Family vacations – that time of luxurious idle and retreat are, as anyone who has spent one with theirs will know, inimical to the household peace. Vacations keep us in close quarters over such a long stretch of time that tenderness seems to flare into irritation. Inherent attitudes and all too familiar mannerisms, usually subsumed under the guise of more composed selves, swell into fully-fledged presence. Tessa Hadley’s new novel The Past is formidable when it comes to laying bare such intricate relationships. The novel is a story about the Crane family’s three-week summer holiday to their late grandparent’s run-down country house in Kington, England, which becomes a deft portrait of several generations – their loyalties and antipathies, longings, and regrets.
For this purpose, Hadley has coined a quartet of temperamentally opposed siblings. Alice Crane is a failed actress, self-indulgent and sentimental, whose ideas of fulfillment have been limited to hopes of realizing romantic love. Harriet is her gaunt and greying sister, a former radical, now mostly shy and self-effacing. She enjoys the privacy gained from long uninterrupted walks in the woods. Fran, the youngest, is a forceful school-teacher and the determined mother of two spirited children, Ivy and Arthur. The children discover an abandoned cottage in woods, propelling a perverse fantasy of ritualistic offerings, which Ivy, being the eldest, presides over. Alice, Harriet, and Fran have an only brother Roland—a popular intellectual, who writes criticism for the national papers. Although his sisters half-worship his cleverness, they also find it slightly ridiculous remembering him in short trousers “when his glasses were mended with sticking plaster.” Along with Roland come his simple-minded, teenage daughter Molly, and his third and newly wedded wife, the enticing and headstrong Argentine Pilar.
Formally, the novel falls into three parts, with two present-day sections framing a separate middle act, set approximately 40 years in the past. Suspended between the two eras, the country house, with its affable familiarity and the menace of its unattended wear, ties the book together. It is a place deeply enshrined in old family memories, full of hushed interiors and hidden spaces. This is the place where years ago the Crane’s grandparents lived out a comfortable life afforded by their long-standing marriage, and where their mother, who died an early death from cancer, was brought up as an only child.
In many ways the house exists, as Hadley wishes to imply, in a space in between the past and the present, both mythologized and real at the same time. For each sibling this means something slightly different. “Every room in it was printed ineradicably, for Roland, with the quality of the first summer they had spent here without their mother. He had not known until then – he was fifteen – how much material things could be altered by the light, or the absence of light, in which you looked at them.” To Roland, as to most of the characters in the book, the light by which we see things is equivocally colored by the part these things have played in forgone times.
Alice too sees the house as a reflection of something other, yet where Roland’s vision is clear and detached, hers is a nostalgic longing. As she tells Roland when he arrives in Kington, the house “seemed an enchanted place: as if we’d only seen it in a mirror and wouldn’t ever be able to get inside it.” But with no one in the family willing to take on the expenses of repairs, they soon face the decision of its fate.
Alice is the incurable romantic. Throughout the holiday she laments the mechanized modernization of society, and gushes over the simple wonders of life in the country. And to everyone’s irritation she pokes around in old drawers in hope of finding her grandmother’s abandoned letters. “There is no point in looking backward all the time,” Fran tells her matter-of-factly, while Roland grows impatient, finding his sister’s nostalgia to be simplifying. He believes that “she wanted shortcuts, but the truths about these things could only be understood through a lifetime’s intellectual endeavor.” When Alice evokes the peasant’s life as one more substantial and in touch than the present day way of living, Pilar intercedes. “It’s easy to idealize them, but their way of life is very backward.”
Self-consciously the sisters begin to worry what Pilar, with her Argentinian background, must think of all of them and their “well-worn family forms.”
“She so disapproves of us! She thinks we are the worst kind of time-wasters,” Alice exclaims. And such small cultural clashes do in fact take place over slow, monotonous days in low-slung chairs, reading, eating and drinking in the slanting sunlight of the extended yard.
Just as Hadley seems intent on examining the little twitches and wrenches of family life, so too she pores over the realities of the social classes that we are born into and the biological contingencies that we bequeath. For this reason the second part of the novel is vital, as it outlines the archetypically English middle class background that the Cranes inhabit. In a long backward glance we meet their grandfather, Grantham Fellowes, a vain poet and local vicar, who holds puritanical views. Their grandmother Sophie is a homemaker and the loyal vicar’s wife, living in the shadow of her husband’s tyranny of approvals and disapprovals, but as she tells her daughter, their mother Jill, when Jill returns to Kington with the children, “Incidentally, … I don’t care as much as you might imagine about being good.”
Sophie has her own views of marriage, finding that, “…part of the oddity of marriage…was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person… In order for love to survive you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.” This is Hadley at her absolute best, letting us know – with both rueful clarity and grace – of the curious necessity for self-preservation and emotional abstinence in marriage. Jill, the exuberant and sexy young mother, is less willing to live this life of conformity and compromise. Trading in her parents’ version of pastoral bourgeois living, she has chosen the instability of a bohemian life in the city.
Though the course of the novel Hadley shows us how the different instances of class privilege, puritanism, and wayward longing come to bare on each of Jill’s children. This is most tragically pronounced in Harriet, who has lived a life of austerity and self-denying, atoning for her privilege through radical politics and revolt. Her love life too has suffered under her erroneous predilection “that sex was a thing among other things, that you could put aside.” When she is “assaulted by outrageous longing,” we learn just how fatal withholding desire can be.
The idea of the house as a locus for family history and memory is not new material, and there are times while reading The Past when the conventionality of the symbolism takes away from the scope of the story. The same is true of the way that social motifs echo across generations, to the point of feeling strained. The best motifs in fiction are undoubtedly the ones that are slyly disguised, not overtly present, and therefore this book, with its abundance of explicit recurrences, could have benefitted from its writer trusting her readers to find the patterns in the pages on their own. However there are plenty of bracing moments in The Past, and the best ones are to be had in the sheer pleasure of reading Hadley’s prose. The clarity of her sentences reflect like mirror images the bucolic British landscape that she deploys with its streams and mossy brooks, with light “refracting”, “slanting”, “dazzling” and “brimming” on almost every page.