I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.
In the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.
This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:
A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’
Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.
It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:
Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.
Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.
But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …
Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.
She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.
Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.
Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her. Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:
“It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”