Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

Hobhouse, Janet (1993, 2004), The Furies, NYRB Classics
ISBN 1-59017-085-7

DSC_1914I’ve been reading two books on mothers and daughters this year and this is the one I finished first. And what an excellent book it is. A posthumous autobiographical novel about Janet Hobhouse’s life. It ends badly, and doesn’t tell a joyous story, but Hobhouse’s luminous writing, elegant, well paced, always balanced -if barely- above the abyss of despair, makes for a deeply satisfying reading experience. Janet Hobhouse died in 1991, at the age of 40. She died having published multiple novels, and having lived quite the life on different continents. I have not – let me admit this in advance- read any of her other novels, so I cannot say how this unfinished book compares to her more polished published work, but, apart from the odd lapse in style, and the occasional gaps in the narrative, this novel reads fairly polished, the product of a finely tuned literary mind. I assume that people might enjoy unraveling all the allusions and hidden names (Philip Roth is one celebrity among several that makes an incognito appearance in the book), but the joy of reading The Furies goes far beyond the typical appeals of romans à clef. In a way it is a (post)modern take on Portrait of a Lady, or, in many places, a dark revision of The Dud Avocado. It’s a book about being a woman and a daughter in the 20th century, and not quite fitting in with any of its fashions and movements. A book about being beautiful but desperate, brilliant but lost, a novel about secrets, about private and public lives. What an extraordinary novel Janet Hobhouse wrote, in a style that may seem conventional, but it’s a style that’s exceptionally malleable and convincing at the hands of Hobhouse. It’s an honest book – and by honest I do not refer to its autobiographical moorings. It doesn’t aim to manipulate or deceive, it stacks life’s events according to its own inescapable logic and not according to some narrative. Despite Hobhouse’s old fashioned, 19th-century pen, the novel is fantastically precise. It doesn’t ask us for pity. “I have survived,” she says near the end. The book asks us to respect her, that is all. Honestly. Just go and read the damn thing.

That the project at hand is one about 20th century feminity becomes clear as we are charmed and transported by the first parts of the book, which read like a condensed, melodious family saga, as we follow the narrator Helen’s ancestors from 19th century Germany to New York. This history is primarily a history of difficult and complicated women. Of ugly women, beautiful women, of headstrong women and women more happy to be part of larger family narratives. This early section (“Prologue”) doesn’t span a large amount of pages, and it certainly deviates from the rest of the book as far as style and pacing is concerned, but it establishes the parameters of what is to come. Being a headstrong, intelligent woman is a difficulty in a society that primarily follows the narratives of men. Families are units united by the husbands, the fathers, and continued by the sons. Mothers and daughters are cogs in a system, made to conform to expectations. Some, like the narrator’s grandmother, run away for a time, but families always catch up. Emma, the runaway grandmother, eventually “succumbed,” as her mother had done, settled down, married, and soon became mother to (eventually) three daughters. That particular household is remembered by Bett, Helen’s mother as profoundly unhappy. “I remember nothing but fear in that house. […] I was afraid of my father’s hitting me.” Being made to fit in the patriarchal mold is not a kind process, and not all the women in Helen’s family took well to it. As the years passed, the men died or were divorced so that, ultimately, the family became “its complete, exclusively female, self.” Soon after, the family’s matriarch died and the daughters and granddaughters spilled into the world. We barely need all this history, because few of the characters return in the rest of the book. But it serves as a foil for Bett’s and, later, Helen’s life. The connection to a larger family whole, which the matriarch had provided through her acts of “angelic” servitude to the larger concerns of everyone else, is severed by her death, and none of the daughters and granddaughters is pliable enough to knot these ties again. Willfulness, non-conformity and independence are behind many of the problems besetting Brett and Helen – struggling through lives not due to any personal faults but due to the hostility of the narratives that are expected of them.

Mutlu Blasing has pointed, in a discussion of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, to a line in Moore’s work: “Turn to the letter M […] / and you will find / that ‘a wife is a coffin’” Blasing later adds that “[t]he “letter M” links matter, mother, and mortality” – neither Bett nor the narrator, Helen, are comfortable being in that kind of coffin but the outside pressures do not make that life easy for them. That said, there’s also no comfort in each other – Bett is an awful mother, captivated by her own misery, her bad luck with men and money. In some ways, Bett lives a Holly Golightly life, only with child and the diminishing charms of middle- and then old age. She cannot provide sustenance to her daughter, whom she initially sends to a boarding school, described by Helen as “a kind of depository for the strays and the detritus of misfired adult lives.” Eventually, Helen gets to leave boarding school to live with her mother full time in New York. I say “gets to” because young Helen practically swoons with love for her mother, whose distance and neglect hurt her like mortal wounds. As readers, we find that distance, and the hurt contained therein, masterfully rendered in Hobhouse’s frequently long sentences, her offhand observations and her way of putting devastating revelations at the beginning of unassuming paragraphs. When eventually, her mother dies of suicide, the inattentive reader is apt to mis-read, to miss that moment. Her reaction to it is also telling: “The very first, clearest sensation is of weight lifting off my head and shoulders.” She is relieved, first, and then crumbles. Immediately before that scene, we are shown the last conversation between the two, a conversation that ends in a minor act of violence. This is the end point of a long and arduous mother-daughter relationship that shapes much of the book. Maybe my Holly Golightly association was unfair. In fact, Bett is a complex character. He distance is a sign of untreated depression. During her early years with her daughter, Bett retreated to the bathroom to deal with her incipient panic attacks, turning the radio up loud enough to drown out her sobs and sadness. What’s more, Bett is a talented, possibly brilliant woman who worked in jobs “below or outside her capacities” and “[n]ever once ask[ed] for a raise.” She even taught herself economics, wrote a 400 page book on privatization “which one NYU professor to whom she sent it pronounced ‘a work of genius’.”

DSC_1913Bett was abandoned by her own mother, and this loss, this alienation, she hands down to her daughter. Decades later, mourning the death of her mother, Helen would destroy her clothes, swear off sex, because “[m]en were hers, and if she couldn’t have them any longer, then nor could I.” The late, great Barbara Johnson once wrote that poetry is “an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice” and suggested that the loss of the mother is the “primal scene” at the heart of much literature. This primal scene is repeated several times in the book, through abandonment and death, as well as small forms of abandonment, as when Helen waits for Bett to come visit her in boarding school. The book, consequently, is an attempt to find Bett in her life. We don’t hear Bett’s voice a lot, but we are walked through a lot of rooms, straining our ears for traces of Bett. The loss of her mother to suicide and the more general, at this point practically genetic, feeling of alienation pervades Helen’s attempt to make sense of her life. She constructs her past in long, flowing sentences, searching for memory, for help, for support. For, at least, some form of explanation. The first half of the book is called “Women” and it contains most of Helen’s time in schools, and her life with her mother, moving from apartment to (smaller) apartment. It ends with a family reunion of sorts, with all the surving women of the family meeting at Helen’s graduation. It’s important to note, if I haven’t made that clear so far, that The Furies is no fashionable ode to sisterhood, no belligerent attack of the patriarchy with a feminine model of solidarity. And support, any gesture of love is hard won, and a Pyrrhic victory more than anything else, considering the investment of emotional capital. At the same time, the book doesn’t contrast the cohesive big family with the fractured modern assemblage of single women. Hobhouse is extremely clear that the so-called unity not only produced its own share of depression and alienation, but was also only possible because one woman gave herself up to become the family’s Angel. Bett, while a bad mother due to situations and losses, is not a bad, lazy or stupid person. She fails, when she fails, because of a society that will not recognize her gifts and strengths and skills for what they are. Living a life considerably below one’s considerable talents would drive many people to depression.

The second part of the book is called “Men” and mostly follows Helen’s sexual adventures, starting during her time at Oxford. It’s called men in part because she moves away from her mother to live with her father, a similarly distant man in England. Hobhouse’s observations of England, of Helen’s place in it, and the way her presence manipulates and changes the places around her are absolutely astonishing. In a way it is as if we were privy to Isabel Archer’s voice instead of the narrator’s condescending drone. Helen’s way of dealing with men is, on its face, not unlike her mother’s ill-fated procession of dates. But in this case, we are hearing the story from Helen herself, and it is one of learning to deal with men while attempting to keep a sense of independence and self-respect. Helen, subjected to a cold kind of love from both her parents, needs amorous attention, and not just the romantic kind. And she passes it on. A lonely boy, Edward, who has so far only known “the expensively procured abuses of public school, the brute assault of the elders,” is taught a gift, “sex undivorced from love,” thus becoming part of “the lover’s ecosystem.” Helen’s heart does not get broken, instead she breaks a few, moves back to the US, marries, gets divorced, etc. I am loath to offer too many details, because while the main tension of the first half is in the dark mother-daughter relationship, the second half is more eventful. As readers, we can breathe more easily, although the end of the book constricts our hearts again. Given that the novel is openly and famously autobiographical we know what’s coming. The cancer diagnosis and the fight through it. At some point, she has dinner with one of the women from her family, her mother long dead at this point, and, asked for details regarding her health, declares herself to be well, noting: “Oh yes, this is exactly how it’s going to be. You cannot reach out. People will be frightened. This is something you have to go through entirely alone.” A bleak statement in a book with few joys.

There are many parts of the book where a reader would be reminded of the harsh and punishingly glittering work of Jean Rhys, but none as much as the last chapters. It is in these parts, the presumably least revised ones, that we find fewer and fewer of the beautiful, sloping sentences, just attempts at song, abandoned. Statements, and a queer hope, towards the very end. The Furies is one of the most beautiful books I have read all year and a book I can recommend to anyone. I have, unusually for my reviews, quoted quite liberally from the book because I can’t stop typing up lines and remarks. What a remarkable achievement this book has turned out to be: intelligent, harsh and sumptuously beautiful.

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2 thoughts on “Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

  1. I’ve heard mixed reviews for this one – perhaps too autobiographical to please fiction readers and too fictionalised to please memoir readers? But I like the sound of it and have added it to my ever-growing TBR list.

  2. It is very good. I think when reading autobiographical fiction that’s billed as a novel, you’re best off to read it as a novel instead of trying to work out the key references. Of course it is unfinished, and the last third could have used more polish, especially given the extraordinarily accomplished early sections.

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