The remarkable Ruth Rendell at 82 is still writing, and here’s her latest, The Child’s Child, a book written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which examines prejudices against homosexuality and illegitimacy. This metafiction story, a novel within a novel, begins with the narration by a 28 year-old PhD student, Grace, who is given a privately published manuscript by a friend who wants her to evaluate whether or not it’s worth publishing. The manuscript was written in the 1950s by an author who had published a respectable number of books, but hesitated to publish The Child’s Child for two reasons: its controversial themes (homosexuality which was still illegal at the time) and the fact that the story was based on real events which concerned individuals who were still alive. Now it’s 2011, the author of The Child’s Child is dead, and his son asks Grace to evaluate the novel and give her opinion. Since the book’s themes are illegitimacy and homosexuality, Grace agrees to take the book–after all her PhD thesis is on illegitimacy in English Literature.
Grace lives in a huge house in Hampstead which she and her gay 30-year-old brother, Andrew co-inherited from their grandmother. They were expected to “do the sensible thing, the practical thing: sell it and divide the proceeds.” But Grace and Andrew, who are very close, take the unexpected option and decide to live in Dinmont House together, dividing up the rooms and sharing the kitchen. It’s a wonderful arrangement until Andrew brings home his lover, novelist James Derain, and it’s at this point that things begin to sour….
James has rather strong feelings about the unpublished book The Child’s Child. Although the names of the characters have been changed, the story concerns his “uncle or great uncle,” and one night a rather ugly and pointless argument erupts over who was treated worse by 19th century society: women or homosexuals. Since Grace PhD’s thesis is concerned with illegitimacy, she argues: “if gay men killed themselves from fear of discovery, so did [pregnant] young women dreading disgrace.” Rendell is particularly good at creating toxic crucibles of personality, and that is true here. Tension builds in the house, but soon all of that is swept aside when events show that in some sectors of society, attitudes towards homosexuality are still hateful, archaic and a throw-back to the early 20th century.
At page 69 of my review copy, Grace finally picks up and starts reading the novel The Child’s Child. It’s the story beginning in 1929 of John, a young homosexual man who shields his sister, Maud, and her illegitimate baby from society at terrible cost to himself. John’s choices are to live a homosexual life in secret or to become celibate, and he tries both with tragic results. The story of the lengths John goes to in an attempt to protect himself and his sister offer a glimpse into an intolerant cruel world of 1920s-1950s Britain. Back in the present, James argues that historically, unmarried women need “only to put on a wedding ring and they’d be alright,” whereas homosexuals were “ostracized, attacked, killed.” John and Maud’s story shows that putting a wedding ring on a woman’s finger didn’t solve the social problems faced by a woman with an illegitimate child, and while in 2011 illegitimacy no longer carries a such a stigma, there are dark, violent recesses of society that still instill fear in the homosexual community. As a result Ruth Rendell’s novel, a call for tolerance and acceptance, shows that the placing of social stigmas for illegitimacy and the discrimination of homosexuality leaves people vulnerable to criminals–this was true in the 1920s Britain depicted in the novel and unfortunately it’s still true today.
Grace’s ruminations of the treatment of illegitimacy in 19th century British literature are a delight for anyone interested in the period. There are literary allusions galore of the novels of Trollope, Hardy, Gaskell, George Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, so if you don’t have at least some familiarity with the plots of these novels, readers may be a bit lost for a few pages. On the other hand, lovers of Victorian literature will positively wallow at the mention of some of the great titles:
Ruth isn’t a slow read, it’s an almost compulsive read, and I raced through the early chapters. What struck me was that while those other novels are about other things as well, have subplots and interwoven stories, Ruth is concerned entirely with seduction and illegitimacy. Hardy’s Tess has the courtship of Angel Clare and marriage to him; Wilkie Collins’s No Name and The Woman in White are much more involved with the legal aspects; Hetty Sorrell’s history is important but still subservient to Dinah’s work and religion and to the Bede family’s way of life. So here I was in Verity’s study learning exactly what it was really like to know one is pregnant by a faithless lover, to put on a wedding ring and call oneself “Mrs.,” yet ultimately deceiving no one. Every character in Ruth believes she has committed a terrible sin, even the sympathetic ones, the kindly ones who take her in and share what little they have with her, even they speak in hushed tones of her sin and her “crime.”