A Little Love, A Little Learning / Nina Bawden
London: Virago, 1990, c1965.
Another book off my shelf, this is Virago Modern Classic #333. I find that Viragos are nearly always a good bet, and this one lived up to its Virago-ness.
I've never read Bawden before, and after this I will be actively looking for more. This novel follows the story of Joanna (18), Kate (12) and Poll (6), who live with their mother Ellen and stepfather Boyd (the local doctor) outside London. Set in the 50's, it deals with many contemporary elements of women's lives, things that we wouldn't necessarily consider now -- the fact that Ellen has left her first husband and is trying to stay out of sight so he doesn't take the girls away because of course he has legal custody as their father, for example, an idea that I found repellent. Or the arrival of their Aunt Hat (not actually an aunt, but an old friend of Ellen's who is unlike her in nearly every way). Aunt Hat arrives to stay while her husband is being tried for beating her and attacking her stepson by another marriage when he was visiting. She is continually making excuses for him, rationalizing his abuse with apparently common statements like, he was overworked, he was tired, etc.
But those elements make up the background of the story, which really centres on the sisters, especially narrator Kate. I found Kate a fascinating storyteller; for one thing, she readily admits that she lies constantly, making up stories to make herself more interesting, to gain some attention. Her lies are continually blowing up into problems for her and for her family, but she can't seem to stop herself. In the end though, it is something Joanna does that precipitates a crisis in the family. I've never read a narrator quite like Kate -- unabashedly lying throughout, she is still very understandable, and even endearing in her adolescent awkwardness. She is aware of her own tendencies but can't yet see a way past this habit. Bawden was able to hold this tension successfully over the whole novel.
I was intrigued by the relationship between the girls and their stepfather -- he took on all three of them along with Ellen, and he is a good man, a reliable and loving man with character. He respects all three girls and loves them deeply, often giving advice, comfort and understanding as they go about their youthful dramas. At one point, Kate is arguing with him about a situation in which her lies have nearly caused a very problematic situation, thankfully averted.
"But it can't be both," I said, suddenly feeling stiffly hostile. "A thing's got to be either right or wrong."
"Only in arithmetic," said Boyd, and went on to say that this was the trouble with most people, that they wanted a straight, comfortable answer to all their questions, yes or no, and this was the reason why they thought as little as possible and took the first answer that came, because thinking made them uncomfortable: the more you thought, the more you realized there was no right, true answer to anything. All you could ever do was to think round each individual question and through it, and try to get an answer as near right as you could get it.
"Truth often sits on the fence," he said, "The trouble is that we have to get down on one side or the other."
Another element I found interesting was their relationship with their mother. Ellen is not a warm and fuzzy person. She dislikes sentimentality and expects intelligence and decent behaviour from her children. They have Aunt Hat to provide all the sentimentality, and she does that in spades. There is no romanticizing of 'motherhood' here, just a very real woman who happens to be a mother, and despite the lack of overt displays of affection, we know she loves the girls fiercely and will defend them to the end. I thought that the relationships between all the women, Aunt Hat included, were wonderfully drawn. There is such a variety in the personalities and behaviours of all these characters, and there is an spinster neighbour as well as an older lady in the 'big house' nearby who both add yet another element to the feminine characterizations Bawden is presenting. It is all quite fascinating.
Kate's development from beginning to end as she tells us this story is the point of the title, I think. She goes through a lot of upheaval trying to figure out relationships, and what people who love each other owe each other as well. Her experiences over this rocky year culminate in her confronting a rather unwelcome visitor and defusing a lot of tension, without intending to or even quite understanding that she'd done so. Love and learning are themes in her life from the opening sentence to the final page, and I am glad I was able to follow along.