“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”
In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.”
The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.
At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.
Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.
Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.
It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.
She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world.
This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:
“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”
There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.
There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:
Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to.
And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:
I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it.
I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.