What a treat, after encountering Julie Burchill’s grubby novel, to turn to Teresa Waugh. What a relief, what a solace to be reminded that in England in 1989, in literature as in life, ambitious hackettes may hoist their designer skirts to facilitate intercourse across the dustbins of Soho, but somewhere in the West Country a spinster schoolteacher in a beige cardigan is discovering the true aspects of love.
Although the heroine of Waugh’s fourth book, Prudence Fishbourne, is plain, a virgin and over sixty, and the story is set in a boarding school and a village, it would be a great mistake to assume that the themes of the novel are narrow or dim. One of this writer’s great talents is to convey passion and anguish through irony and restraint; a peculiarly English trick, even if not fashionable at the moment. Prudence has recently retired from her job teaching Modern Languages at a coeducational boarding school. Facing, as she puts it, ‘just myself and a possible twenty odd years’, she embarks on a job of emotional housekeeping before the winter of her life sets in; she decides to write an account of a relationship that, during her last years as a teacher, brought her unexpected joy and great pain. ‘It has always been a matter of utmost importance to me,’ she writes primly ‘to avoid self-deception of any kind.’ Almost against her will, and in a tone of humorous bewilderment, Prudence finds herself tackling a rich, dark undergrowth of problems and fear of old age among them.
The object of Prudence’s affections was a teenage boy. Timothy, whom she first encountered as a pallid child dumped at the school by his glamorous divorced mother. Something about the boy, his vulnerability and evident need for love, touched Prudence to the heart. She began by asking him to tea, baking special cakes, and encouraging him with his work; slowly, to her alarm and the ribaldry of her colleagues, she came to care for him deeply, to the point of obsession. Wanting to help him, and to involve herself more in his life, she introduced him to her charming, unscrupulous, bisexual nephew Leo; to her horror, Leo pursued Timothy through an affair with his mother. Relegated as always to the sidelines, Prudence struggled to contain and understand the raging emotions she feels. ‘Perhaps it was living alone which finally warped the intelligence . . . I was not interested in love except as a subject for literature.’
In counterpoint to the Timothy entanglement, Prudence describes the day-to-day events of her new life. This allows the author full scope for her most enjoyable turn; a look at the troubles of the modern family. Her brother Victor, ‘not a particularly lovable man’, has a dismal wife, Patricia. Bemused by the flamboyant Leo, they are also saddled with the poignantly dreadful Laurel, a fat, hostile adolescent whose determination to enrage her parents leads her first to shave her head, then to dye all her body hair green and finally to walk round the house naked. Waugh’s account of the wretched Victor’s reaction to his daughter’s behaviour made me laugh aloud. The beauty of the adolescent Timothy, and Prudence’s intensifying love for him, are deftly contrasted with the grotesqueries of poor Laurel and the misery she inflicts on her parents. With unobtrusive skill, Teresa Waugh steers her novel close but well clear of both sentimentality and farce.
Although her canvas is small, she fills it with character and detail. In what seems at first a subplot, but which slowly turns into the heart of the matter, Prudence gets to know her new elderly neighbour, the kind but slovenly Eric, who helps her with her garden, brings her the first snowdrops and takes her on agreeable outings. At first, Prudence is a bit sour about Eric; Teresa Waugh is too canny to make her heroine entirely likeable. Prudence hopes he will not become a nuisance: ‘I do find that I treasure my privacy,’ she remarks, spinsterishly. Gradually, as she confronts in her writing the emotional truth of her past passion for Timothy, she finds in her present life a more appropriate love for Eric. No sooner has she realised it than it is threatened; the resolution of the story is in doubt until the last page.
Not only is Teresa Waugh’s novel very well written, but it is also constructed with unusual subtlety. Inner balance makes it satisfying but never schematic; we realize gradually that young and old in this novel are undergoing a rite of passage, and that such experiences are awkward. As Prudence herself remarks, ‘When people are in love, they don’t always behave exactly as they should.’
This is not, nor does it aspire to be, unconventional writing or a novel on a grand scale. But in its unpretentious way it is a small triumph, translucent with humour, perception and sympathy, like a more contemporary and less camp Barbara Pym.