My month of Mary Hocking reading continues with An Irrelevant woman; a novel still infused with Hocking’s warmth wit and understanding but that strikes a more sombre tone overall. Mary Hocking published this novel when she herself was in her late sixties, and I can only assume was beginning to consider the effect of ageing upon women in their everyday lives. One of the things I love about Mary Hocking’s writing is that – upon opening to the first page – one knows exactly where one is – for her novels are strongly rooted in the rural England that she knew so well.
“The house stood high above the village and a sufficient distance to discourage those whose pleasure it is to drop in on neighbours. An untidy hedge overhung the narrow lane so that passage was not easy and the chance passer-by was afforded only a limited view of ancient chimneys and mossy, tiled roof. To anyone sufficiently determined – and prepared to brazen disapproval – to push hard at the dilapidated wooden gate, a curve in the rough drive would still deprive him of full view of the house. If such an intruder were to venture on, he would soon come upon a rambling sixteenth-century house which, though plainly habitable, did not appear to have suffered much in the way of modernisation”
Janet Saunders is the irrelevant woman of the title; a woman who for years has successfully managed her household, of four children – now grown up and left home – while allowing time and space for her gifted writer husband to work. Now Janet is not so sure what her role is, her children have left, two of them have their own children, they each visit frequently, expecting things to remain just as they always were. Janet’s children all have ideas for what Janet should do now, she is only fifty after all – ideas they discuss in her hearing as the family gather for an Easter Sunday lunch. Hocking portrays a busy vibrant family, who fail to understand the changes that naturally occur as people grow away and leave home. Janet no longer knows who she is, her children assume they know who she is and that they can keep her exactly where she always has been, doing what she has always done, by finding something to occupy her when they aren’t around.
“Janet was lying on the kitchen floor weeping, attended by Murdoch and Humphrey, each ineffectual after his own fashion. Hugh said, ‘she had better lie down in the sitting room’ and Stephanie said, ‘Get her out into the garden. She needs fresh air.’
This being what most of them needed, they moved Janet into the fresh air. They propped her once more on the bench beneath the apple tree where she slumped, looking uncomfortably like a straw figure.
‘She looks so pale,’ Katrina said. ‘Not a bit like my little nut brown Mum.’
With her husband, Murdoch secreting himself away all morning writing, Janet a little isolated by living outside the village is often thrown together with her daughter-in-law Patsy and an elderly distant relative Deutzia. Janet’s daughter in law (ex-daughter–in law strictly speaking) has taken to visiting Greenham Common a cause that begins to interest Janet and Deutzia. However none of this is enough to prevent Janet’s fragile sense of herself breaking down. Suddenly Murdoch has to do things he has never done before, cook, clean, shop, all while caring for a Janet he doesn’t entirely recognise, he is confused and out of his depth. Janet’s breakdown is brilliantly re-created with real compassion and a deep understanding – Hocking’s characters are often intelligently introspective, deeply questioning and very much a part of the landscape in which they live.
The more of Hocking I read the more I see why people have likened her writing to that of Elizabeth Taylor. Just as with Taylor, Hocking’s peripheral characters are as strong as her central characters. Her observations of people and places so sharp and exact, that she can’t help but bring them to life. In this novel for instance we have Patsy so brilliantly described when we first meet her:
“The kitchen door opened to admit a woman who wore clothes which proclaimed that she would not wish to be seen dead in anything which fitted her. The purple skirt was too wide across the hips and the uneven hem trailed about her ankles, as muddied as her boots. The pink shirt sloped, shoulder seams just above the elbows, cuffs at finger-tip level. Both shirt and skirt were generously creased. Cleanliness, however seemed to be important and had obviously preceded the creasing process.”
Janet’s eldest daughter; psychologist Stephanie, capable and rather bossy, angered that her father’s brilliant creativity has been upset, vies with Janet’s psychiatrist and has still not entirely forgiven her husband for leaving the church. Local vicar Hector Beaney is rather alarmed that now that Janet is so obviously unwell he may actually have to do something for her, feeling rather unequal to the task.
“Deutzia feels that I should be doing something more for Janet Saunders now that she is so ill,’ Hector Beaney said to his wife over breakfast. Breakfast in the Beaney household usually had something of the confessional about it, the hour when Mr Beaney unloaded upon his wife those cares which the night had failed to dispel”
Surrounded by people who seem incapable of properly helping Janet in her hour of need, it seems as if it is only Janet herself that can bring herself back. Everyone will face changes and challenges as Janet slowly comes back to herself, her breakdown having shown her how she should live the rest of her life.