Writing about Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, I suggested that “there are books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” I thought The Dark Tide was in the bad but interesting category. I think Anderby Wold may require me to add a third category: something like “books that are better than they seem” or “books that are interesting because of what they try to do, rather than what they actually do.” (That last description would fit The Dark Tide pretty well too, actually.) Anderby Wold seemed like a pretty awkward novel at first–artless, effortful. Its pieces are pretty clearly pieces: that is, I could feel them being assembled as I went along. But the overall construction of the novel turns out to be somehow shapely and even, by the end, engaging: once the pieces are assembled, Holtby knows what to do with them. The prose often has the quality I’ve been describing as a “flat affect” in Margaret Kennedy’s novels–but at times it rose into a more intense aesthetic and emotional register. It’s another book I don’t know quite what to say or do about, and that’s part of what I’m finding so interesting about my reading of these writers. How do you approach a novel in which this line seems perfectly normal: “Mary was turning linen sheets ‘sides to middles’ and arguing with David about the nationalization of land”?
Anderby Wold focuses on Mary Robson, a woman of 28 who seems much older: she has aged prematurely because of her dedication to maintaining her family farm. Along with the farm itself she inherited the mortgage on it which haunted her father’s conscience as well as his finances; when the novel opens she and her husband have just managed, after years of scrimping and struggling, to pay it off. Mary has sacrificed a lot to bring this about–even her marriage was made with an eye to practicalities, rather than to love. She isn’t altogether happy with her choices, but she does her best to drown out her doubts by inhabiting to the fullest degree possible the role of ‘lady of the manor’ for her rural community. It’s a sign of the changing times that her patronage makes many of the villagers uncomfortable, even resentful. Her identity and self-esteem are almost completely bound up, that is, in a way of life that is rapidly becoming outdated, and the novel’s central conflicts arise from her inability to concede defeat–but also from her restless wish that somehow she could be or do something different. Holtby embodies the alternatives in David Rossitur, an idealistic young reformer and agitator who, despite having met and become unlikely friends with Mary, urges the local farm workers to form a union and demand higher wages. Mary’s repressed emotions are awakened by David, who is everything her husband John isn’t. (In one sad but funny scene, she buys poor John a book — David’s, as it happens — about agricultural reform, reads it and gets all fired up herself, and waits impatiently for John to be roused from his habitual torpor to talk to her about it. “Well, John,” she finally asks, “what do you think of it? How far did you get?” “Page 121,” says John, and goes to bed. Probably every couple can find a template in this for some failed attempt at meaningful communication in their own marriage.) She doesn’t agree at all with David’s politics and thinks he’s a fool about farming, but he is young and passionate and brings into her life all the excitement she has never had. Her feelings for him only make it more painful for her when he turns “her” villagers against her, and Holtby does a good job at evoking Mary’s complicated and inconsistent emotions as the strike arrives, literally, on her doorstep.
So it’s a novel about conflicts between an old way of life (which is shown to have its own kind of honor and integrity but also to be old-fashioned in not entirely good way), and new social and political forces that also are morally equivocal. David’s idealism is undermined by his naïveté, for instance, and also by the ease with which people with personal grudges find unionizing a useful method of payback–every cause can be coopted for selfish purposes, after all. Mary’s determination to stand up to the union is also as much about personal pride as it is about farming, and it’s also very much about her clinging to her own rationalization for the life she has lived. The confused eroticism of her relationship with David is yet another complication. If Holtby were Elizabeth Gaskell, we know how this would all turn out (well, something would have to be done about John, but he’s older than Mary and in fact does suffer a stroke towards the end of the novel, so that’s not so difficult). But she’s not, and vexed as Mary’s situation is–ambivalent as Mary is (when she admits it) about holding out for Anderby Wold to go on as it always has–it seems like Holtby is mostly mournful about the inexorable pressure of modernization. It’s an act of sabotage, ultimately, that forces Mary to give up Anderby Wold, but the violence seems tied to the way David’s activism consolidates class hostility in the village, as if without his interference people might have muddled along OK. On the other hand, it is a personal vendetta that motivates the attack, one caused by Mary’s exercise of her patronage, so maybe that’s the point: one way or another, her ways aren’t good anymore. That’s pretty much where Mary ends up, anyway thinking that all the problems that came upon her were “connected with things she had done or left undone,” pondering sadly the possibility that (as David has said to her) “Her work at Anderby might be the best thing of which she was capable, but it was a false good.” It’s a melancholy ending, whatever its thematic implications.
It’s not a bad novel. I think it’s a mediocre novel, qua novel. As I said, it’s pretty well constructed. Mary’s character seemed a bit insubstantial, maybe because I’m also reading Middlemarch right now and there’s nothing like the rich contextualization and analysis of character you get there. Holtby took pains to fill in a range of distinct peripheral characters (schoolmaster, vicar, difficult sister-in-law, loyal worker who will defend Mrs Robson to the death–and does so, in a perverse way). There’s a conflict that feels like it matters, though it also feels a bit too neat, as if the concept came first and the human drama was layered on top of it. Of course, that’s probably often the case with novels (I’m sure it was the case with Middlemarch!) but it shouldn’t feel as if that’s the case when you’re reading the novel, right? At that point, the art should prevail and make the ideas seem inevitable. What I really appreciated about Anderby Wold, though–the reason I’d rather read it than many slicker contemporary novels (*cough cough* The Marriage Plot *cough cough*)–is its sincerity. That’s the quality the novel radiates, and I respect it: Holtby was trying to understand, and to help us understand, forces at work in the world around her. She wanted her art to participate in problems she thought mattered. That’s not enough to make a good, much less a great, novel, but she has enough skill to make it a decent novel, and if you add in that it’s a thoughtful novel, that’s not too bad. Maybe that’s what it is: a novel that’s not too bad. And after all, it’s her first novel.