The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies: an intimate portrait of love, loyalty and national identity
Peter Ho Davies’s 2007 Booker-longlisted novel explores conflicting notions of national pride and shame, belonging and alienation
In our monthly series, ‘TBR: The Booker Revisited’ Lucy Scholes shines a spotlight on hidden gems from the Booker Library. This month’s selection is equal parts macabre fairy-tale and blackly humorous family portrait
‘TBR: The Booker Revisited’, is an editorial partnership between The Booker Prize Foundation and Lit Hub. Read more articles in this series here
Of all the things for which Caroline Blackwood might be remembered, nothing tickles me more than the fact that she once teasingly kink-shamed Anita Brookner in the Times Literary Supplement. This was in November 1980. Earlier that month, the TLS had run Brookner’s delicious hatchet job of Blackwood and her close friend Anna Haycraft’s Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble, a smorgasbord of ‘cheater’ recipes and time-saving hostess tips gleaned from their famous friends, including Francis Bacon, Beryl Bainbridge, Barbara Cartland, Quentin Crisp, Roald Dahl, Marianne Faithfull and Sonia Orwell. ‘This is corrupt food,’ Brookner had written, ‘food intended to impress, to deceive, even intended to inspire fear and loathing.’ And to be fair, what with recipes for ‘perversions’ (Brookner’s damning description) such as Parmesan ice cream, or a cold omelette stuffed with fried liver and fresh cream, she has a point. (Though I do remember being impressed by their advice to dry freshly washed salad leaves by means of a quick spin cycle in the tumble drier.) Brookner brought the review to a close with a menu suggestion of her own, including the instruction, ‘Before you dress, make a rich chocolate cake.’ It was this line that Blackwood picked up on, provokingly declaring that it sounded more than ‘a little kinky’.
Admittedly, I’m slightly indulging my own whimsy by beginning here, but this episode also illustrates an important facet of Blackwood’s character and work: her delectably mischievous humour. ‘Even in the worst time of our lives she made me laugh,’ recalled Haycraft – who wrote novels under the name Alice Thomas Ellis; including The 27th Kingdom, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982 – of her friend, when Blackwood died in 1996. In an extraordinary tragic coincidence, in 1978, both women suffered the agonies of the death of a teenage child. Their tongue-in-cheek cookbook was conceived as something of a distraction from their grief.
This ‘terrible year’, as Haycraft aptly described it, came just at the point in her life when Blackwood had established herself as a talented writer. Her first book, a selection of short stories and essays, For All That I Found There, was published in 1973, when she was 42 years old. Three years later, The Stepdaughter (1976) – a claustrophobic story of a battle of wills between a woman and her teenage stepchild set in an oppressive Manhattan apartment – won the David Higham Prize for best first novel. And the following year, Great Granny Webster was shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize. Yet despite these notable accomplishments, according to Haycraft, Blackwood always insisted that it was Darling, You Shouldn’t Have Gone to So Much Trouble that remained ‘her proudest achievement’.
Alas, Blackwood and Haycraft’s book has long since fallen out of print. As has the majority of Blackwood’s work – the exceptions being her stories, which were collected under the title Never Breathe a Word (2010); her caustic comedy of manners, Corrigan (1984); and the magnificent Great Granny Webster. Narrated by an unnamed 14-year-old female, this masterful novella is equal parts macabre fairy-tale and blackly humorous family portrait. Without being overly self-consciousness in its artlessness, it reads like the guileless confession of a simple innocent embroiled in a tangled net of ravaged and ruined lives.
That Great Granny Webster wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize is understood to have been down to the caprices of the chair of that year’s judges, Philip Larkin
There’s a marvellous simplicity to the tale. The book is barely 100 pages long, split into four chapters; the first three each focus on a different woman in the family. Blackwood begins with the titular family matriarch – a dour Scotswoman living in indignant, but what she sees as dutiful, exile – who spends her days sitting ‘bolt upright’ in a highbacked Victorian chair in her gloomy mausoleum of a house in Hove. Sent there for some recuperating sea air after a minor operation, the narrator arrives on Great Granny Webster’s doorstep two years after the war, yet finds herself transported back to those years of austerity – margarine instead of butter, meagre pats made to look all the more so because they’re served in a large engraved silver butter-dish; saccharine instead of sugar; and fires that are meticulously laid, but never lit, lending the already dank house the air of a cold, cavernous church. But for the presence of Richards, her crippled, one-eyed maid, Great Granny Webster resides alone, rarely receiving visitors. Yet still she manages to preside over her ill-fated family with a cold and steely glare. Next up is the narrator’s Aunt Lavinia (her deceased father’s sister), a Bright Young Thing who fled the family pile – Dunmartin Hall, a crumbling big house in Ulster – for the pleasures of London. Then, in the third chapter, we’re told the story of the narrator’s mysterious and insane grandmother, Lavinia’s mother and Great Granny Webster’s daughter, a captive of the house and grounds of her marital home, Dunmartin Hall, where she grew madder by the day, believing she could see fairy folk. And finally, the fourth chapter exists as a coda, telling of Great Granny Webster’s eventual death: having outlived so many, she ‘managed to be both the start of a line and the end of the line […] Alpha and Omega’ of the family.
Initially, the chapters have the flavour of three distinct vignettes. The narrator’s account of her sojourn with Great Granny Webster reads as though it could have been written by Barbara Comyns, whose tales of young women in uncannily perilous domestic settings have a similarly gruesome, gothic allure. Aunt Lavinia’s chapter, meanwhile, takes us into territory that feels closer to that of an Evelyn Waugh novel; a world in which tragedy and excess sit side-by-side, but everyone’s very matter-of-fact about it all and no one makes a fuss. The visit the narrator pays her aunt – her account of which gives the chapter its shape – takes place on the day Aunt Lavinia is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, in which she’d been briefly interned following a failed suicide attempt. Now, back ensconced in her white lily-bedecked boudoir, sat at her dressing table and painting her nails, the whole episode was simply ‘infuriating’ she tells her niece. And to make matters worse, she’s now in the most ‘frightful dilemma’ – should she dismiss the poor maid who found her? The ‘indignity’ of being discovered ‘stark naked in a blood-drenched bath’ by one’s employee is really too much to bear.
Then there’s the Dunmartin Hall chapter, life within whose walls is dictated by the kind of insensible logic found in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. In an attempt to maintain standards, the narrator’s grandfather instructs the two local girls who run the kitchen to present their mistress with daily menu cards written in French – even though neither of them understands a word of it – because that’s how it’s done in aristocratic houses. Each card is then delivered upstairs to their mad mistress, who scribbles on it insensibly, before it’s conveyed back to the kitchen, only to be discarded amongst the rubbish on the floor, without a glance. The girls, meanwhile, continue to cook the same grim basic fare they serve up every day, and their mistress continues to waft around the estate in various states of undress, talking to the fairies.
The story takes a darker turn, however, when the narrator reveals that when her father and aunt were babies, they were kept out of sight in a distant wing of the house, where they weren’t allowed to make any noise. In what was one of her first manic spells, their mother believed her children were changelings, left there by the wicked fairies who’d spirited away her real babies. It’s all very Molly Keane – an eccentric Anglo-Irish family held hostage by their dwindling fortune and run-down house and estate – meets Flowers in the Attic.
That Great Granny Webster wasn’t awarded the Booker Prize is understood to have been down to the caprices of the chair of that year’s judges, Philip Larkin, who – in an episode that’s so dramatic it could have been lifted straight out of Blackwood’s novel – famously threatened to jump out of the window if the prize wasn’t awarded to Staying On, Paul Scott’s sequel to his acclaimed Raj Quartet. Whether his fellow judges agreed with him, or if they just wanted to shut him up, Larkin got what he wanted. He also wasn’t shy about airing his opinion that Great Granny Webster was autobiography and not fiction, so shouldn’t really have been a contender for the prize at all.
Blackwood’s fictional women are all trapped by something, whether it’s duty, convention, motherhood, mental illness, or the men in their lives
In her biography of Blackwood, Dangerous Muse (2001), Nancy Schoenberger quotes the critic Karl Miller as declaring that this was typical of Larkin: ‘He was a mean sod who came across as an evil civil servant – he loved categorising things.’ Blackwood herself refuted the accusation though; admitting that while, yes, much of her work was ‘fired from life’, after the initial flame, it’s her imagination that takes hold.
Like her nameless protagonist, Blackwood grew up in her own crumbling pile in Ireland. Clandeboye, in County Down, was the family seat of her father, Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava – who, like her narrator’s father, was killed in action during the Second World War. Blackwood’s mother, meanwhile, was the scion of the Guinness dynasty. As a young socialite, she and her two sisters were known as the ‘Guinness Golden Girls’, a trio who inspired the composite portrait of the fictional Aunt Lavinia.
One element of Blackwood’s book that Larkin did praise, though, was the deftness with which she evokes ‘the spirit of no less than four ages – Victorian, Edwardian, pre- and postwar’. He’s right; given its brevity, it’s an astonishingly nimble portrait of four generations of women. If we consider the novel alongside those Blackwood wrote on either side of it – The Stepdaughter (1976) before it, and The Fate of Mary Rose (1981) after it; a grisly story that vibrates with a frenzied, manic menace, about a mother’s obsessional attempts to protect her daughter following the rape and murder of another girl in the village where they live – she circles the same themes, albeit each through ostensibly different stories. Parental tyranny looms large, of course, but perhaps even more forcefully depicted are the subjects of female containment, bondage and rage. Blackwood’s fictional women are all trapped by something, whether it’s duty, convention, motherhood, mental illness, or the men in their lives.
When it comes to the latter, there’s a sort of horrible symmetry here because, more often than not, when people talk about Blackwood, they talk about her as a wife, not as an artist in her own right. She was married three times – to the painter Lucian Freud; the composer Israel Citkowitz; and the poet Robert Lowell – and so is often reduced to little more than a beautiful, siren-like muse, facilitating the genius of others. Lowell famously described her as ‘a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers’, while Freud’s immortalised her beauty on canvas; most memorably in Girl in Bed (1952), which he painted the year before they were married. Even after Lowell’s death, Blackwood found herself navigating this misogyny. ‘Miss Blackwood is Robert Lowell’s widow – a wife worthy of him in her accomplishments,’ wrote Anne Redmon in her Sunday Times review of Great Granny Webster. But, as anyone who’s read this idiosyncratic, dark and extremely funny novel knows, none of Blackwood’s husbands – however memorable their stories – were a patch on her truly extraordinary, unforgettable antecedents.
Lucy Scholes is a critic based in London and Senior Editor at McNally Editions