Vera Brittain, The Dark Tide

There are books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting. The Dark Tide, Vera Brittain’s first novel, is in the second category. In saying this I am basically repeating what seems to have been the critical consensus about The Dark Tide since its publication in 1923: its flaws seemed conspicuous (though there was not universal agreement about just what they were), but yet it had an energy and intellectual determination that made it something more than a failure, something other than forgettable. To her credit, Brittain herself is both frank and intelligent about the novel’s weaknesses: “the crude violence of its methods and the unmodified black-and-whiteness of its values.”  The Dark Tide, she says in her preface to the 1935 reissue,

still appears a surprisingly melodramatic and immature production for a young woman who had seen four years of War service and three of University training. It stumbled towards a technique which I have since repeated with possibly better results – the relation of an individual story against a larger background of political and social events – but the story was over-emphasized and the background lamentably inaccurate and incomplete. Yet, by the time I began the book, I was well into my twenties; I had passed through a veritable lifetime of annihilating experience; and I was not, I think, exceptionally unintelligent.

She goes on to suggest that the very “annihilating experience” she had been through had impeded her intellectual development even as it artificially accelerated her emotional development. The resulting asymmetry she proposes between head and heart does seem to me a plausible explanation for the extraordinary unevenness of The Dark Tide,  in which crudely-drawn characters careen around the story, knocking into each other like conceptual bumper cars. They deal only in extremes of passion or commitment, or, on the other side, of passivity and submission. What matters most to them all is how they feel about everything — and this, to me, was entirely unexpected, as it reverses the priorities and emphases of Brittain’s autobiographical writing. The Dark Tide doesn’t sound like Brittain at all, and clearly she didn’t think it did either. Though she wrote other novels (one of which, Honourable Estate, sounds like the next one I should read), there seems to be good reason why she is best known for her non-fiction, which she wanted to be “as truthful as history, but as readable as fiction.”

The Dark Tide is organized around two characters based, quite obviously, on Brittain herself and Winifred Holtby. Neither portrait is ultimately flattering, and as Mark Bostridge remarks in his introduction to the Virago edition, the identifications loosen as the novel goes on: he argues that “the two main female characters become increasingly representative of the different sides of Vera’s own personality.” Daphne Lethbridge has Holtby’s energy and outgoing personality, but lacks intellectual subtlety and social refinement; Virginia Dennison has Brittain’s petite elegance, intellectual seriousness, and social conscience. They disdain each other for reasons that make neither of them look good, and like Brittain and Holtby in real life, but under very different circumstances, they outgrow their hostilities and find each other unexpected allies. But the feminist principles and political engagement that make the Brittain-Holtby friendship distinct and inspiring are completely lacking here. Instead, the conflict between Daphne and Virginia is focused on their entanglement with their tutor Raymond Sylvester, who loves Virginia but is loved by Daphne. Full of thwarted desire and smarting from the blow to his ego when Virginia rejects his proposal, Raymond asks Daphne to be his wife, and from that spiteful moment the novel’s catastrophes unfold. Poor Daphne, thrilled at first to think her love is reciprocated, withers away under Raymond’s bitter dissatisfaction with her. Virginia renounces her intellectual ambitions on the grounds that they encourage her to be selfish and self-satisfied; she becomes a nurse. The women meet up again and Virginia (guilt-ridden by her part in Daphne’s unhappiness) offers her friendship which, by that point, Daphne desperately needs.  In the meantime, Raymond, still obsessing about Virginia, fixates on an opera singer who resembles her. His infidelity makes him resent Daphne’s clumsy affection and pathetic attempts to please him more and more (in this, Brittain is at least psychologically astute, though the writing is almost unbearably hyperbolic). Eventually he lashes out at her and leaves, unaware that his blow has sent his pregnant wife crashing into the fireplace and left her unconscious on the floor, where she is discovered an hour later, bloodstained and in premature labor, by (you guessed it) Virginia. The baby lives but is somehow crippled by the accident. Sad as this is, Daphne’s decline seems almost sadder still, as the crude energy that made her attractive in a blundering sort of way at the outset of the novel has evaporated entirely by the end: her only ambition is to make up to little Jack for his misfortune (for which,distressingly, she blames herself as much as her abusive husband). Then, adding ideological insult to literal injury, Raymond’s mistress appears to urge her not to pursue a divorce as Raymond’s political career is finally taking off but he is campaigning primarily against a proposed new divorce act – one which would actually make Daphne’s case against him easier and surer.  A divorce would show him up as a hypocrite and scuttle his chances of eventually becoming Minister of Arbitration. Thus private values and public service come into direct conflict, and Daphne decides that she will sacrifice her right to be rid of him rather than deprive him of the chance to do something good in the world. Daphne sees her decision as a “sordid compromise,” but Virginia applauds it in a long speech about the moral beauty of giving things up for “the weak and the wicked and the undeserving.”

There is material here for a great, if still problematic, novel about competing values: about women’s aspirations at a time of profound social and political change, about marriage and how its demands are affected, in their turn, by new ideas about women’s independence and intellectual and moral integrity, about private life and public morality – or, in a different register, about love and obsession and cruelty and submission. This is part of what I mean when I say that the novel is bad and yet interesting: that despite the clunky prose and plotting, the heavy-handed speechifying, and the cringe-inducing melodrama, the novel gives the sense of a rich (if confused) intelligence trying to get something done, or maybe to get something out. One example will be enough to get across the flavour of the novel. Here’s a bit of the turbulent proposal scene between Raymond and Virginia:

‘Miss Dennison!’ he burst out in a sudden overwhelming flood of passion, ‘you know what I’m going to say – you know what I want, but all this term you’ve been just the little devil that you are – aggravating, alluring, torturing – driving me nearly mad. And never, never would you let me get hold of you alone – till now. That in itself makes me hope – makes me hope just a little bit more. I love you – Virginia – I can’t sleep or work or think for loving you! I want you till I feel mad – mad – mad! . . . I don’t want you to give up any of the things you like doing – I only want to find you work to do – work for your splendid gifts – but with me – with me! Virginia – my dear – my beloved – wonderful, wonderful little girl – say you care for me a little – say you’ll come to me – marry me!’

Virginia waited for the torrent to subside a little. ‘No,’ she said very firmly.

Sylvester, white and trembling, looked at her with blazing eyes.

‘You don’t mean that! You don’t, you don’t! It’s another of your cruel tricks – your maddening wiles – Virginia!’

Finally convinced by her resolute refusals that her ‘no’ actually means ‘no,’ and insulted by her comments about his low moral standards, Sylvester turns on his beloved:

‘So that’s what you think of me, is it!’ Sylvester exclaimed. ‘That’s the sort of reputation I’ve got? Very well then, I’m going to live up to it. I’m going to make you kiss me before you go, you little devil! I’ll have that much satisfaction at any rate.’

He seized both her hands as he spoke, pulled her out of her chair, and began to draw her towards him. With a tremendous effort she managed to get one of her hands free – the one in which she still held her paper. [Oh yes, this is all during what is supposed to be a “coaching” session.] Summoning all her strength she lifted it above her head, and struck him violently with it in the face. He let her go immediately and staggered back, with eyes watering and one cheek crimson from the blow.

Yeesh, right? And yet fending him off with her paper is surely symbolic of the deeper contest between the feminine submission he wants (in the guise of romance) and her determination to achieve things with her life that she believes (as Brittain believed) were likely incompatible with marriage. He’s a sexual bully as well as the incarnation of masculine privilege in a context marked by women’s aspiration to claim their share of the authority that comes with education and the degrees that formally recognize it. If only the novel continued to beat him up; if only he had to pay, not just for his violence against Daphne, but for his regressive attitudes and his sheer, unmitigated meanness — and by that I mean, for things like being angry at Daphne for fainting during an ‘at home’ he insists on her hosting at short notice even though she is heavily pregnant and generally unwell and unhappy. If only Daphne had grabbed the poker during the miserable confrontation and struck him down, instead of being struck down herself … or if only Daphne and Virginia had united against him and formed the kind of genuinely mutual friendship Brittain and Holtby had, settling in together to raise Jack into a different kind of man than his father (in the true Bronte tradition, crippling him at birth would have been a helpful step in that direction).

But The Dark Tide offers neither complex realist analysis of the social conditions (and conditioning) that lead both Raymond and Daphne to act as they do, leaving us productively dissatisfied, nor a feminist revenge fantasy. Instead, it turns into a weird treatise on the value of self-sacrifice, leaving me worried that Brittain has been influnced too much by my least favourite aspect of George Eliot’s moral philosophy: the imperative articulated in The Mill on the Floss that “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those of wider vision.” At the end of the novel Virginia talks for nearly three pages about the greatness of Daphne’s decision not to divorce Raymond, on the grounds that “It’s never for the people who deserve it that we’re called upon to sacrifice ourselves”:

No, it’s for the weak and the wicked and the undeserving that we have to give things up. Look at the lives of people like doctors and nurses; more than half their days are spent on patients whose diseases are due to their own sins and follies.  Look at the teachers of boys and girls in schools; they don’t wear out their gifts and their energy on the brilliant and the ambitious, who’d get along all right without any teachers at all. No; they give their best work to the lazy and the backward and the stupid, who either can’t or won’t learn. Just in the same way the clergyman in a slum parish spends al his time and thought on the people who drink and swear, and beat their wives, or are unfaithful to their husbands. . . . You’re one of them now, Daphne, one of the children of the Kingdom, who because they save others lose the chance to save themselves.

Yeesh again, I’m afraid, first of all because this long speech really comes out of nowhere. I wouldn’t declare absolutely that no character ought to speak for three pages straight, even didactically: there might be a right time and place for it, a right novel, the right novelist. But surely the speech ought to feel organically part of the novel, something that everything else in the novel has prepared us to hear, and if The Dark Tide is about the beauty of self-sacrifice on behalf of the wicked and undeserving, this is the first we’ve seen of it. It seems telling that Daphne’s not convinced, also – but I don’t sense that Brittain is using the gap between Virginia’s conviction and Daphne’s disappointment to do anything in particular except continue distinguishing between them as characters, at Daphne’s expense as usual.

The sudden introduction of what seems a new theme, and the intrusive and inartistic way it is handled are both reasons to object to this part of the novel. An equally good, if not better, reason is that the doctrine is so ethically problematic. If the better are always to serve the needs and interests of the worst, doesn’t that mean that in the end, the wicked win? What’s the long-term good of self-sacrifice that serves only to prop up someone like Raymond? It’s enabling, that’s what it is! It’s exalting within limits, perhaps, and it may even be theoretically necessary, because if you put your own needs first, you blur the line between yourself and the undeserving. But it lets the bad guys win. George Eliot is uneasy about this too: think of Lydgate, whose better nature makes him tend to Rosamond at the cost of his own highest aspirations. What’s sad there is that precisely because he is the better person, he has no real choice. The same is true of Dorothea’s promise to Casaubon: she has to say yes, or she wouldn’t be Dorothea. It’s her best self that leads her to the brink of a sacrifice we all (including her) know he does not deserve. Eliot rescues Dorothea by killing off Casaubon, saving us all from the misery of watching Dorothea live out the consequences of her own moral elevation. The novel in which she does that would be utterly disheartening. If Viriginia is speaking for Brittain in The Dark Tide, she seems quite prepared to inflict such a doctrine on her character, but it’s impossible to believe Brittain would have accepted such terms for Holtby in real life.

Overall, it’s a strange, puzzling, annoying, unsatisfying novel. What it is not, on my reading, is what Bostridge calls it: “an amusing period piece.” It’s far too dark for that. Brittain quotes a contemporary review of it that concludes “Some day she may write a good book.” That seems fair. A Dark Tide is not a good book, but there’s something about it (including quite a powerful section about Daphne’s growing isolation and self-awareness in the early weeks of her marriage) that tells us the writer has a good book in her.

3 thoughts on “Vera Brittain, The Dark Tide

  1. Elizabeth Foxwell August 27, 2011 / 9:45 am

    Sadly, the book is so melodramatic that it would be hard to take it seriously. Brittain always wanted to be known for her fiction rather than her nonfiction and I think was a bit jealous of Holtby’s skill as a novelist. _Honourable Estate_ was better, but it angered Brittain’s husband, as she used the life of his mother for one of the characters, and the relationship between Ruth and the American Eugene Meury is clearly wish fulfillment on Brittain’s part, vis a vis her unconsummated relationship with Roland Leighton and her attraction to her U.S. publisher, George Brett.


  2. Rohan Maitzen August 28, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    Thanks for that further context, Elizabeth. I don’t know if I’d want to rule out taking the book seriously – in fact, I guess I’d say I already had a go at taking it seriously, despite the melodrama. I’d never rate it highly for its literary merit, though! But anyone who loves, say, Mary Barton – as I do – can hardly proclaim melodrama a fatal flaw.


  3. Shelley August 30, 2011 / 12:58 pm

    As a writer, I have to ask: if it’s “bad” but still interesting–and if it required effort and craftsmanship–doesn’t that steer it back toward the territory of art?


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