Tessa Hadley’s new novel, Clever Girl, charts the life of her protagonist Stella from childhood through to middle age. That some of the chapters first appeared as stand-alone short stories in The New Yorker might suggest a lazy lack of cohesion, but on the contrary, Hadley’s episodic, picaresque form renders the epic scope of her work eminently digestible.
Born in 1956, Stella first comes to our notice when she’s eight or nine years old. She lives alone with her mother, Edna, a woman who passes herself off as a widow, but has merely been abandoned by a good-for-nothing partner – a man who left before his daughter was old enough to remember him. This was the early 1960s, Stella reminds us, when “so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside”.
This is illustrated in painstaking detail in this first chapter through the story of Stella’s cousin Charlie’s death – murdered by his own father in a fit of drunken rage. The mouthpiece for respectable families all over, Stella’s grandmother has a “horror of any kind of publicity or exposure touching the family, however remotely”, and it’s the realisation of this fear manifested that eclipses the pain of the tragedy, converting the grief into shame; a “contaminating secret” yoked ever after around the neck of Charlie’s mother, Stella’s Auntie Andy, who seeks refuge with her and Edna after her husband is jailed.
So much of Stella’s life is an attempt to throw off the bonds of so-called respectability and convention of the world she was born into. She lives in Bristol, a city then still pockmarked with Second World War bomb damage; an austere urban landscape of overgrown rubble and decay. For her mother and her new husband, Gerry, their move from the urban Kingsdown area to a house that’s so new it’s still got tape on the windows and dirt where the garden should be, on a cul-de-sac in the “respectable, sleepy, leafy” suburb of Stoke Bishop, marks the beginning of a new and better life for them all. Stella, of course, is unconvinced; claiming she’d “die” if her life “turned out as boring and narrow as theirs”.
Stella’s clever and she knows it. She reads voraciously, “revelling in the texture of these worlds jumbling in my ignorance: servants, telegrams, cavalry, race, guilt, dressing for dinner (what time was dinner? and were they still in their pyjamas?)”. She works hard and gets top marks at school, but it’s all only “provisional”, she’s still waiting for her real life to begin: “I feel like an overgrown giant in that house, bumping up against the ceiling like Alice in Wonderland after she’s found the cake labelled ‘Eat Me’: head swollen with knowledge and imagination, body swollen with sensation and longing.”
Enter stage centre Valentine, the teenage heart-throb and stuff that 15-year-old girls’ dreams are made of. Stella falls head over heels in love with him and together they make a “matching pair: skinny and striking”. He introduces her to Beckett, Ginsberg and Burroughs and she willingly throws off her “bourgeois-realist past”. They take drugs together, lie around in his bed, and make plans to live in Paris “on French bread, coffee and writing”. But although Stella is clever, she’s not very worldly-wise. By 18 she’s a single mother with no qualifications, a fake wedding ring on her finger in the maternity home, and with a shameful secret of her own now to keep.
At this point Stella’s life departs from the course she originally charted for herself. Dreams of university, travel and escape disappear in a puff of smoke and the responsibilities and mundanity of motherhood steer her future path. We follow her from a back bedroom at an aunt’s house that, on sleepless nights as she paces the floor with her baby, Lukie, in her arms, “seemed like the end of the world”, to live-in cleaner/cook for a boys’ school housemaster’s wife. She’s bitter and full of contempt during this period; where once she had a heart now there’s nothing but a “dry husk”. Not even regret seeps through her toughened exterior though; all she feels is “contempt” for her “deluded previous self” for thinking that life was going to offer her something more than this. Hers is “thwarted and unfinished”, while those around her are “achieved and full”.
We’re with Stella through her various loves and losses: her brief stint living in a small commune in the 1970s, the initial revolutionary zeal and following disenchantment that goes with it; a second son, by a different father but a relationship equally doomed; a long-delayed degree and the “relief” of finally being allowed to be clever again; affairs; a marriage, sometimes regretted but not exactly disappointing; an unanticipated late career; and an even more unexpected addition to her family.
Often likened to Elizabeth Bowen, Hadley’s voice is richly resonant of a formidable British literary ancestry – in Clever Girl there are whispers of Jean Rhys, Penelope Mortimer, and most obviously, of course, Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room. There is nothing remarkable about Stella; she is the everywoman who for one reason or another doesn’t fulfil her potential, but it’s this very ordinariness that makes Hadley’s book so captivating.
Clever Girl is one of those glorious novels about nothing in particular and everything there is in life, all at the same time. Towards the end of the story Stella comes to the decision that “the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test,” she continues, “was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.”
Stella is someone to whom things happen, she has very little control over her fate – even her various love affairs are somehow out of her hands, she accepts the engulfing pull of attraction without a moment’s hesitation for the consequences – but she rallies and rises to the occasion again and again, and out of these tangled mistakes, moments of weakness and ill judgement, seemingly random tragedy and moments of happiness, appears a fully formed life. Hadley resists the temptations of lazy sentimentality, though; there is no room for nostalgia: “The past is closed up inside its own depressing little museum of faded styles and codes and anticipations; you can’t re-enter it,” muses Stella towards the end of the novel. The future, however, is always a blank page, as yet unwritten.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.