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English Women Novelists

Catching up

By Phillip Lopate | June 24, 2016


This past year I have been reading various English women novelists of the second half of the 20th century: specifically, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen, and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m not doing it as an assignment, or a subject for an essay. I simply fell into the habit of taking one of these novels whenever I was about to fly off somewhere. The books are generally short, about 220 pages, clever, wise, satisfying, and delightfully written—so much so that it has made me wonder why I had been avoiding their authors for so long. It could not simply be sexism, since I have been drawn to female writers at least as much as to males. I think it had something to do with their reputations as incorrigibly minor (though I often love minor writers the most)—or not just minor but cozy and artistically conventional. I see now that their humbler status, in my mind, had something to do with not being part of the modernist movement—not seen as extending the experimental advances of Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and Woolf. They wrote unapologetically in a realist/naturalist manner, and their books were formally shapely, fastidiously structured, and elegantly phrased. There is a tendency for theater majors to look down their noses at the well-made play, and I fear I must have been exercising a similarly snobbish prejudice, until now, against the well-made novel. Perhaps it has something to do with age, but I have reached a point in life when I am grateful for a well-made novel, just as I am for a well-made movie or a well-made pie.

Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Taylor all specialized in the comic novel, capturing the vanities and self-delusions of their characters, while tenderly granting them enough space to make colossal mistakes and sometimes recoup their losses. I finally caught up with Spark’s iconic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as well as her Memento Mori and The Girls of Slender Means. This last title I liked the best, because it was her most high-spirited and generous (Spark can be nasty). Similarly, with Murdoch, I was most entranced by her first novel, Under the Net, with its breezy portrait of the London and Paris film worlds, though I found A Severed Head, The Sea, the Sea, and The Bell also wry and engaging. Murdoch is very good at delineating male conceit, and not entirely unsympathetic in that regard, though her egotistical men do get their comeuppance. Bowen is more sober and dark, as witness The Death of the Heart and The Heat of the Day. I have so far only read one novel by Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season, but it was so brilliantly observed an ensemble portrait of a troubled family living in the country that I can’t wait to sample more.

All these writers are candid about female sexual desire, which they take for granted without the fuss American novelists make. When I think of the American novels produced at the same time, they seem shaggier, more ambitious, more adolescent, and far less stoical. Take Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King or Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, both magnificent yowls of appetite and need. The English women writers I have been discussing are more inclined to view human drives with an ironic, reserved smile. Their characters are smaller, as befits the old saw that tragedy ennobles human beings, while comedy diminishes them. The English novelist benefits, even at this late date, from a more defined social class structure, which pins down precise details about individual characters and their backgrounds. Their novels which are set in country houses have a tight focus, like a Dorothy Sayers murder mystery. But even some of their urban novels, such as The Girls of Slender Means, cling to a single boarding-house setting, or a schoolhouse, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: there is much less of that gusty wanderlust that you get in American novels. Both are valid, both enrich the literary scene, but I was educated for so long in the expansive American model, Moby-Dick, etc., that I find it reassuring to settle down occasionally in one place. Could it be that I’m finally becoming an Anglophile, after decades of resisting the complacencies of Masterpiece Theatre?

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