of insult isn’t unbelievable, and Laura isn’t simply a repertoire of brilliant bad behavior, but there are occasions when the reader asks: what sort of people, if any, carry on like this?

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