Tessa Hadley on the Power Struggles of Parenting – The New Yorker

In “Funny Little Snake,”
your story in this week’s issue, a young wife is confronted with her
husband’s daughter—and his wife—from a previous marriage. The story is
set in England in the sixties. Why did you choose that era as the
backdrop?

I find I’m drawn to imagining this era in British life. I was a child in
the sixties, submerged in the private terrain of childhood, and of course
not consciously aware of those years as a moment of social transition.
But when I think about them now they seem full of possibilities for
poetry. So many new ways of being and seeing—in class and social codes,
in aesthetics—abounding in energy and contradiction. Yet all these new
adventures felt hesitant and provisional, nothing had set hard. The
sixties are an unknown terrain for me; they’re exotic. On the other
hand, because I was actually alive in those years, soaking up the
atmospherics involuntarily, taking them in at every pore, the themes and
the style and the mood of the time chime with my sensibility at some
deep level.

Valerie, the new wife in the story, is seen as the conventional one,
who will cook and run the household and support Gil in his career,
whereas his first wife, Marise, was the wild bohemian. How conventional
is Valerie, really?

I suppose that question is at the core of the story. Gilbert and Marise
loom large in the action, wielding their different kinds of power
dangerously, hurtful to everyone around them—and to each other and to
themselves, no doubt. The two central characters, Valerie, a rather
ordinary-seeming young woman, and Robyn, a dull-seeming little girl, are
in danger of being swallowed by these voracious egotists. The force of
personality counted for a great deal in the sixties: individuals were
liberated from the constraints of the more formal codes of behavior, and
were more reckless about the consequences of their disinhibition,
playing new games and wilder ones. In a sense, force of personality is
all Gil and Marise have, to get by on. Perhaps what emerges in the story
is that Valerie is just as original as these two, in her own way.
There’s no sign that she’s cowed by their domineering, or that she
accepts their account of the way things are. She’s stubbornly,
privately, as unconventional as either of them, inside the shell of her
performance as a conventional wife. I suppose one way of reading the
story could be to say that it’s a story of two lonely girls who find
each other. Though that oversimplifies Valerie and Robyn’s relationship,
because Valerie is most definitely beginning to take on, by the time
they escape together, an adult and parental role.

Marise lives in a state of squalor, and yet the story implies that
she’s wealthy—that she owns so much she can “afford to trample it
underfoot in a grand gesture.” What, if anything, is she rebelling
against?

A lot about Marise is hidden; we don’t have any glimpses of her from the
inside. We have some clues: money, a failed education with the nuns, a
rebellion against respectable domesticity. An aura of stylish
confidence, of savoir-faire. When I first began to have glimmers of
this story, I thought that Marise would turn out to be more sympathetic
than she is—the surprise in the story was to be that she and Valerie
would actually be able to talk to each other. But, as I thought my way
into it more deeply, that possibility of rapprochement felt somehow
sentimental, a synthetic idea. I needed Marise to be truly dangerous; I
needed her recklessness to be properly unsettling. Of course, there’s an
element in her revolt against Gilbert’s imperturbable male cleverness
and self-sufficiency that resembles Valerie’s revolt when he sits
explaining the Long Parliament to her and she’s thinking about her
knitting. They are both of them skeptics, doubters, when it comes to
male intellectual power. They’re both attracted to that male authority,
and they both rebel against it, too: they hold something back from
wholehearted belief—some irony, some private cruelty, some knowledge of
the man and his weakness, which is partly sexual. The complications of
power crisscross all these relationships. There’s class, which slices
between Marise and Valerie, between Valerie and Robyn, and between
Marise and Gil, whose mother owned a newsagent’s shop. And then there’s
patriarchal power: the two wives have more in common than they are able
to know. Although I think that Valerie is drinking up everything Marise
tells her, taking in her message and her mockery, even while she
appears to resist them. She’s saving it all up for later, when it may be
useful to her.

Gil comes off as pompous and self-involved, completely oblivious of the
inner lives of the people around him. What do you think drew him to each
of these women?

He is. And yet. I hope the story isn’t too unkind to him. I hope it
traces at least the outlines of a history that would account for his
obliviousness, his egotism: a loved, clever little boy, whose cleverness
was the key to social advancement. He learned to use his intelligence as
a weapon, or as a token in a game of power, yet destroyed his
relationship with his own past in the process. It seemed to me important
to catch for the story at least a hint of his private life, his secret
life, with Valerie, the silly false voices they put on. It’s both
grotesque and touching. What a strain it is for him to always have to
perform the powerful, clever man, rivalrous and anxious, to be always on
the lookout so as not to let slip his position in the male hierarchy. In
his secret life with Valerie, he takes refuge in his performance as a
wheedling little boy, needy and sorry. When he takes his glasses off,
his face is full of secret shame. In their exaggerated performance as
male and female, perhaps his side of the show is as hard to sustain as
hers is, or harder.

The title of the story, “Funny Little Snake,” is something that Marise
calls Robyn. Robyn, for most of the story, seems blank or bland, not
even self-preserving—in other words, very unlike a snake. Why do you
think Marise thinks of her that way?

I wonder if it isn’t one of those things that pops out of your mouth
inadvertently, giving away much more than it’s intended to. Does she
call her a snake because she, herself, who ought to be the nurturing
mother, is aware of her own poisonousness in her flawed relationship
with her daughter? Or does the snake idea, the snake-word, spring rather
from her resentment of the intrusion, into the Eden of her self-love, of
the child whose dependency makes neither of them happy? Robyn
disappoints her charming, flirting, cajoling mother, resolutely refuses
to charm her in return. Robyn makes Marise fail, makes her hate herself.

And why is Marise, who doesn’t seem to care all that much where her
daughter is, so enraged at the idea of Valerie taking her?

That’s fairly easy, isn’t it? It’s power again, and a battle over the
child, which is also a battle over the narrative, and the rights and
wrongs of the story. It’s like the baby who’s almost pulled apart in
front of Solomon.

We know what Valerie thinks of Marise’s skills as a mother. What do you
think Robyn makes of her life with Marise? Is she unhappy?

I’m sure she is: that bedroom with its expensive toys, the empty hours,
the tedium, the lack of loving care. I tried to make all the details of
the room exude this chilly lack. It’s all expressed in the white
pajamas, which she treasures and wears: they’re a sign, for her, of a
possible different life. Probably Robyn hardly knew she was unhappy
before she visited Valerie; she had nothing to compare her life with.
Then the rather commonplace, perfunctory friendliness that Valerie
offered, when she came to stay, triggered a hunger in her. Luckily,
Valerie took responsibility for her casual offer of ordinary kindness.
She followed it through, and turned Robyn’s plight into an element in
her own unfolding story.

The ending of the story—Valerie and Robyn sitting in the back of a
taxi, each reflecting on what they’ve just done and imagining what lies
ahead—reminds me of the ending of “The Graduate,” with the young couple
who’ve just escaped the church sitting in the back of a bus. Do you
think of this as a happy ending?

I did mean to write a happy ending: I had great fun writing an almost
extravagantly happy one, with a real rescue, a dramatic escape from the
clutches of the enemy. I enjoyed an almost fairy-tale element in the
miracle of what happened: I thought (to invoke a different film) of the
magical rescue of the children in “Fanny and Alexander.” But I also
wanted to plumb the reality of such a dramatic moment. What would a
fairy-tale rescue really be like, if it happened? And I thought that
they would both of them, as the adrenaline subsided, be afraid. They’ve
made a crazy commitment, on a rash impulse (yes, like the couple in “The
Graduate”). Now the significance of the commitment sinks in, its risks.
This realism—in the two characters as well as in the story—is probably
what distinguishes Valerie and Robyn from Gil and Marise. They are
serious about what they’ve done. They are thinking through its
consequences, recognizing the difficulties ahead, shouldering
responsibilities. In Robyn, because she’s a child, this recognition of
momentousness can come only through metaphor: she feels her own
abandonment of her lost children, her little dolls. Partly, she’s no
doubt feeling guilty for abandoning her mother. Oh, dear. Trouble stored
up for the therapists in her future. Valerie, too, recognizes,
dimly—underneath her righteous indignation and her justified concern for
the child’s welfare—that Marise’s claim as a mother, twisted and
problematic as it is, will have at some point to be taken seriously.
Most of what Marise says is distorting and venomous, but occasionally
she’s also eloquent and hits the spot.

You have been a stepmother yourself. Did you draw at all on your own
experience of the role?

My husband’s first wife is very sane and decent and looked after my
stepsons beautifully! I never had to kidnap them. But perhaps I have
some insight into the complex evolution of the relationship between a
stepmother and stepchildren, from initial mutual wariness into a warm
bond that can grow and strengthen over time.

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