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Who hasn’t exclaimed over Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennett? What a silly woman is often the general verdict, and Jane Austen herself was not at all kind about her – and how we enjoy her portrayal. Imagine my astonishment, then, as my children grew up I found myself a little bit more in sympathy with Mrs Bennett.
Whoever or whatever they are, I suspect there beats deep in most parents’ hearts the desire to see their children happily settled. Mrs Bennett was stymied by the cruel powers of the entail. The modern parent – Lara in Daughters – has other aspects to wrestle with such as divorce and an altered sexual landscape.
How are these different aspects reconciled? How do woman negotiate a balance between working and domesticity. And, not least, why are we still so powerfully seduced by the idea of marriage? Why do we love weddings, particularly a family one? These were all themes which rose to the surface as I thought about Daughters… themes which are as stuffed with the comic, tragic and the absurd as they have always been.
Read An Extract
Mr A. R. Havant and Miss E. Russell
The engagement is announced between Andrew, only son of Mr and Mrs Nigel Havant of Boynton, Hampshire, and Eve Russell, daughter of Mr William Russell of Hackney and the late Mrs Mary Russell.
Curious how much pleasure she took from saying, ‘My daughter . . . actually my stepdaughter . . . is getting married.’ It ran against the grain of her own experience but her pleasure was not to be underestimated . . . that visceral need to see a child settled.
She had got used to answering questions such as ‘What sort of wedding?’ and ‘Do you like him?’ (To the latter she would reply, ‘Yes, I do.’)
Did she like Andrew? The little she knew of him, yes. She could list the pluses: affable, well mannered, liked a joke, normal. He was also – she was assured on all sides – brilliant at his banking job, and unusual because he was a man who took the long view. These were all excellent attributes to offer up in conversational exchanges.
As for the wedding, Eve had always been the sort of person who would want a traditional one. Everything about it would be bound to appeal to her love of beauty and social drama ‒ the dress, the flowers, the ancient vows in church, the staging of dinner, and the dancing.
There were many such conversations. With the friends and neighbours who said, Of course you’ll be doing this, that or the other. Or, That is the convention, you know. There were the sly, covert appeals for an invitation: ‘I know we’re not strictly connected but we’d love to be there.’ And all the delicious, jokey chats with the girls.
‘You’re pleased, then?’ Lara’s friends would say, with varying expressions – some were envious at her good fortune in having a child settled.
Yet at night, in the half-wakings and drowsings, Lara sank through what seemed to her the layers in her mind . . . through the bitter-sweet, the dark, the half-forgotten and half-remembered. There, in her deepest imaginings, a bride glimmered. Sacrificial. Luminous.
When, on those white and violet nights, she finally fell asleep, it was to find herself in her own wedding dress, running towards a church with a long train hooked over one arm, a torn veil streaming out behind her.
Why was she was running? She never understood. Only that when she awoke from the exhausting, debilitating dream, her heart seemed to be shuddering with grief and longing. For the dead? For the past? For the shadowy image of the girl she no longer was?
One cold autumn evening Lara inserted Eve’s engagement announcement in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo collage that hung in the kitchen. The photos reflected the two ages of the family: pre-divorce and post-divorce. Her favourite was one of Jasmine, Eve and baby Maudie in the pushchair, with herself and Bill standing behind. The girls were grubby – ‘I’m not in the mood for washing,’ Eve had informed them. Lara liked this photograph in particular because it showed them real, solid, breathing . . . and happy.
Maudie’s best friend was called Tess. Over the years Vicky, her mother, and Lara had become a team, welded together by school runs, sleepovers and dramas. (The ear-piercing drama had been a major one ‒ ‘If you don’t let me, Mum, I’ll get my tongue done too.’)
‘How do you survive?’ Vicky asked occasionally.
Usually Lara replied, ‘I just do.’ But survival had been more cunning than the lightly tossed-out reply suggested. Compared to the world’s great wrongs, her position had not been dire, but it had taken all her energy to deal with it. She had learned to tackle each day, each minute even, with patience and no flights of imagination whatsoever.
The nights were different, of course.
‘It’s as if you’re punishing yourself,’ said Vicky.
‘As it happens, I did go for a manicure,’ said Lara. ‘With a sadist.’
‘Avoiding the issue,’ said Vicky.
Lara stepped back, knocking a poinsettia with her elbow. It fell to the floor, the pot broke and earth scattered. Never mind. The floor needed a wipe and she had only ever tolerated the poinsettia, a present from a patient who ran a garden nursery. Its crimson foliage was so wilfully cheery.
‘If you hate it, throw it out,’ Jasmine urged her.
‘I can’t do that,’ she said. ‘I can’t kill it.’
Now stalk and roots lay in a welter of the dry potting compost favoured by nurseries – the stuff that tried to look like proper soil but didn’t. She swept up the mess, plus a posse of dead flies that had met their fate behind the pot, and dumped it outside in the garden ‒ if you could dignify such a scrubby, neglected patch with that name.
The phone went and she picked it up. ‘Bill.’
Her ex-husband didn’t often phone. Fifteen years on from the divorce, their relationship wasn’t easy but both he and she had learned to accommodate the fact that they had failed. What had happened had been, so to speak, placed inside a cabinet. The door had been shut and locked, thus hiding the grief and poison. But, it had got better. Of course it had.
‘I thought you should know . . .’ He paused, and her stomach did a small flip. He began again: ‘How do I put this, Lara? I’m getting married too.’
Her eyes snapped shut – and the door to the cabinet swung open. ‘I suppose I should be surprised.’
‘I suppose.’ Bill sounded put out.
‘Only ‒ and I’m quoting ‒ because you’re a useless husband.’
‘Correction. I said I was your useless husband.’
He had always made her laugh, and she did so now. ‘Oh, Bill.’
The tension dissipated a little.
On their respective phones, each waited for the other to resume.
Bill went first: ‘I wanted to say . . . I wanted to say . . . This sounds ridiculous, but I hope this is all right . . .’
She caught her breath. She wasn’t going to go back over that now. She had been Bill’s wife. Then she wasn’t. End of story. ‘You’ll be happy,’ she said. ‘I know you will.’
(‘Do you like your husband’s new wife?’ How would she reply to that one?)
‘Why now, after all this time? You’ve been with Sarah ten years.’
‘Things change. I’ve changed.’ He added, unnecessarily, ‘And so have you.’
She could still spot his evasions. A thought occurred to her: ‘I take it you’ll be getting married after Evie’s wedding.’
‘Possibly before.’ He sounded cautious. ‘There are reasons.’
‘Oh? Obviously . . .’ She was tempted to say, Obviously Sarah can’t be pregnant . . . but it lacked grace. ‘Won’t you be taking some of the spotlight off Evie?’
‘I think she might feel a bit put out.’
‘It’s a wedding, not a coronation,’ he said.
‘But you know what store she sets by everything being perfect, and perfectly planned.’
‘Too much fuss?’
‘Only if you’re a flinty killjoy. Anyway, you don’t believe that.’
‘Since I’m footing a large part of the bill, I might.’ He cleared his throat. ‘But you don’t honestly think I’d do anything to overshadow Eve’s wedding? Do you?’
‘No.’ Lara changed tack. ‘Have you told the daughters yet?’
‘Our girls?’ The idea appeared to startle him. ‘No, just you.’
She flashed back to the time when their instinctive response had been to turn to each other first. Tell me, tell me everything. ‘That was nice, Bill, but shouldn’t you?’
‘I wanted to discuss a few things.’
That was unexpected. ‘The girls . . .’ She groped for the appropriate words. ‘The girls will be . . .’ She wasn’t sure if ‘pleased’ would do. ‘The girls will be intrigued and . . . happy.’
So many dealings with Bill – tender, ecstatic, estranged, dark . . . and bitter. From the moment she had clapped eyes on him in the Cornish café and the flare had gone up in her heart (her life had changed, just like that), to the naked moment when, pregnant with Louis, she had undressed and reached for her nightdress, only to sense Bill’s gaze raking her body, and experienced a chill at what she had done.
Someone – Maudie? herself? – had left the sugar jar on the sideboard with a trail of silvery grains. The weekend’s newspapers still colonized the table and a couple of supermarket coupons for reduced-price coffee and cereal had fallen to the floor by the sink. Phone tucked under her chin, Lara retrieved them. Tenpence off instant coffee. An introductory offer for a bathroom cleaner. She totted up the savings they represented.
‘Don’t be fooled, Lara,’ Jasmine might say. ‘What you save here in the supermarket is grabbed from you there.’
‘I like the illusion of saving.’
‘That’s why my business is growing.’
She smoothed them out on the table.
‘Lara, will you come to the wedding?’
‘No.’ The word plummeted from her lips but she managed the gracious rider. ‘Thank you.’
‘Pity. I’d like you there.’ He paused. ‘I really would.’
She forced herself not to say, And I would have liked you there while I brought your daughters up. To say, or to imply, any such thing would be unfair.
The day she met Bill.
Blue sea, patchy Cornish sunlight. She has bleached salty hair, and sand from the morning’s surfing caught between toes and buttocks . . . She is post-finals, steeling herself to find a job and begin life. He trails into the café with a double buggy and she looks up from polishing the Gaggia, which has become her personal fiefdom. Faded cotton trousers. Mussed hair. A couple of tiny scratches on his chin. He catches her eye – and she sees anguish and fatigue in his. She steps towards him. He is taking a holiday with his tiny daughters to get over his wife’s death and failing to cope. It’s hard to look at someone you imagine to be so capable only to discover they’re actually on the edge. One more push and he’d go over. Yet it’s impossible to help him. You can’t order grief to go away. ‘It settles in,’ he says. ‘Like the weather.’ She finds herself mourning his vanished future ‒ or, at least, the one he wanted to share with the woman he loved. It makes her consider how greedy we are as a generation. We’re used to death being confined to old age, we demand it so, and it shocks us rigid when someone young dies.
‘Just talk to me,’ he says, as he tries to give a bottle to the baby and a mug of milk to the toddler.
She drops down into the chair beside him to help. He is bereaved and stumbling, but grief makes him beautiful. The most potent of combinations. Death has touched him . . . and such a death with its terrible glamour . . . fascinates her.
Later, she wrote on a piece of paper and stuffed it into her wallet. ‘Pity is like mercury. It’s quicksilver, rising, pushing its way to the surface.’
Later still she wrote: ‘I never knew what happiness was. Now I do.’
The day Bill left her.
Written in the household diary: ‘He’s gone. We failed.’ Two short sentences. That was enough.
Now he asked, ‘Is this to punish me?’
‘I’m long past that.’
Was she? She hoped she was. ‘You cannot imagine the depths of distaste I feel for the person I once loved . . .’ A statement often heard in her consulting room. Lara had never felt like that about Bill.
I’m grateful for that small concession, she frequently told herself. I am.
Bill did the throat-clearing that meant he had a tricky subject to tackle. ‘There’s something else I wanted to discuss. Could you come over? I think it would be easier face to face.’
She glanced at her diary. ‘I could manage next week.’
‘I was thinking tonight, Lara.’
The clock on the kitchen shelf said seven p.m. ‘Bill, you are all right?’ The inner anxiety meter clocked on. Illness, bankruptcy . . .?
‘Yes, but I do need to talk to you. Negotiate, really.’
‘OK, but you must tell the girls your news.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I must.’
It didn’t take long to snatch up her coat and let herself into the dark.
The cold had come early this year. Arctic winds had swept in and the going underfoot was treacherous. She planted her feet carefully, and thought out each movement. The cold crept up the sleeves of her coat and her nose watered. Yet she enjoyed those still, morbid evenings when the streetlights were filtered in an orange haze through icy air. ‘I don’t like spring,’ she had confessed to Vicky.
‘Why on earth not?’ Vicky had wanted to know.
‘It makes me . . . sad.’
‘Oh, that,’ said Vicky. ‘We’re all sad most of the time.’
Lara plodded on. Living in the city meant she was cut off from nature – a safety curtain stretched between her and the realities of weather. Anyway, unlike spring, with its unpredictable dewy growth and pale flowers, you knew exactly where you were with winter. Wintry landscapes. (Long lines of humans trudging through them like the remnants of Napoleon’s army.) You needed resilience to survive winter.
Three minutes later, she had reached the end of the street and was ringing Bill’s doorbell.
‘Congratulations,’ she said, to the figure holding open the door.
‘Thank you.’ Sarah kissed her. She was in her work clothes of black trousers and jacket and smelt of lavender soap and fabric conditioner. Not unpleasing. ‘Bill’s on the phone to Jasmine. I suppose I should offer you a drink.’
‘You suppose right.’
Sarah marched her into the kitchen and she sank down into a chair and changed her mind. ‘Sarah, do you think I could have a cup of tea instead?’
The radio – as frequently – was set to a classical-music station. A medley of waltzes was playing, which usually she would loathe. Yet for once they soothed Lara as she watched the unflappable Sarah move around the kitchen. When it came, the tea was strong. ‘Thanks.’
Sarah devoted a lot of her energy to making people feel comfortable and usually succeeded.
It had been a long day and Bill’s news took some absorbing. ‘So why am I here?’ She clocked the large sapphire on Sarah’s finger and the worm of envy gave only a tiny wriggle. Lara was pleased about that. Happiness was elusive and Bill and Sarah were due some.
Happy or not, Sarah was in a snappy mood. ‘If you don’t come to the wedding, Lara, it will look as though you bear me a grudge. Considering I didn’t meet Bill until after Violet, and you and I get along fine, that can’t be the case.’
‘I don’t want to upset you,’ Lara said, ‘but . . . let’s just say it’s better if I’m not there.’ Sarah looked embattled and she added. ‘No one thinks I bear you a grudge. That would be impossible.’
‘The girls will be upset. Actually . . .’ Sarah stared at her tea ‘. . . if you’re talking of grudges, the boot should be on the other foot. You had his children. You and the sainted Mary.’
She sounded sad as she always did when the subject of children came up. ‘I left it too late,’ she had once confided to Lara. ‘Then when I met Bill there wasn’t any question . . .’ No more needed to be said.
Lara was curious. ‘Does Bill still think of Mary as sainted?’
Mary had died giving birth to Eve – a rotten, horrible, mean death, as deaths in childbirth always were. Naturally, everyone was inclined to canonize Mary, which was difficult for those who had stepped into her shoes. ‘Saints do try the patience,’ Lara had once pointed out to Bill, in the days when they still amused each other.
‘Yes, he does.’ Sarah waved the hand with the ring in Lara’s direction. ‘But you know.’
The clock on the wall ticked off the seconds. It was not an uncomfortable moment, exactly, but not a comfortable one either.
Then Sarah said, ‘Don’t worry, our wedding won’t steal Eve’s thunder. In fact, all this is really about her. Bill will tell you.’
‘I did suggest Evie’s nose might be put out of joint.’
Sarah stiffened. ‘It won’t do her any harm.’ She fiddled with the ring. ‘Eve can be . . . I sometimes think she speaks out of turn.’
Don’t criticize the daughters.
Sarah gave Lara one of her looks. ‘She can be very keen to tell people what’s what.’
Indignation spiked Lara’s good intentions. ‘If you mean she’s courageous and honest, then I won’t deny it.’
‘You always defend her.’ Sarah’s voice dropped. ‘Always. I find that strange . . . admirable . . . when she’s not . . .’
‘Stop right there, Sarah. She is my daughter.’
Thin, restless Eve, with her remarkable speaking eyes and her common sense, always braced against disaster.
‘How can that be?’
She was tempted to say: If you were a mother you would understand.
‘Sorry.’ Sarah gazed down at her tea – as if to extract the meaning of life from it. ‘I’ve known Eve for ten years and I don’t think she likes me very much.’
Lord, Lara thought. Are we beginning to talk honestly? ‘Eve needs to be very sure about people.’ Sarah looked sceptical. ‘She does, Sarah. But once she’s made up her mind, she’s yours for life.’
‘She’s taking her time.’ Sarah could be wry.
Yet no criticism of her girls was allowed to pass. That was how it was with Lara, and anyone who knew her had to reckon with it. ‘Eve’s had to deal with the fact that her birth killed her mother, and then her parents separated.’ Lara checked herself. ‘Sarah, let’s not get into this . . .’ Regretting not the defence but its vehemence, she concentrated on the sparkly-pin order of Sarah’s kitchen. Calm down. The jugs were arranged on the shelf in height order and the knives slotted into the knife block. In Sarah’s domain, nothing was permitted to lie around.
Lara and Sarah exchanged a look. Talk honestly?
It had been years, yet neither woman was absolutely at ease with the other. The journey had got so far but no further. Sarah had a good job in local government where she managed a fair number of people, and Lara had her own skills, but all of this shrank in the face of the other woman. Their conversations tended to be muddled (and over-compensatory).
Why not? Why not? ‘Sarah, do you feel guilty?’
‘Goodness, Lara. What on earth . . .’ Sarah flushed. ‘I’m not in your consulting room.’
‘Even so. You know you’re blameless.’
If anyone was guilty, it was Lara. Guilt she knew about.
‘Yes and no.’ Sarah was nervy but, since the news had been announced, more confident. ‘OK . . .’ She was trying out the words for size. ‘Lara, this seems to be a good moment to straighten a few things out that I need to know but Bill won’t ever discuss.’ One woman talking to another about a man. ‘He loves his girls, and I never understood why he didn’t take them with him.’ She added hastily, ‘Not Maudie, of course. But Jasmine and Eve.’ Unnecessary for her to add: He’s their father and you’re not their real mother.
She tastes coffee and sea salt on her lips as she hurries from the afternoon shift at the café to Bill’s rented holiday cottage and her second meeting with him.
He takes her by the hand and leads her upstairs to view his sleeping motherless daughters in their cots. ‘You remember Jasmine?’ He points to a wrapped-up package of silky hair and plump limbs. Then he points to the smaller one. ‘And Eve?’
She’s speechless. Patches of light filter through the thin holiday curtains on to the walls. There is a clutter of children’s clothes. The sweet-acrid tang of nappy cream and urine. The pretty children laid out like votive offerings.
Bill says, ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’
‘Yes.’ As she speaks, she knows she has made a commitment . . .
She loved them. Then, now and for ever. Passionately. (Each bone outlined under their pearly skin. Each childish curl. Every stumbling word.)
‘They had had enough to put up with already in their small lives. I couldn’t let them go . . . I loved them, Sarah, as I love them now. They were mine.’
‘Bill’s too. But Violet had a different take . . .’
‘Oh, let’s not forget Violet.’ Sarah focused on a perfectly folded tea-towel hanging over a rail.
The subject of Lara and Bill was – of course ‒ still vexed, and Lara’s heart gave its customary shuddery fragile thud. ‘Violet was adamant she didn’t want children. So it wouldn’t have worked anyway. But if it had been you . . .’ For the thousandth time, Lara thought (selfishly), Thank goodness Bill met Violet first.
Sarah said, ‘I would have taken them. I would have done anything . . . I wouldn’t have hesitated.’
Neither would I, thought Lara. Neither did I. ‘Sarah, I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have let them go without a fight.’
Sarah ‒ dear Sarah. Honest, long-suffering Sarah of the brown eyes and gentle expression.
‘You think I don’t understand because I’m childless.’
Lara did not reply.
‘It’s funny how the female body isn’t always up to the job,’ said Sarah, ‘more often than you’d imagine. Otherwise I might not be sitting here. We assume it’ll be straightforward, but it isn’t.’
Now, that they both understood. Two ovaries, one uterus, one willing body, an array of hormones and conditioning devoted to making it work. In Sarah’s case, it didn’t. In hers, it did ‒ just ‒ and then . . . it didn’t.
‘No,’ she said and, even now, her voice sounded raw.
As raw and desperate as when she had screamed, ‘No. It’s not true.’
With her trademark cool and sensitivity, Buchan effortlessly weaves complex strands into rewarding, thoughtful and dramatic read, possibly her best one yet.
The tangled knots that bind Lara and her brood are unravelled with clear-eyed emotional honesty.
With great insight and warmth, Buchan has fashioned a gripping novel.
A fantastic personal read that made me bereft when it was over.
New Books Magazine
A great read.