The Seven Ages of Woman- Tessa Hadley’s The Past

Tessa Hadley’s brilliance has been recognised this year: she won the Windham- Campbell Prize in March and in July was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for her most recent novel, ‘The Past’. It is no secret that I am a huge fan- see my reviews of her short story collection, Married Love and her novel The London Train. Though I love many aspects of ‘The Past’, one of the things I most admire in this book is her ability to enter the minds of girls and women from six to sixty. For this is a story about a family across generations and an exploration of how we as individuals see things differently, real and imagined.

The novel  opens with four adult siblings, Alice, Harriet, Fran and Roland, now in early middle age, meeting at the country house near Kington which belonged to their grandparents. The house has been central to their family for over fifty years as it is the house where their mother was brought up and where they came for family holidays as children. They are having a last family holiday there as the house is in desperate need of repair and may have to be sold. We are introduced to the siblings and their children, Ivy and Arthur, 9 and 6 , and 16 year old Molly, but also to the people they bring along: Karim, the son of Alice’s ex boyfriend and Roland’s new Argentinian wife Pilar.

Tessa Hadly inhabits the skin of the different characters in turn to show us their delights and disappointments in rediscovering the house and each other. For solitary Harriet, this includes exploring the surrounding countryside which is carefully observed and exquisitely described. The waterfall produces ‘a freckled yellow light, refracted in the tea- coloured depths, gilded in a scatter of pebbles on the sandy bottom; insects sculled the surface, dodging into the darkness under the ferns‘. The children are allowed to roam and in the scary abandoned cottage make a discovery which feed their fantasies and games for the rest of the holiday. Karim, bored and indolent, makes a slow play for Molly and the development of this romance between teenagers is a nice counterpoint and reflection of the adult passion between Roland and Pilar. The adult sisterly relationship is superbly captured in dialogue, sometimes hilarious when moaning about their men, and indeed the theme of the fecklessness and untrustworthiness of men is introduced with Karim and Fran’s absent husband Jeff.

The second section, entitled ‘The Past’ takes us back to the late 60s and is the story of the siblings’ mother, Jill. She has left her husband and come back to the house to stay with her parents, Sophy and Grantham Fellowes. We are given a wonderful portrait of this ageing couple, Grantham, the local vicar but an intellectual and a poet too, Sophy also a poet but, deferring to her husband’s apparent greater talent, a devoted vicar’s wife.  Jill is their pride and joy, a clever girl with a First in Greats from Oxford, a beauty too, and the prose is at times movingly suffused with their love for her. Jill has turned up with her three children and again we see the writer’s skill at depicting events from the point of view of young Roland and Hettie. And the irresistible charm of babies is so eloquently evoked in the scene where Ali discovers she can get out of her cot for the first time, ‘ purposeful little steps…padding out onto the landing…she was staring solemnly, as if she wasn’t sure what she might find, in a world no one had prepared for her‘. The unreliability of men is explored further here through Jill’s husband Tom- he is a radical idealist and, enthralled by the political upheavals in Paris, is spending time on the barricades rather than at the baby bath. Jill flirts briefly with an old school friend, Mikey Waller, now a local estate agent, but returns shortly afterwards to Tom.

The novel returns in the third section to the present- but the present seems an altered one as we have more information about our characters’ family history, their past, what they have been through, as if we are seeing them afresh.We learn here more about Pilar’s story as her friendship with Harriet leads her to confide that she was adopted by some wealthy Argentinians in the 80s and investigations are being carried out to establish her biological parentage. A chilling theme of world history is introduced here, as if to give another dimension to the theme of family and parenting. The siblings decide finally and without much argument in the end that they shall have to sell the house and the holiday comes to an end.

Now it is not easy to discuss this novel in detail without giving away too much and the careful plotting of the story and the writer’s skillful control of her material is one of the pleasures of reading the novel. Place is central to the novel- both the house as the setting for the family drama, but also the Goods’ cottage which becomes the trigger for the children’s imaginative games and also the scene of some more subversive adult goings on. The structure, the interplay between present and past, is a powerful tool of characterisation as we assess and react to characters differently after reading the central section so dominated by Jill. The structure also contributes to one of the main questions raised by the book : how are we affected by the past? Do we just repeat the actions of previous generations? And this question is explored in an open ended way: do women repeat patterns of falling for those attractive but unreliable men? Will Karim treat Molly right? And is Jeff , who does turn up at the end, not so bad after all?

This family story is cleverly told, with vivid characterisation, in beautifully lyrical prose. I’m looking forward to rereading it already.




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