Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden

Afternoon of a Good Woman, by Nina Bawden, was written in the 70s, and it shows. I was a couple of pages into the book when it occurred to me that I was reading a story with a strong feminist theme, so I looked at the publication date…1976. And there on the second page is a dead giveaway: “The Liberation of Middle-Aged Parents is a cause much closer to my heart than Women’s Lib.”

The story takes place during one day in the life of the protagonist and narrator, Penelope, a middle-aged woman, a magistrate, who’s about to leave her husband for a lover.  She has received a mysterious package from an anonymous sender, and in the package are aspirins and a rather cryptic note. This strange package unsettles Penelope and sparks some unpleasant, long-buried memories. But Penelope tries to set aside her personal problems as she performs her role as magistrate at the local court. She’s present at a murky case concerning the alleged theft of a car, and as she sits through the cases (including the case of a rather pathetic flasher), her thoughts wander back to significant moments in her life as she examines her guilt, and the guilt of those who stand at trial:

“No difference, I like to tell myself between them and me except a small shift of luck. Persuading myself that I often see in their faces (the faces of the defeated, the inadequate, the unlucky, the lost) my own face reflected; hear in their stumbling attempts at some mitigation of their small crimes, an echo of my own voice.  And indeed to be fair to myself (And, if I can’t be fair to myself, how can I be trusted to be fair to others?), in the magistrate’s court, where I sit almost weekly, the margin of error that puts me on the side of the judges and not of the judged sometimes seems very narrow.”

Well written and eloquent, the novel is at its strongest when Penelope ponders the nature of guilt and then draws parallels to her own life. The question of exactly who is fit to judge others appears often as Penelope’s thoughts wander back to her own life, the mistakes she’s made, and the incidents she’d rather not think about too deeply. While she shows compassion to the man accused of stealing a car, one of her fellow magistrates, a self-righteous prig, impervious to self-examination, who seems to be the sort who’d happily hang the poor sap accused of stealing the car. And it’s through these scenes that those bigger questions concerning the nature of guilt and the labyrinthine paths of human motivation are explored. By extension, as the afternoon wears on, the reasons for exactly why Penelope is leaving her husband become clearer and yet more convoluted, as a rather tangled, unpleasant past is revealed.

Encapsulating a person’s life through one afternoon is a clever way of constructing a tight narrative, and this method brings Graham Swift’s excellent The Sweet Shop Owner to mind. Afternoon of a Good Woman, however, dips at the points in which it stresses a feminist message. Penelope for example, liberates her selfish stepsister Agnes from an abusive marriage, but in the process effectively manages to harness her elderly parents with Agnes’s responsibilities–an irony which is barely recognized. While Agnes’s liberation is seen ultimately as a ‘good’ thing that brings about complicated consequences, this part of the story thread is a little heavy-handed.

After a while, the book’s portrayal of Woman as Victim becomes a little repetitive: there’s the narrator Penelope who’s tied to Eddie, an infantile, needy husband whose peculiar sexual habits are..well…peculiar, and then there’s Agnes, the victim of a jealous husband. Then there’s Eva, Penelope’s stepmother, another victim of domestic violence, and then there’s Estelle locked up in a loony bin after a few years with Eddie.

The men, on the other hand, with the exception of the judge, are not well-fleshed characters and are largely superficial.

Underneath all this, is the idea that Woman is ultimately better alone–without Man. And while this may certainly be true in some cases, the novel heavy-handedly hammers this home through repeated examples of men who screw up women, leaving them hollow wrecks, suicidal and in the loony bin. This heavy-handed stuff is in contrast to the eloquent pacing of the narrator’s thoughts as she ponders the nature of guilt and complicity.

The plot throws in two red herrings (which I won’t reveal), and these intriguing pieces of bait lead absolutely nowhere. Now it’s perfectly acceptable for a novel not to sew up all loose ends–indeed such lack of resolution can be intriguing (makes me think of Pat Barker’s Double Vision) but two big whoppers like this thrown out and left unresolved really should be addressed. Ultimately these red herrings are accoutrements to the book’s feminist theme. No doubt the novel would be very different if written today, but as it is, its heavy feminist theme swamps the novel’s beauty and its much more interesting questions about guilt and the very thin partition placed between those being judged and those handing out the sentences.

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