An Irrelevant Woman by Mary Hocking

An Irrelevant WOmanAs you probably have spotted in the blogosphere, this week is Mary Hocking Reading Week, courtesy of Ali. Mary Hocking is one of those authors I’ve been aware of for a while, probably thanks to Ali’s reviews of her novels, but had never actively sought out before. She falls a bit later than my go-to period of writing, since she wrote between the 1960s and 1990s, but my experience with An Irrelevant Woman (1987) has certainly encouraged me to look for more – perhaps in the new Bello reprints.

The ‘irrelevant woman’ of the title (is anybody else reminded of ‘a woman of no importance’?) is Janet Saunders. She is the quintessential wife and mother, having – to a certain extent – sacrificed herself for her husband’s writing career and the lives of four children. These children are now all adults, the youngest at university and the oldest presumably around thirty. Janet and Murdoch now live quietly in Dorset, with affectionately interfering neighbours and a tangle of children and grandchildren not too many miles away. This is disrupted when Janet suffers from some kind of nervous breakdown.

Almost everybody is the novel behaves older than they are. The friend we see Janet with early in the novel, with the inexplicable name Deutzia, is in her 80s – and Janet often seems to be around that age herself. In actual fact she is only 50, which seems (a) very young to have four adult children, and (b) very young to consider somebody’s life behind them. The four adult children also seem extraordinarily advanced, mostly speaking as though they were in their 30s and 40s when they must be a decade or more below this – I couldn’t work out why Hocking didn’t just push everybody’s ages up a decade – but I assume we’re supposed to see Janet reacting the recent change in her life. This quibble can be overlooked. How does Janet describe herself (albeit only to herself)?

I am not a modern woman. I am a series of ‘nots’ – not typical, topical, current, competitive, controversial, contentious, protesting. I am not given to confrontation, nor am I concerned with success as most people understand it today. I am passive, accepting, quiescent, unmotivated, uncommitted, and therefore uncaring and irrelevant.

As with all of us, Janet’s self-portrait isn’t quite accurate – she is not entirely fair to herself – but Hocking adroitly paints a picture of somebody who is faced with crippling inertia. That series of ‘nots’ and passive qualities make it difficult to propel a narrative, but Hocking does it expertly. You can easily see why she has been compared to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor. Her observational skills are exceptional, as is her ability to turn that observation into concise and striking prose. She also contrasts Janet’s self-analysis with how others perceive her:

Dr Potter saw one of those quiet, anonymous women she occasionally noticed in supermarkets. Calm, unsurprised, never guilty of embarrassing their friends and family with wild outbursts of enthusiasm or anger – women who seemed to be in a perpetual state of balance. And yet, because of that very quietness – and the shyness which is almost always associated with it – giving an impression of having kept something to themselves, something which most people have had to hand over as the price of adulthood.

What makes this so clever is the way in which certain qualities overlap in these judgements. They are clearly portraits of the same woman. But the conclusions are so different; Janet knows that she does not have this balance that others see.

The actual breakdown is handled without sensation. It is the catalyst for the rest of the novel, not an overly dramatic scene. Of more interest to Hocking, and to the reader, is how the family responds. How will Janet’s children cope with the changing roles in the family? There is organised Stephanie, witty, over-dramatic Malcolm (forever quoting plays in lieu of emotions), and then Katrina and Hugh, who are little less realised; Hugh’s ex-wife Patsy, a campaigner and environmental crusader, is more rounded. She is entirely believable as a presence in Janet’s life that is both an annoyance and a reassurance.

Lest this all sound miserable, I should add that Hocking is often quite amusing. That comes in a dry humour from Janet’s perspective a lot of the time – but non-wry smiles come from the merriment of Malcolm, and the quick-witted and realistic dialogue that many of the characters exchange. Hocking herself clearly has a fiercely intelligent way with words, and she is able to turn this to humour as well as poignancy – how could you not love this?:

Malcolm revelled in Mrs Thatcher. He saw her as one of the great bad performances of all time and considered it a privilege to watch her on every possible occasion.

But it is Hocking’s observational writing that is her greatest gift. It is, sadly, the sort of thing that I am all too likely to forget after a while – though I don’t read for plot, it is often plot that lingers in the mind once style has left only an impression – so I must come back and recall moments like this, where Janet is talking to a defensive young boy who is living rough:

Janet said, “You don’t live at home?”

“That’ll be the day!”

“Where, then?”

“There’s an old place out on the heath.” He was nonchalant, but hoped she would not be. “It’s for sale but no one wants it. I doss down there.” It’s an everyday occurrence, his manner implied while inviting her to be shocked so that he could become even more indifferent.

How incisively she draws the distinction between what people say and what they want to come across. Very succinct, perceptive writing.

Well, I’m in danger of writing far too much – so I’ll just end with a general recommendation that you try this, or (I daresay) any Hocking you can get hold of – which, thanks to Ali, is rather more than it used to be. Incidentally, you can read all about how Ali discovered Mary Hocking in the latest issue of Shiny New Books. Thanks Ali for organising this week!

3 thoughts on “An Irrelevant Woman by Mary Hocking

  • April 8, 2016 at 8:06 am
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    Defined by what one is not rather than what one is – what a great description. And I do love the Thatcher aside…

  • April 8, 2016 at 8:49 am
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    Love this review Simon. Am Irrelevant Woman is one of my favourite Hocking’s. I think some of her later work like this is her best. I thought everyone seemed older than they were supposed to be too.

  • April 8, 2016 at 6:30 pm
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    Wonderful review! I haven’t read too much from either Taylor or Pym, but I LOVED Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and Excellent Women. And I do really appreciate those books that provide quiet yet perceptive analysis of human behavior when I read them. Unfortunately neither of my libraries have copies of her books, but I can interlibrary loan and also I now have another name to keep in mind when used book shopping.

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