• Email
  • Print

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?

It is as if the novel as we have it has partially suppressed a novel about a literary world, and the protective treatment of homosexual life might lead one to imagine that Laura the rich bitch has been painted over the portrait of a certain type of outrageous male writer or cultural partygoer. Unless I am inventing this element of transvestism, it may be that the author wanted to write about her profession—the etiquette of launches and lunches, about publishing, editors, interviews, leather, the world of literature—but was then won over by a competing subject matter. You might say that publishing is a somewhat childless profession: the novel as we have it is largely about children and the orphan’s plight.

That plight has often induced shows of sensibility and a floridity of language, from neither of which the novel is altogether free. Clara declares that her birth was “a consequence of Ed Hansen’s momentary insistence,” which is a bit high-flown, and perhaps, in general, there is something like an excess of awareness on the part of the characters—Clara especially. We tend to call that kind of thing novelistic, and to a number of readers it may seem novelistic to make so much of the issue of attendance at the funeral, considered as a means of escape. No great harm, though, is done by any of this. The Widow’s Children is a compelling and satisfying book. The critique of kinship and the world’s law is intelligent and far from sentimental: it has in it, especially apparent in the wit, a worldliness which it could not do without, and which is that of someone who has lived long enough to have learned a good deal, for example, about brothers and sisters.

It is not a Gothic novel, and it would be wrong to assimilate it closely to that tradition. Margaret Atwood’s, on the other hand, can be said to contribute to the tradition. She has, in fact, a scholarly knowledge of the subject, and her novel may be read as a sequel to several old works, Radcliffian and Victorian: it even has a running parody of the latter, which takes into account the modern pulp derivatives. These confessions of a justified sinner could be entitled “The Mysteries of Toronto.” The Gothic tradition is apt to figure here as involving a preoccupation with the oppression of females, and there is no offense to scholarship in that.

Lady Oracle is about a false drowning staged for herself by the blackmailed heroine, Joan Foster. Such a disappearance counts as a Gothic act. When the nineteenth-century historian Henry Cockburn heard of a young Scotsman trying just such a trick in the Danube, he thought of the foreigners who had contributed to the genre, and wondered: “A sudden Germanizing of the noodle?” These tricks are still played. The British MP John Stonehouse pretended to have drowned off Miami, claiming that this had to do with the exchange of an old personality for a new and with a Parliament which persecutes “idealists.” The courts have punished this idealist, whose activities, I would bet, have been followed by Margaret Atwood, with a sentence of seven years’ imprisonment for financial fraud. As for Joan, long before the drowning she is already a confirmed escapee and a veteran of multiple identity.

She grows up with a scowling mother and an absentee father. She is an outcast lost in a wilderness of castoffs, disposables, plastic shards: a world which has invaded all the countries she is to visit, and for which, by the characters in Margaret Atwood’s books, “America” can be held to blame. She keeps flying and fleeing in fear of molestation, is roped to a post by Brownies. To begin with, she seeks refuge from her mother in being histrionically fat, then sheds her poundage. A thin person struggles out of the fat one, who continues, astrally, to envelop her thin sister.

Duality looms: this is a work which thinks of a Heathcliff as containing, and aspiring to become, a Linton. The thin person takes to turning out pulp fiction, “Costume Gothics,” with the pseudonym of Louisa Delacourt. The book which she is writing when the novel opens (and which Margaret Atwood felt it might be fun to publish, preserving the pseudonym) has as its heroine a Charlotte, threatened with rape and murder, who is, “of course,” an orphan. Joan is one too, of the imaginary sort: by virtue of her divided self, or knack of multiplicity. She “oozes tears like an orphan, like an onion.” She “only wanted some human consideration”: the same words were used of his early years by the imaginary orphan, Robert Louis Stevenson. The orphan hopes to escape into consideration, which may be a way of saying that, having suffered both coercion and neglect, he wishes to be both independent and dependent.

The narrator’s several selves are a complicated business. Daydreams that her parents are not her real parents accompany the fashioning of her fat self. As Louisa, she gains a “second self.” She marries idealistic Arthur, and then leads a “double life” by embarking on an affair with a simple-hearted sophisticate, pseudonymed the Royal Porcupine, who goes in for the disposal, in art galleries, of animals killed in road accidents. From her husband she discovers that “there were as many of Arthur as there were of me. The difference was that I was simultaneous, whereas Arthur was a sequence.” Most of the time, though, she registers as only “two people at once”—namely, Joan and Louisa. These performances are sustained by a repudiation of her mother which is also her mother’s repudiation of her. She is afflicted by mother dreams, in the worst of which that parent is invisible:

I would be hiding behind a door, or standing in front of one, it wasn’t clear which. It was a white door, like a bathroom door or perhaps a cupboard. I’d been locked in, or out, but on the other side of the door I could hear voices. Sometimes there were a lot of voices, sometimes only two; they were talking about me….

Something bad is due to happen. “Then I would hear the footsteps, coming up the stairs and along the hall.”

From the primal venture of the second self, other selves, serial or simultaneous, may ensue: the multiplication of division is a feature of this literature, which has itself multiplied, and extends more widely than is supposed. Samuel Beckett does a little comic sum while dissecting a case of multiple identity in his novel Malloy, where a rancorous tramp crawls and crawls to join, or not to join, his mother, roosting in ditches and bushes like the outcast king in ancient Irish poetry, or like Jane Eyre. The austere Beckett is not above obeying the call, the cult, of the orphan, whose flight can be perceived in the wanderings of tramps. In Godwin’s Gothic novel, for instance, the kinless Caleb Williams endures what approximates to Malloy’s “long anguish of vagrancy and freedom.” The orphan has long been peripatetic, peregrine: Beckett’s contribution here is to make him simultaneously paraplegic. Malloy’s hunter, who is also Malloy, explains: “The fact was there were three, no, four Malloys.” Then there are five. “But let us leave it at that, if you don’t mind, the party is big enough.”

Beckett’s novel indicates that orphans need not be nice, and the annals of the subject indicate that the aggressions of the outcast may add up to an outlaw. Or a monster. Literature alleges that all these states are related. Yeats’s poem about a Second Coming—the work of an adept of duality at a high point in its historical development—foresees that the rejected of men will return in monstrous shape. And Frankenstein’s monster is none other than an orphan.

Between her narrator’s main selves, Margaret Atwood draws what might appear to be polemical distinctions. The deutero-Joan’s Costume Gothics are, perhaps, shameful stuff about women’s willing submission to the male, while the real Joan writes (Gothically, in a trance or dream) a piece of poetic prose which is hostile to all that, to the Canadian Dracula, and which is a huge success in the land of the Mounties. Joan’s subject matter is at times foreshadowed in Margaret Atwood’s volume of oracular poems, Power Politics, in which “the fanged man with his opulent capes and boots” can also be glimpsed.

A special fame may await the orphan or imaginary orphan who publishes his troubles, and Margaret Atwood has earned it with her very accomplished “victor/victim” stories and poems. This description of her themes is her own, and it is quoted on the jacket of Power Politics, where, however, she also observes that the book is not about “the plight of women or the villainy of men.” She should have told that to the designer, who has placed on the title page a medieval-looking woman, bound or bandaged, hanging from the mailed male fist of a knight in armor. Certainly both the new novel and a previous one. Surfacing, would seem to be scathingly in earnest about the faults of the male in an American Canada. This aspect of her work—freely confessed, moreover, in a buoyant and funny first novel, The Edible Woman—will have helped to make her the leading lady oracle, “the superstar of Canadian letters,” that she is reported to be.

Her writings sometimes set out to establish a situation in which the victim says to the victor, “I shall go mad,” or “I shall kill myself.” For this reason, no doubt, Surfacing has been linked with The Bell-Jar. Some of her poems are Plath-like, and one short lyric recalls, or is meant to refer to, Sylvia Plath’s evocation of Lady Lazarus, for whom dying was an act she performed “exceptionally well,” and who may even have prompted the title of the new novel. The lyric reads:

Returning from the dead
used to be something I did well

I began asking why
I began forgetting how

Both women write of a “starless” state: “starless and fatherless” in Plath. Each of their fathers was an entomologist and an expert on bees, which is almost enough in itself to arouse an interest in the phenomenon of doubles.

In Surfacing, which has also been linked with Deliverance, the narrator travels to the wilds, with three companions, in search of her father, whose wife is dead and who is mysteriously missing. She becomes more and more distant and distraught, and eventually makes astral contact with her parents, and with the local gods. After that, she goes free and vagrant, crawling through a Beckett thicket, but only for a day or two: both she and Joan end up alone, but abandon their terminal isolation. This narrator returns to the city, reconciled to the thought of childbirth and pregnant by her speechless hairy sculptor friend: Joe is a lesser being, but fit to serve a sibyl or witch. Sex gets separated from pleasure in the narrator’s mind, and Canadian sexuality is condemned—as if by association with the plastic, imperialistic America which threatens the world. Both here and in Lady Oracle there are Canadian nationalists on the scene, Americanized bohemian radicals who are sworn to resist the encroachments of America. The threat is felt to be genuine, but the response is mocked.

Having drowned herself, Joan, the Royal Peregrine, flies (literally) to a plastic medieval seaside town in Italy, from which the narrative flashes back, and in which terror is due to strike. For all the reverberating footfalls, it proves a letdown when it does. Both the novels are entertainments, of a high order, but in Surfacing the feeling for wholesome, old-fashioned parents runs deep, and survives the magic, which in any case is very well presented. At times, the new novel can seem to be caught up in its own contrivances. Even as parody or burlesque, the tale of mystery and imagination dictated by Joan’s predicament does not survive incorporation in a busy comedy of manners.

Both The Widow’s Children and Lady Oracle take the victim’s part, and it is traditional to do so. Who has ever read a critique of orphans? Both are kind, in the sense that they belong to a tradition of respect for alienation, for the miseries that domesticity can cause. But The Widow’s Children is a work in which several plights receive consideration, and not just that of the principal victim, whereas Lady Oracle‘s first-person narrative represents a method which has encouraged writers to feel sorry for themselves, and which lends itself to the language of grief and grievance—to the orphan’s cry. In Atwood’s novel, for most of the time, that cry shifts into satire, or is overlaid by the noises of a sardonic social comedy, and it is uttered by a victim very different from Mrs. Radcliffe’s Emilies. She has more in common with Erica Jong, who is able to be so tough about her troubles—not that Joan has any fear of flying. All the same, a plaintiveness—the sound of the orphan, though the orphan has many sounds—can be heard.

The imaginary orphan believes that parents are in the wrong, and both these novels sympathize with the idea of escape—though it is the more limited escape of modern times, and even that may be denied to Joan. A quarrel between parents and children, and a history of objections to the family, might seem to date from the exaltation of family life in the course of the last century. By the end of the century, parents had started to take flight, and the family was impaired, but the quarrel persisted. In certain circles, the world’s law had come to include divorce, separation, the assignment of children to grandmothers, servants, boarding schools. What Maisie Knew explores this world: James’s novel cares about a modern orphan, and is closer in spirit to Paula Fox’s than any other I can call to mind. Both books suggest that a broken home can remain coercive, and can accommodate the quarrel between parents and children.

Parents have believed, in recent years, that, on the side of the young, a new coolness or coldness has set in, and they might feel that this quality is captured in Paula Fox’s novel and in the work of Margaret Atwood. It could be said that a family ruled by a drag queen like Laura is a fairly peculiar one: and yet “What Clara Knew” gives a very accurate account of the pains of family life as they are often experienced now, and seems to speak truthfully of a time when some people have decided that the family will shortly disband, but when it still retains a power of constraint, when a child may have more than one father, or none, without being reckoned an outcast, but when there are still those who imagine themselves to be outcasts. Does it speak of a strange new indifference on the part of children? The most moving thing in the book is how natural Clara’s neglect of the grandmother who raised her is made to appear, and it can make you feel that hardly anything is more of the present time than the old people’s home, where the orphans of a second childhood receive their few visitors.

It is also the case, however, that Clara’s possible release from family imprisonment is identified with an act of piety toward her grandmother: attendance at funerals is a custom which many English-speaking children have ceased to understand, so that it is, in fact, very shrewd of the novelist to make use of the issue, and to allow it to tell in Clara’s favor. And it may be the case that Clara, the pale, promising outcast, shares her indifference with Laura, the hopeless outlaw, and that such indifference is not as new as we think. It may be that it is traditional, that it belongs to a history of hostility and exclusion, and testifies both to the power of family life and to its impairment. The book does not always do enough to persuade you that Clara and Laura are related at all, but it enables you to reflect that Clara is descended from two women each of whom is as much of an outcast as she is herself, and that this may be important. If there is ever a critique of orphans, it should extend to those of them who have families, of whatever condition, and, within that category, it should pay attention to the victim’s victim, and to what Stuart Hampshire, writing on the subject of tragedy, has described as “the genealogy of misfortunes, which pass across the generations as an inherited punishment.”

  • Email
  • Print