Where have all the families gone? Robert Winder wonders why great literature, which is supposed to address universal truths, ignores children, parenthood and family life. But this may be changing. Writers no longer consider it beneath them to write about parenthoodby Robert Winder / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Pet theories are untrustworthy, but I have long nursed one. Where on earth, in the history of the novel, have all the children gone? The truth-and it is an overlooked one-is this: they hardly exist. A couple of notable heroines-Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary-are also mothers, but their offspring are not significant characters; we do not see their parents coping with them on anything other than a picturesque level. Indeed, children function as little more than sentimental props: upping the stakes when adultery comes galloping into their homes, they are left in the lurch when their mothers decide to pursue the true, spine-tingling subject of their lives: suicidal romance. Even in Middlemarch, which has been called the first novel for grown-ups, children appear mainly in order to signal the doting simple-mindedness of most women’s lives-a limitation which the novel’s heroine is understandably keen to outgrow.
This is not to say that childhood is not one of literature’s favourite subjects. It clearly is. The novel pretty much began as Bildungsroman, the formation of an individual through the adventures of childhood and youth. Most Victorian novels seem to begin in orphanages and end with wedding bells. So perhaps it would be truer to say that what is missing in literature is not children, but parents. The protagonists do not have children because they are children. One or two novels in the canon have taken the trouble to follow their heroes and heroines into an adulthood that includes children (To the Lighthouse, War and Peace-though even here Tolstoy seems at pains to show married life as a spirit-sapping decline); and a few more have portrayed the loneliness of old age. But most novels leave their characters to fend for themselves long before their backs begin to play up. They especially like dumping them at the altar, as if that were the end of their meaningful lives.
What, for instance, are the novels of Jane Austen (and her successors) if not superlatively refined and ironic Mills & Boon romances, in which well-bred virgins hover about hoping that this time the handsome new aristocrat will stop at their desk to borrow a pen? But marriage, even in Austen, proposing as it does a fairy-tale future in which “they all lived happily ever after,” is offered as a semi-sarcastic monetary joke. Today, when it is hard to see marriage as anything but a provisional matter, a hopeful but temporary arrangement, it would scarcely be plausible to offer it seriously as an ending.
The novel remains largely in thrall to the model that developed in the 19th century, so it is hardly surprising that it should also retain some old reflexes (such as the Victorian maxim that children should be seen and not heard). The effect of stories that end with marriage, though, is that marriage-or its equally slippery secular substitute, undying love-is represented as a curtain falling, a form of death.
That clever and unanswerable question about Shakespeare-“How many children had Lady Macbeth?”-alerts us to something more serious than an Elizabethan continuity slip. The ease with which Shakespeare could conjure up a few children for dramatic effect (“I have given suck…”) and then forget all about them, beckons us towards the acknowledgement of an important truth-that children, in the literature we usually call great, are rarely allowed to intrude on the adventures of the protagonists. It is hard to recall-amid the torrent of eager couplings which are one of literature’s principal subjects-the simple narration of a birth, even though everyone agrees that this is one of life’s most intense experiences. Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room seemed ground-breaking because it showed us not only a sexual “awakening,” but also a pregnant heroine and a mother. When Peter Carey described a birth in his sweet-hearted Letter to our Son, it still felt like unexplored territory (and thus something of an invasion of privacy-he made us feel like voyeurs). It is striking that the novel, with its pre-tensions to universality, should have neglected so large a part of life.
Perhaps the reasons are not very mysterious. Until recently, literature was written either by men, who in the nature of things had little to do with children, or by spinsters. This is so obvious that it is tempting to see something conspiratorial in the fact that it has not been much remarked on. The absence of mothers from the canon of English letters is even more striking (though less frequently noticed) than the absence of women per se. When we consider the lineage of great women writers, we find no romper suits. Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, the Bront?s, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Jean Rhys, Ana?s Nin, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Mansfield-these women didn’t have to wash baby-mess out of their hair or get a headache watching the morning cartoons: they had not a child between them. Mary Wollstonecraft was a mother, as was her daughter Mary Shelley-and look at the flight of fancy that her experience inspired: Frankenstein. Otherwise, it is not easy to think of many front-rank woman writers, before Doris Lessing, who had children. Today, of course, it is nothing special-Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Angela Carter, Joan Didion, Nadine Gordimer, AS Byatt, Louise Erdrich, Candia McWilliam-but this is a surprisingly recent development.
In thinking of literature as a bachelor pursuit, it is tempting to take it as evidence of the standard patriarchal plot: history’s women were busy bearing and raising children so that their menfolk could close the study door and produce masterpieces. But this is by no means the whole truth. Many of our most celebrated male geniuses were also childless: Eliot, Auden, James, Proust, Conrad, Beckett, Flaubert, Kafka, Lawrence. It can hardly be a coincidence, although possibly it indicates no more than that the kind of men likely to write great literature are unconventional obsessive egoists who are unlikely to create and cling to family life. Nor could we argue that parenthood is axiomatically a form of writer’s block. There are enough great writers who are also fathers-Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Joyce-to prove that having children is not by definition a disadvantage (Tolstoy had 14).
Yet we cannot dismiss the preponderance of the childless as a mere biographical curiosity connecting the authors, or as fresh evidence that “the pram in the hall” is the enemy of fine writing. Indeed, given the now well-established effect of the “means of production” on cultural products, we should consider the aesthetic implications on literature itself. Could it be that literature-which has always seemed a series of attempts to find universal truths about human nature-really comes from a relatively narrow (and unusual) band of social experience? Could it be that its intensities, its yearnings, its engulfing sorrows and transient joys owe something to the limited emotional repertoire of its authors? These are reductive thoughts. But when Tobias Wolff remarked that the American short story suffered at times from “the tyranny of the epiphany,” he was drawing our attention to something specific about epiphanies: they are a teenage experience. Those moments in Wordsworth and Joyce, when the author feels an enlarged sense of life’s possibilities-these are the optimistic pangs of youth. It would seem unbecoming in an elderly man or woman suddenly to glimpse their lives as things pregnant and rich in this way. Such feelings are inspired not by a sense of completeness but by its opposite, by a sense of incompleteness, of the heights yet to be scaled. In an elderly person this is more likely to induce dismay than plenitude. Narrating her “birth year,” Louise Erdrich wrote that as she clutched her baby to her she felt her spirits surge in what she could only call an epiphany: “Perhaps we owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand they wanted to be women nursing babies.” The idea that literature is a form of displacement, filling a child-sized hole in the lives of writers, male and female, seems whimsical. But perhaps it is not so fanciful.
The governing principles of the novel owe a great deal to the idea of a single man or woman searching for an identity, or at least a partner. Dickens, in particular, relies on the notion of an essentially innocent individual consciousness struggling to find peace in a sullied world. Above all, novels are love stories. The western novel is the great vehicle for the dramatisation of desire: love quenched, love gone wrong, love sought and not found, love unrequited and twisted out of shape. Children are the enemies of the sort of ecstatic prose to which such novels aspire. Quite apart from the fact they are the unwitting victims in literature’s long-running (and perfectly honourable) battle to bring bourgeois values down a peg, they are a narrative inconvenience. Baby talk is not as funny in print as over the breakfast table. And when romance is conceived of as an absolute, there is no room for disturbing cries in the night. Insomnia must be brought on by the torments of love, not by the onset of chicken pox.
This is not in any sense an objection. The solipsistic voice has produced great literature. But it does mean that love-dreams have been given a high-the highest-cultural priority. This is what has led the hard-headed to see novels as an escapist, girlish hobby, whose chief design is to make readers dream of more intensely lived, more adventurous lives than their own. Perhaps this really is the function of literature. But perhaps it is also why so many readers, when they enter their child-raising years, experience a sense that they have “outgrown” fiction. It is not simply that their own lives are largely unaddressed by most of fiction, or that they can no longer sustain romantic fantasies, or that they have become, overnight, secondary even to themselves. It is also a sign that much of their creative energy is absorbed by daily existence, that it is no longer available for imaginary creatures.
we might expect all this to be changing now, and it is. More women write books; and some men do not feel that it is beneath them to write about children as active participants in their lives (instead of as abstract possessions or responsibilities). Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison have built novels around relationships with children. The Fifth Child describes the presence, in an otherwise peaceful family, of an incorrigibly thuggish boy-a cuckoo in the nest. Beloved sets up a searing melodrama in which a mother cuts the throat of her daughter rather than let her be seized and enslaved. And there are the family spats in Roddy Doyle, where teenagers hog the bathroom and dads fumble to find a way of speaking to their daughters.
Richard Ford’s heroes invariably have children-the dads in The Sportswriter and Independence Day grapple movingly with their sons-though even here the children conveniently live elsewhere, with the ex-wife. Bellow and Roth capture the rants of ageing men (while their kids are usually hidden in the bushes of a more pressing issue: alimony). Nicholson Baker brought a new attentiveness to paternity in Room Temperature as he calculated the time it took his baby’s breath to float around the kitchen. Nick Hornby, with his antennae well-tuned to the Zeitgeist, has cleverly given the hero of his new novel a child to knock around with-even if it is not his own. Anne Tyler’s stories often oblige their heroines to tidy up the kids’ bedrooms and iron the school uniform. But these remain exceptions to the rule.
If you run your eye over the 32 winners of the Booker prize since 1969, you will be pushed to find a single novel whose main character is a parent. A coincidence? Ironically, when children did begin to appear in the work of British writers such as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, critics were swift to accuse them of being twee or exploitative. Lord of the Flies remains a rare example of a novel about children that is also a novel about human nature. And one of the reasons why Lolita made-and is still making-such waves was that, in placing a child at the centre of a love story, it broke a literary as well as a social taboo. Nabokov was not simply courting criticism of his novel as an incitement to paedophilia. He was also breaking, in a rhapsodic and unsettling way, one of literature’s rules, which is that the children, if they must exist at all, should keep their mouths shut.
Joseph Heller did the same in Something Happened, one of the first literary attempts to capture, in all its inglorious, sweaty details, the fluctuating intensities of parenthood-a much finer book than Heller’s more vaunted novel, Catch-22. (After all, who can disagree with the proposition that war is hell?) Something Happened is littered with the scattered utterances of a man entering on the low but not eventless plains of middle age. His wife is unhappy, his daughter is unhappy, his boy is having difficulties and he himself is drowning in silent screams of anger, lust, disillusionment and baffled love. “My boy won’t talk to me any more,” he confesses, “and I don’t think I can bear it.” The novel’s theme can be summed up in a quotation from its infuriated hero: “I wish I knew what to wish for.” This is such a commonplace in life-it has been the staple ballast of magazines-that it comes as a surprise to realise that it represents a new note in the history of the novel itself. If we wanted a name for it, we might call it Fisher-Price realism.
It is not a coincidence that this shift in literature’s prevailing breeze has been signalled most clearly in autobiography. What else can memoirs be about but family life, because families-however fragmented-are what everyone has? But it is still unusual, even in memoirs, for parents to be considered not as the guilty parties responsible for the authors’ own failings, but as characters in their own right: as people with jobs, children and problems of their own. This is more of an imaginative leap than it seems. It requires the transcendence of the narcissistic reflex that dominates storytelling: my struggle to survive my upbringing. In this, the Freudian century, we often worry about the effects of parents on children; only rarely about the effects of children on parents. Writers, like everybody else, are quick to attribute their failings to their background, while taking the credit for their finer qualities. Mothers suffer particularly: one way or another they are to blame for their children’s troubles.
Yet family life remains a wonderful subject for literature, not least because it is so full of secrets. What begins in the gentle or urgent intimacy of lovemaking produces a society which has to fight for elbow-room, which has to hoard, feign and improvise, which promotes the idea of all-for-one-and-one-for-all while prizing secretiveness and half-suppressed rivalries.
orwell once wrote that when people called books “fashionable,” this usually meant that they were popular with people under 30. This remains true, but may be changing. Maturity has been a long time coming in literature and even now much of the work in this new vein is non-fiction-in memoir. The novel remains slightly resistant to it. It sits oddly with literature’s taste for growing pains.
Who knows what twists lie ahead? The family might not be changing as radically as we think. In the present anxiety about high levels of single parenthood, it is worth noting that, according to research at Edinburgh University, almost 60 per cent of first children born in 1800 were conceived outside wedlock. The idea that fills newspapers now-that the family is collapsing or alternatively that it is a species of smug, deadly tyranny-is not as radical or new as we might like to imagine. But it does remain true that our assumptions-our myths-about family life are disintegrating. We know that it has sponsored as much terror and abuse as it has inspired sweetness and light. We know about the intense depths behind still surfaces, the private fevers that blotch the skin of even peaceful societies. Most important of all, we are learning that there is really no such thing as “the family,” other than as a shorthand term of socio-political convenience. The family does not exist: there are only families. And Tolstoy was wrong: even happy ones are not alike.
In his essay on irony in Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera describes how he once created, in one of his novels, a world-weary professor who indignantly insisted that the novel was dead. Joyce and Proust, he declared, had taken introspection as far as it could go; they had proved that it was impossible to “know” other people in any serious sense. Then, one day, Kundera received a letter asking him to write the introductory note to a university course which had taken this sharp thesis to heart. He felt obliged to point out that he himself did not believe in the idea; he had offered it only as an example of the kind of “sophisticated stupidities” he wished to dramatise.
His letter must have made someone wince. Yet it is still common to hear talk of the death of the novel-even when novels pour off the presses in unprecedented numbers. More often than not, such a judgement only means: why can’t more of today’s novels be like Anna Karenina, Ulysses or Middlemarch? This is a pleasant wish. But there was only one Anna Karenina in the whole of the 19th century, and only one Ulysses in the 20th; it is a bit rich to expect half a dozen to come along every time the Booker prize shortlist is announced. The truth is that for a while now the novel has been moving into the open ground which lies largely unexplored ahead of it: adult life. Naturally, it is moving in an uneven manner; some steps forward are more assured than others. But the story is not over. If, historically, literature has been concerned mainly with life’s beginnings and endings, it must now, at last, be embarked on a path that includes middles too.