The subversive, Austenesque wit of ‘Late in the Day’, by Tessa Hadley

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

Tessa Hadley is not the sort of writer to land the Booker Prize, which tends to reward writers from ‘anywhere’ rather than ‘somewhere’. Hadley labours under perceived limitations: she is distinctively British, writes about the middle classes, and turns out, as the puff on the back rightly says, ‘the quintessential domestic novel’.

Those who are put off by this description — probably mostly men — miss out on a vast range of female authors, from Jane Austen to Anne Tyler. Poor souls, they are missing

only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its vanities, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

That just about sums up Tessa Hadley.

Her subversive wit is Austenesque; but in many ways she is more like Tyler. Her novels span decades of change. Time itself is a plot-driver — if plot is not too definite a word. Every character is carefully sited on their time lines. These are novels not just of ‘somewhere’, but ‘some-when’: in this, she is reminiscent of Chekhov, in whose plays every character is given an exact age.

Late in the Day, as the title suggests, is again about time — in this case, 30 years of marriage. A long marriage needs to encompass change: ‘Since that beginning, they had both changed their skins so often. Marriage simply meant that you hung on to each other through the succession of metamorphoses. Or failed to.’

The opening is delicately ominous. ‘They were listening to music when the phone rang.’ ‘They’ are married couple Christine and Alexandr: Christine does not recognise the music; ‘Alex had chosen it, he hadn’t consulted her, and now she stubbornly wouldn’t ask — he took too much pleasure in knowing what she didn’t know.’ A fault-line is traced in the relationship; and even the view from the window of their first-floor flat on this late summer evening is subtly out of kilter:

A gang of parakeets zipped across from the park, and the purple-brown darkness of the copper beech next door fumed against the turquoise sky, swallowing the last light. A blackbird silhouetted with open beak on a branch must be singing, but the recorded music overrode it.

None of these details are sinister, exactly, though the invasive parakeets are aggressive: the copper beech is ornamental; the music beautiful, even if it drowns the native blackbird. But birds, tree and music are all imports, overlying changes.

The telephone call is to announce a death. Alexandr and Christine, Zachary and Lydia have been close friends for 30 years. Now Lydia is ringing from hospital to say that her husband Zachary has died of a heart attack; and the ‘new torn-off shape’ of their lives brings new strains out of old memories.

For, 30 years ago, it was Lydia who, as a student, was obsessively in love with Alex. Alex, a Czech exile, was a few years older, and taught the students French.

Alex had seemed entrancing to the girls, with his foreign handsomeness so exact and polished… his disdain for their ignorance… They had felt exquisitely crushed.

Lydia stalks Alex, dragging along her less glamorous schoolfriend, Christine — ‘tall and thin and oblivious’. They track down the pub where Alex drinks with his male friends, discussing books or music or films ‘with a competitive swapping of assertions’. There Alex has a reputation as ‘the rarest, most talented among them’. He has even published a book of poetry.

Hadley’s description of the conversational dynamics of the period are spot-on. Serious PhD student Christine hardly speaks at first: she ‘felt her female intelligence as fatally self-conscious’. Sexy Lydia, however,

put in her own remarks among the men, and they all deferred to her, but Christine saw that they didn’t quite take what she said seriously… Her appearance blocked their attention, like a dazzle of sunlight in a reflection off glass.

Alex’s best friend, Zachary, kinder and less egotistical, ‘was the only one… who really listened to what she and Lydia said’. And Zachary and Christine ‘did go out together for a while’.

If the portrait of Alex, arrogant, secretive and self-absorbed, is sharply critical, it is also sympathetic. Hadley shows the self-doubt and loneliness born from a childhood in exile, using the ‘alien shell’ of a foreign language as a defensive weapon. And, crucially, the women are shown as complicit: it is precisely his arrogance and secretiveness that they find attractive. Both women, though counting themselves feminist, fall into old-fashioned patterns: ‘They lived their secret lives inside the shell of their husbands’ worldliness and competence.’

Hadley is particularly acute at suggesting the ages at which her characters peak, becoming most definitely themselves. Poor Alex’s golden era is in that pub in his twenties; but his poetic potential shrivels inside his shell, and he dwindles into a teacher. His Eastern European pessimism ‘fails to adapt’. Lydia ‘persisted in clinging to those truths of the body she’d found out when she was a teenager’. She is lazy and chronically untidy; but both time and the author are surprisingly kind to her, and her beauty in her fifties has ‘a late ripeness’.

Zachary is the character most generously at ease in his adult skin: he was ‘one of those men who seem only provisionally young’. In bearded maturity, he is warm, enthusiastic, an ‘enabler’ of others; but dies when still in his prime. And Christine is that most secretive of characters, a late developer. (In this, she resembles her creator: Hadley published her first novel when she was 61.) In her fifties, she is still ‘girlish, but an ageing girl’. She abandoned her PhD to become an artist, encouraged by art-dealer Zachary, but loftily ignored by her husband. ‘Alex didn’t take his wife’s work quite seriously: didn’t, in their horrible school-boy phrase, really rate it.’ At the end of the novel, Christine is, perhaps, late in the day, just coming into her own.

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