Dark battles of the home

6 months ago 105

Daunt Books has produced and reproduced some interesting novels in recent years but few as startling as Dinah Brooke’s Lord Jim at Home (1973), a minor classic that has lain dormant for fifty years. Ahead of its time, and now looking timeless, it has resurfaced with éclat. It is short and shocking. From its opening paragraph the reader is in safe hands.

The house on the cliffs is furnished with an eau de nil carpet and a rosewood desk. In the garden are rhododendrons and tamarisk. In the dining room is an oval mahogany table polished so that it reflects, like a camera obscura, the blue of the sky and the muted green of the lawn. A soft, blurred pyramid of light in the dark room, smelling of meat.

That “smelling of meat” is deadly. The idyll is instantly destroyed. We are reminded simultaneously of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and of Woolf’s evocation of the stifling, “meat-smelling and serge-curtained” Kensington dining room of her childhood, as evoked in The Years. They clash violently together.

The early chapters are devoted to the “dark battles of the nursery” and to geriatric sex, both evoked with a chillingly casual, affectless detachment. In the early 1920s baby Giles Trenchard is brutally disciplined by his skinny, red-haired Scottish nanny (many echoes, here, of Struwwelpeter and Alice in Wonderland) while his nonagenarian grandfather, “the Judge”, a hanging one at that, gropes his nurse with eager but soon-wearied fingers. The stout nurse (“She has no waist, but plenty of everything else”) takes this invasion with phlegm, hoping for a legacy: “You are a one … I’m that embarrassed”. We are told that “her body responds to any caress like a whale leaping to a harpoon”. There is a good deal of marine imagery in the book. Barnacles, sharks and whale meat abound, as do a variety of frank synonyms for the nurse’s private parts, some colloquial, some clinical. It is surprising to find them in a book published in 1973, when some of these words still hadn’t reached the mainstream.

The Judge is allowed to wet and soil himself, but baby Giles is not. He has his face rubbed with wet nappies and shit, and his thumbs are painted with bitter aloes to stop him sucking them. When he becomes a boy he is forced by his tyrannical father, the Judge’s son, to eat up every scrap of fat and gristle on his plate – as children were in those days, though rarely as ferociously as here. The humiliations of prep school routinely follow, where, unsurprisingly, he wets the bed and is beaten for it, though the pleasure he takes in both these activities seems not quite normal. Then he is submitted to the ordeal of public school, where his only success is at cricket. He is a hero on the field, “a straight bat”. He eventually reaches the haven of the navy in the Second World War – having volunteered as a rating, to his parents’ social distress – and finds safety and comradeship aboard the Patusan, where he relishes the sight of his friends being blown to pieces and longs for more disasters. He would like to witness an explosion that will “smash the world in an instant, one glorious stew of icebergs, water, ships, men, houses, mothers, fathers, nurses, schools, all bursting upwards, screaming …”.

There is something seriously wrong with this young man, but we cannot work out what it is, or how precisely it will manifest itself, even if the underlying causes seem clear enough. He looks so innocent, so English and fresh-faced, so much “one of us” – a phrase repeatedly used by Joseph Conrad of his prototype, Lord Jim. Patusan was, we remember, the fictional island nation where Conrad’s hero met his fate; Giles must return to his mother country to meet his.

The whole story is told in the present, and from shifting points of view – much of it seen through Giles’s eyes, but some employing an accusative “you” or the inclusive “we” of a Greek chorus, as we move towards the carefully foreshadowed denouement. The Oedipal struggle between father and son ends badly, as it must, though the final postwar chapter, featuring a demobbed Giles, set in 1950, has some devastatingly funny lines – unquotable plot-spoilers – that offset the tragedy. The tone of surprised detachment is expertly maintained, the narrative threads are cleverly woven together. As Ottessa Moshfegh points out in her introduction, we don’t really care about Giles, yet we are gripped by a “world that baffled [us] and yet made perfect sense”. It is a world with which Moshfegh, Boston-born, admits she is unfamiliar, though it has been chronicled and explained to us by social historians such as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, 1972) and Alex Renton (Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, crimes and the schooling of a ruling class, 2017). But she is right to be baffled. It is baffling. No amount of context and explanation can normalize the experiences described here.

So who is the author of this alarming, accomplished tale? Dinah Brooke (b. 1936) is not descended from the Brookes of Sarawak, as the Conrad connection might suggest, but from the Brookes of Scunthorpe, steel manufacturers. She attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College and eventually split off from conventional education, making her way to Paris, Greenwich Village and an ashram in Pune. In 1983 she contributed an essay to a Virago anthology, Fathers: Reflections by daughters, edited by Ursula Owen, entitled “An Obsession Revisited”, in which she described her relationship with her highly unsatisfactory father, a depressive failure of an alcoholic for whom she felt “intense passion, devotion, rage, hatred, anguish, desire, disgust”. We gather from her other novels (there have been four in total) that she tried to exorcize him and her years of neglect in boarding school (replete with Cash’s name tapes and Radio Malt, those dismal period markers), transferring him to fictional battlefields and violent deaths in other countries. But the lamentable Mr Brooke doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the powerful figure of Giles’s father, a more conventional and outwardly successful being – also an alcoholic, but a less abandoned alcoholic, though he does collapse at one point and a striking image tells us that as the chauffeur tries to lug him into the car, “His legs drag behind him like the tail of a mermaid bumping helplessly over the dry rocks”.

The physical evocation of Austin Trenchard is powerful, and Giles’s fear of him seems wholly reasonable: this heavy-handed lawyer, pompous under-sheriff of the county, dubbed “the King” by the narrator, is frequently compared to a bull, and he has a heavily threatening presence. He terrifies his mild, soft, plump wife, “the Queen”, who dares not stand up for her son, and who seeks small comfort from the sympathetic visiting doctor, who wears a morning suit and is always handy with sedatives. When Austin Trenchard is cross, which he usually is, “Daddy’s voice gets very loud and the vibrations of it make the creases in his trousers quiver. Daddy’s knees move backward and forwards inside his dark grey trousers liked caged lions walking to and fro”. That’s a very frightening sentence. This tragic story may not arouse much pity, but it certainly knows how to arouse fear.

Margaret Drabble is writing a memoir. Six of her novels were reissued last year

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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