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.