Janet Hobhouse
Janet Hobhouse; drawing by David Levine

To be a writer who is told, again and again, that your life is made for fiction is rarely the pure good fortune it seems. Larger-than-life lives, after all, are not so easy to live. And truths that are stranger than fiction, the sort of truths that such lives are made of, can be next to impossible to turn into fiction. The novelist Janet Hobhouse heard the “great copy” line a lot, and her short life—she died two years ago at forty-one of cancer—was not only dramatic but hard. It was also very productive: along with a biography of Gertrude Stein and a study of twentieth-century artists and nudes, she wrote four novels, including the posthumously published The Furies. In her fiction she never strayed very far from her actual experience, but she had to struggle to put its most outlandish, powerful parts on the page.

Nearly every novelist, of course, both responds to and resists the claims of autobiography in one way or another. But for those, like Hobhouse, whose imaginations draw very directly from life, the trail of ambivalence is often blazed quite clearly in the work, not hard to follow once the underlying facts are known. Suddenly the camouflages are exposed, the evasions are obvious, and the recurring scenes make more sense. The Furies is Hobhouse’s best novel, and also her most autobiographical. “Any resemblance to humans living or dead was, far from accidental, deliberate and contrived,” her ex-husband wrote of the book in a reminiscence of his life with Hobhouse.* Perhaps better labeled an imaginative memoir, The Furies is a last work whose revelations not only chart new ground but can serve as a guide to the veiled and uneven self-portraiture in her previous three.

Nellie Without Hugo (1982) and Dancing in the Dark (1983) were timely contributions to a burgeoning genre: scenes from the marriages of sexually and emotionally restless young women in Manhattan during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nellie takes up with an old boyfriend while her English husband, Hugo, is off in Africa; Gabriella, in the later novel, frenetically does the disco scene with her gay friends while her English husband, Morgan, mopes at home. Hobhouse has an eye for uptown yuppie trappings: the “right” West Side apartment decor, gourmet foods, midtown office ambience, shows at MOMA, along with a few downtown clubs and a loft or two. And of course she provides a sampling of sex. Her characters discuss it (“You mean all the little buttons,” Gabriella said, “nipples and so on? But it’s masturbatory”), enjoy it (“morning sex, long before the patches of light had come together to make the day, when the giant stirred, half of him still owned by sleep, half belonging with consciousness to Nellie, self-given, unasked for but dedicated”), and avoid it (“They held like that for whole minutes, Gabriella listening to Morgan’s movement inside his bed, and his hurt, angry breathing, and he listening for signs of her relenting.”)

Yet the books don’t quite fit their moments. Hobhouse was not writing about “life styles,” she was writing mostly about a recent period in her own life, and the urgency has the welcome effect of making the novels often seem, of all things, old-fashioned. Absent from both of them are the minimalist style and ironic detachment that typically go with the terrain. Instead, in each the narrator treats the heroine’s problems with utmost seriousness, filtering them through an anachronistic, exacting Jamesian sensibility. Nellie and Gabriella routinely act the part of the familiar narcissist, terrified by intimacy and by autonomy, making and breaking precarious connections to other people. But they rarely think the part: while their bodies take a therapeutic, hedonistic route, their minds follow a more tortuous and usually more interesting course.

Hobhouse’s characters take a refined pleasure in the pains of conscience aroused by the combination of carnal indulgence (which is often punishing) and cerebral penance (which is often indulgent). Nellie, fresh from adulterous sex with her old boyfriend, sits watching The Rules of the Game in a state of acute mental arousal: “And why was she fretting about all of it so ceaselessly, unable to sit back and enjoy the trumping as a simple act of nature, a forgivable deviation from the longed-for but seldom attained moral rectitude….” In the midst of the whirl of her life with her gay friends, Gabriella heightens her defiant exhilaration by not quite letting go: “Gifts, pleasures, gestures, everything in Gabriella’s life had to signify. Not for her this life of unscrutinized moments, acceptance of surfaces, but more like the leaning and whining and constant demand for what was underneath and what was going to last.”

But for all the sophistication of Hobhouse’s anatomy of matrimony, there is, as Gabriella’s leaning and whining suggest, something almost childish about the uncompromising demands that she as a writer, like her characters, makes on marriage. As they insistently pursue freedom, at the same time fearing loneliness, Nellie and Gabriella sometimes seem less like wives chafing within marriage than like children still negotiating the basic terms of independence. In Dancing in the Dark Hobhouse is very explicit about how much growing up Gabriella has yet to do with Morgan:


It was a marriage of only children, self-spoiled, self-proclaimed orphans who in their fear of separation tried to make each other identical twins. And that was where the deadlock came from. Now as the orphans grew or longed to grow into adult selves, the necessary refinitions of power threatened the first frightened pact, the defensive egalitarianism.

Both novels seem headed for marital disaster as Nellie awaits Hugo’s return with detached trepidation and Gabriella and Morgan head off to Mexico barely on speaking terms. But belatedly the fear of separation prevails, not entirely convincingly.

It is in her third novel, November (1986), that Hobhouse confronts the collapse of a marriage and veers to the opposite extreme, isolation. In this unremittingly dark book Zachariah Quine, a composer, has sunk into an alcoholic, drugged haze since his unwanted divorce from Maggie three years earlier and is only now beginning to face life again. His dilemma is the familiar one, but this time scrutinized in a completely disillusioned light. “Desire for union conflicted with desire for freedom,” his psychology student friend patly sums it up, citing Otto Rank. “The choice was between love and claustrophobia or independence and loneliness.” And hovering over Zach’s hopeless quest for love, the same friend observes (this time citing Melanie Klein), is a longing for a more primal nurturing bond, a yearning for the return of the mother’s breast. Hobhouse lightly mocks the student’s earnest explication but not the underlying insight.

From the very first sentences of The Furies, it begins to be clear why anxious children linger within Hobhouse’s adults:

For a long time my mother and I lived such a solitary life, citytrapped and economically precarious, so isolated from anything resembling family or stability, so utterly dependent on one another to provide a lovable human universe, that the existence of forebears…seems to me even now a kind of fairy tale….

Here the truly preoccupying conflict between dependence and independence for Hobhouse predates the modern story of troubled marriage. The novel is an almost mythic saga of struggle between parents and children, in particular between mothers and daughters. The shadow of the author’s passionate but ambivalent bond with her strange and beautiful mother is cast over everything.

Hobhouse had planned for years to write about the women in her family, her ex-husband remembered; he was surprised at “how long it took Janet to realize just how important, and in what dangerous a sense, her mother was to her.” She tried some preliminary sketching in Nellie Without Hugo, and she began taping her mother’s reminiscences. But even before Hobhouse fully faced her mother on the page, the relationship between them plainly influenced the dire emotional calculus of her first three novels: love is always an entrapment, but the loss of love is never a liberation for her characters as they “struggle to be free in the world.” On the evidence of The Furies, it seems that Hobhouse turned to write at length about her mother, who was now dead, shortly before she herself was diagnosed with cancer. The grim prognosis didn’t derail her portrait of their long and inescapable entanglement. If anything, her illfated past seems to have become an even more pressing subject once she learned of the ill fate ahead of her.

The story that Hobhouse gives her first-person autobiographical narrator, Helen, certainly is great copy, almost too great. But right from the opening, which sketches in Helen’s family background, Hobhouse finds a tone for her almost incredible memoir which manages to be well balanced between portentous and plain spoken. In the Whartonesque prologue, mother-daughter conflict emerges as a kind of dynastic curse in the Woolf clan, passed down from generation to generation of a formerly well-to-do but now scattered German Jewish family that once ran an importing company in New York. Helen is the product of yet another rebellious union between a daughter and an inappropriate suitor. Bett, her mother, made a brief and disastrous marriage to an Englishman and then fled back to New York, snatching her baby daughter from the arms of her husband’s family at the airport.

In the first section of The Furies, “Women,” Hobhouse bypasses the prosperous, young professional Manhattan of her earlier work for a cramped female corner of the city. This is not to say that gritty realism prevails; not at all. Helen recounts the strange fortunes and grim misfortunes of her youthful life with her mother in the calm cadences of a fairy tale. Despite plenty of up-to-date urban details, the characters and the atmosphere seem to have emerged from some cut-off world where public events barely impinge. Time moves forward, but there is an underlying sense of slow circular motion.


The story begins with abandonment. In America, Bett proves unable to hold down any job for long, and in dire straits sends five-year-old Helen off to boarding school. For five years Helen pines for her mother, living for her occasional visits, which are never dependable. Bett always arrives late and often on the arm of some new beau; she goes through men almost as quickly as jobs. Devotion and disappointment feed on each other, for mother and daughter alike. One day the child’s dangerous dream comes true: the tuition stops coming and she gets to leave her prison. “I was to see my irregularly descending goddess up close,” Helen reminisces in a tone that admits irony but also insists on intensity. “I was to be…free to live my life as I had dreamed of it since I was five: at long last together, alone, and always with Bett.”

After Helen’s release, the story becomes one of bewitchment: a child living two lives, a nearly destitute one in New York, and a bewilderingly vivid one within the orbit of her unstable, adored mother. Intermingling a young girl’s concrete perceptions and a more mature daughter’s later reflections, Hobhouse manages to convey both psychological complexity and a primitive enchantment. Helen is enthralled by Bett’s helpless and hopeless romances with men, devastated by her periodic deep depressions, and overwhelmed by their mutual dependence. Before long she becomes aware that something has to break the spell:

If we were like sisters to the world, it was because we were both children, and it seemed to me more and more that I was going to have to be the one to grow up if either of us was going to survive. I was bent then on our doing that, and I still believed it could be done. Of course, part of me still expected Bett to do it for us, only the more I observed, the more I could see that we were one mother short and that it was going to have to be me that looked for the bread crumbs and led us both from the forest.

Given the dynastic curse, it’s already implicit that mother and daughter will not both emerge from the dark wood. And indeed as her adolescence nears, Helen’s devotion to Bett begins to erode, though her mother remains doting as ever. “I knew that I had secretly abandoned my mother as my heroine. I remained fiercely loving, but a little part of my brain was already fixed on betrayal, fluttering anxiously for some way out of the tunnel her life, and mine with her, increasingly seemed to be.”

Hobhouse’s legend of goddesses and demons, idolatry and betrayal, is a real departure from the dense psychological surface of her earlier novels. The acute introspection is still there, as Helen the narrator analyzes in retrospect, but the preternatural wisdom of Helen the spellbound girl gives the reflection its moral momentum and concreteness: she endures while her older self dissects. Given this interplay, the end of childhood approaches as a narrative dilemma. And sure enough, when Helen becomes a rebellious adolescent, the distance between her and the narrating Helen shrinks; tension migrates from the depths to the surface, where it lodges in stereotypes. Suddenly the introspection veers into abstractions—“I’m scared of a lot of things. Scared of not growing up, being left in a puppyhood of confusions”—and the external description leans on social clichés: “By the end of my fifteenth year, when the Fab Four sang ‘Twist and Shout’ and everyone in the orchestra rushed the stage….”

Like almost every teen-age daughter, Helen consigns her mother to the periphery, and Hobhouse herself suddenly seems aware that without the eccentric, curiously alluring figure of Bett, her story risks flatness. She skims over Helen’s adolescent agonies, hurrying toward another implausibly literary (but true) plot twist to propel the story back into the realm of the super-real: Helen’s long-lost father suddenly surfaces as the reluctant agent of deliverance. Francis invites her to England, urged on, in a variation on the usual fairy-tale conventions, by his wife, Helen’s well meaning stepmother.

The aura of magical ominousness briefly returns but then fades in the second section, “Men.” Facing her father in fiction for the first time, Hobhouse filters another improbable fragment of memoir through the lens and language of fable. Francis bewitches by bullying, and he literally stuns his daughter into a deep sleep; Helen can barely get out of bed, but when she rallies she is transformed, with a British accent, literary aspirations, and love interests. And thus Hobhouse finds herself back on the familiar, disenchanted terrain of romance, marriage, and adultery. It’s almost as if she is a little impatient to be tramping through it yet again. Helen’s first blissful Oxford romance with Hugh, followed by her much more tormented years with Ned—they are forever leaving each other, then returning, and finally embarking on a marriage that is rocky from the start—are all at least dimly, and sometimes very sharply, reminiscent of scenes from the lives of Nellie and Gabriella in her earlier books.

With one significant exception: the “old redneck sweetheart” with whom Nellie had her affair while Hugo was gone turns out to have been that rarity for Hobhouse, a studious departure from autobiography (which perhaps helps explain why he is such an unconvincing character). The Furies corrects the record. Helen, back in New York with Ned, takes up with the antithesis of that redneck: her older lover is a famous, cerebral writer she calls Jack, whose artful conversation and “sexual brainpower made for a kind of nervewracking exhilaration.” Hobhouse’s portrait of the recognizable author will doubtless be a document for his future biographers, but it also records his gift to her: his life was a model, then utterly foreign to her, of almost puritanical literary dedication and discipline.

In November Zach the composer mulls, mostly in vain, over the relation between his music and the mess of his life, and the role of art again becomes a question in the final novel as Helen’s life accelerates into chaos. Ostensibly it seems that artlessness prevails: in “The Furies,” the novel’s third section, the subject is once again daughter and mother, and the exposition in “Men” gives way to much more fragmentary confessional memory. From a freighted fairy tale, the narrative turns into a surreal nightmare in the wake of Bett’s suicide. Hobhouse may well have had further refinements in mind (a preliminary publisher’s note suggests as much), but in fact she has unobtrusively created the desired jagged effect. Her sped-up prose conveys real turmoil.

Yet within the bold, broken lines that describe a daughter’s collapse one can make out a shadowy portrait of an artist emerging, retreating, emerging again. Hobhouse’s touch is light, but there is real suspense in the understated story of literary struggle. Overcome by “terrible love and grief,” Helen is pursued by memories of her mother, and yet also compelled by the darkness to write. Finally she succumbs to depression, can’t write, can barely go out. The metamorphosis has been long foreshadowed, but nonetheless it comes as a surprise: Helen becomes a version of Bett. “I shed the trappings of my own life and took on hers, both in penance and in love.”

Just as Helen has begun to write again and to summon the strength to emerge from “solitary confinement,” she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer and told she has little time left. The last short section, “Alone,” seems to have been hurried on to the page. Its tone is a jarring change from what has preceded and what might be expected: facing death, Helen suddenly becomes an optimistic soul, facing her sentence with almost prosaic equanimity. The shift is genuinely shocking: where ominousness has weighed down everyday life for almost three hundred pages, now mundaneness lightens death. The closing scenes are uneven, but in dramatizing Helen’s cheerful comic distance, Hobhouse sometimes strikes a witty, precarious balance between the two obvious dangers, sentimentality and a facile stoicism. “I was afraid I was going to blow it, this dying,” Helen worries. “It wasn’t like childbirth; there were no classes for it.”

Knowing of the life behind the fiction and waiting for the heroic last touches on the portrait of the artist, one reads the closing pages waiting for Hobhouse to grant a final, self-reflexive autobiographical revelation: to describe how the “state of grace” that transformed her life at the end also inspired the art that we’ve just read. But Hobhouse modestly skirts any heroic last literary scene, omitting all inference to her final work. Instead she dismissively sums up her oeuvre as “three books which might get mentioned in some small press somewhere when I went, but not the real stuff.” And then, in a short coda, Hobhouse swerves away from melodramatic memoir and has Helen announce that against all odds she has survived.

In a sense of course Hobhouse did survive: she managed to resurrect herself in The Furies. And given her silence about the completion of her book, it’s possible to imagine that she had at last achieved the dull, austere artistic discipline that she clearly aspired to. Helen, awed by her lover Jack’s ascetic literary habits, so different from her own distraction, envied “the monkish habits of his solitude, the grim, even depressive minimalism of his life.” “Zach had a similar glimpse of rescue through artistic rigor in November. The passage is preachy, but in retrospect it sounds almost prophetic:

Art must proceed, he told himself, like his life, from freedom to necessity, from a beginning where everything is possible to the point where only one thing is right, from can to must, to yes through no. And then another thing, his art and his life must all be one and the same…. And furthermore, the task was to make out of the utterly formless energies of sensation and emotion something you can bring out again, something as simple as a melody.

Hobhouse seems to have suspected all along that deprivation might be, for her, the key to liberation; that acknowledging fate might be a step toward freedom. As she worked on The Furies she had clearly arrived at the point where she knew the one right thing to write. Her dark life did not inspire a simple melody, but it taught her some of the most challenging rules of disharmony.

This Issue

May 13, 1993