Reviewed: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

A female Quixote.

Clever Girl
Tessa Hadley
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99

Tessa Hadley is a clever writer who likes to play with form. Like Amish quilts, her novels are made up of homespun, domestic material, delicately worked over. Then you step back and see the bold structural decisions behind their composition.

In 2011, her Orange Prize-longlisted novel The London Train offered us two 100-page-long stories, linked by theme and a single overlapping character. Now Clever Girl revives a very old genre, the female picaresque – prime examples are Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752). (Lennox provides the epigraph to Clever Girl.)

Our narrator, Stella, born in 1956, grows up dreaming of a less narrow, more enlightened life than the one on offer in workingclass, suburban Bristol. Like Arabella in The Female Quixote, Stella’s early aspirations are romantically shaped by her reading material. Her Beckett-and-Ginsberg-loving teenage boyfriend Valentine seems to offer a ticket to freedom – until he is involved in a homosexual scandal and runs off to the US, leaving Stella disillusioned and pregnant.

And so Stella’s adventures begin, taking her to a commune, a boarding school and the flat of a middle-aged gay man; on the way, she has many jobs, several lovers and three children (two by different fathers, one adopted from a friend). The narrative includes the requisite glimpses of a changing Britain: the effects of drugs and communism, attitudes to homosexuality, industrialism and its scarred landscapes.

When we leave Stella, she is 50. By then, she has attained social respectability and financial success. The title of the book is a reference to promise unfulfilled and the heroine’s canniness in getting on without academic qualifications.

Despite all this, the terms “quixotic” and “picaresque” aren’t quite applicable here – implying, as they do, a satirical, rolling humour that is largely absent from Hadley’s prose. This is problematic. Although Moll Flanders is hardly a quick read, its charm derives from the brisk clip at which Moll recounts her life story (listing, with a wonderfully salty materialism, the amount of linen and plate she owns each time she stumbles on to a new adventure).

Unlike Moll, Stella is sensitive and thoughtful; and, without irony, a whole life compressed into 300 or so pages starts to look squashed. For example, when the father of Stella’s second child gets accidentally stabbed to death, the narrative barely takes a breath. It is a (rather melodramatic) incident that would sit fine in Moll’s comically callous tallying-up of her life but in this straightfaced context it feels rushed.

“Gentle”, “understated”, “elegant”, “mature”: all adjectives employed in praise of Hadley’s careful prose. She is psychologically astute and impressively unafraid to include events without consequence in her narratives. The third-person voice of The London Train was, in many ways, flawless – always perfectly paced, full of delicate observation and resistant to obvious imagery. The drawback of such a smooth surface is that it risks blandness. It also throws any tonal errors into unflattering relief. The first-person voice of Clever Girl lets in overwriting and cliché: “[His smell] made me drunk, it made my knees sag”; “Without him I was exposed, on a lonely pinnacle, afraid of tumbling”; “Proximity to his body . . . licked at me like a flame”; “I’ve burned my boats, I can’t go back”; “There is a little flame burning in him, in spite of himself”; “It’s also a reprieve to be let off that hook and know that you’re simply in your own hands at last.”

In any first-person narrative related retrospectively, decisions have to be made about suspense – because the narrator who is also the protagonist already knows the ending. Hadley’s tactic here is borrowed from Muriel Spark. She trails major plot points before we reach them. Hadley encloses these flash-forwards in parentheses, which function as rhetorical understatement, lending impact to the revelations within.

However, Hadley’s revelations aren’t nearly as devastating as Spark’s. Compare Stella prematurely alerting the reader that she will later have another child – “(My other son’s so different, so complicated)” – with Spark letting slip, on the fourth page of The Girls of Slender Means, that Nicholas Farringdon will sleep with Selina and eventually be killed in Haiti. And because Hadley’s prolepsis is always cordoned off in parentheses and because there is so much of it, it starts to feel a little routine, a little less surprising.

Muriel Spark, without the spark: what Hadley lacks is stage presence. Her diction is good; she projects well; she’s learned her lines perfectly and she never turns upstage. But somehow, she doesn’t command the audience’s attention. With Clever Girl, Hadley remains a writer who is hard to really fault, yet hard to really love.

Claire Lowdon is assistant editor of Areté

Tessa Hadley.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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