by Daniel Brown
Clever Girl, by English writer Tessa Hadley, establishes her in great tradition of English women writers whose symbolic ancestor remains Jane Austen. I admit to being something of a sucker for family sagas, including The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy, and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. Contemporary writers in this genre, which expands into the psychological novel I most prefer include Barbara Pym; Anita Brookner; Iris Murdoch; A. S. Byatt, and the newer Jo Baker, Helen Hunt, and now, Tessa Hadley.
A few American writers also fit in this genre, and they include Ann Beattie; the late Alice Adams; and the increasingly powerful Leah Hager Cohen, amongst others (we have more male writers in this genre including the truly great John Updike and Richard Ford, in particular).
Hadley not only writes with the near perfection of a Anita Brookner, who is known for her perfect prose, but also includes the deep psychological understanding of families, and mainly of women within them, that we also associate with Brookner, Byatt and Austen herself. It is reasonable to call the kind of fiction under consideration “domestic fiction”, and Hadley is a master at it. Clever Girl follows the life of Stella, whose mother is either divorced or widowed, and whose concerns for what people say and think are part of what drive Stella into “a bad crowd”, more so when her mother remarries, and the family moves into the kind of stultifying suburban middle class life that so many teenagers rebel against. Stella and her stepfather are often at odds, and new neighbors who move next door have a daughter Stella’s age, which helps diffuse the internal family dynamics.
The friendship between Stella and this friend will grow and mature for decades, and I think that Hadley’s understanding of female friendship and long term bonding is as fine as any writer’s in today’s fiction. I hope that a lot of men read this novel, so that they can see how these friendships develop, confidences exchange, and judgments withheld in the interests of the overall friendship.
Alas, our Stella falls for a kind of hippie version of Holden Caulfield, a young man of unresolved sexuality, which appeals to the young Stella, but, alas, in their one real sexual encounter, she becomes pregnant and he flees to America. Stella’s downward mobility as she is thrown out of school is representative of an uptight blue collar community, and she is ostracized by everyone but her best friend, totally by her stepfather, and mostly by her mother, as pregnancy is the ultimate no-no in the class being described.
Suffice to say that the majority of the book is about Stella’s ups and downs, and her eventual marriage to a very rich man, after she manages to get a college education. Clever Girl is no fairy tale; Stella was considered a clever girl from the beginning, but she refuses to write herself off because of one young mistake.
What fascinates the most is how Stella’s character never changes; Hadley believes that character is consistent, so that even within her affluent marriage, where she inherits step children, has some of her own, and eventually adopts another friend’s child, Stella remains ambivalent about what she has, but not who she is. We remain somewhat less interested in men she chooses than in her self-development and in her lifelong friendship with her best friend. She lives, for a period, in a hippie commune with her first child, and the values she learns there—friendship, sharing, family—will sustain her and strengthen her as she becomes a social worker, wife and mother, member of the upper middle class.
It is often difficult to describe the plots in novels about domestic life, but Hadley is such a strong writer, and her novel so full of insights about adolescence and maturity, that I recommend it as top of its genre, and Tessa Hadley as a writer whom I hope will give us the same amount of pleasure and insight as the now 80 year old Anita Brookner once did.