Rosemary Tonks: The Halt during the Chase
Rosemary Tonks is best-known for her novel The Bloater but this one is just as good, if not better. Like The Bloater, it could perhaps be described as a comedy of manners and like The Bloater, it disappeared for a long while before being republished, most recently by New Directions.
It focusses on a small group of people in the London suburb of Hampstead. If you have read Alan Bennett or Nina Stibbe, you may be familiar with them. Stereotypically, they are well-off or, if they are not, live in genteel poverty and aim to give the impression of being well-off. They are usually educated, intelligent and eccentric. This is, of course, a massive generalisation but is often how they appear in literature.
Our heroine/narrator is Sophie. She is thirty-one. Much of the book is about her decidedly ambiguous relationship with her widowed mother and her sort of fiancé, Philip. Philip is the son of Rudolf (Rudi) Horner. Rudi is a very rich antique dealer who has a large house next to Sophie’s mother . He was wealthy enough to do exactly what he wanted, which included divorcing two wives. He also owns a large house in the country which Sophie and her mother will visit later in the book. He has had sons by the two wives In addition to Philip, the youngest, there is Guy. Interestingly enough, while Sophie is having a romantic/sexual relationship with Philip, she is more friendly with Guy. Rudi, always interested in the opposite sex, though now aged sixty-eight, has shown an interest in Sophie’s mother.
Sophie and her mother argue all the time. As Sophie points out they are like girlfriends of the same age rather than mother and daughter. (Most of the time she was a wholly unreliable schoolgirl accomplice of my own age). She goes further: My mother could only be herself so fully in this way when she was in my presence, because I provided her with all the necessary backgrounds: child, mother, and husband. As for a mother-daughter relationship occasionally my mother played at being my mother. This took us both so completely unawares that I would stand gazing at her, turned to granite.
Things are not much better with Philip. She claims on several occasion to be in love with Philip but I had the impression that Philip was “thinking me over”. Philip works for the Treasury and, frankly, is something of a self-centred bore. However she has left her job at the Languages School in Knightsbridge because I wanted to be available to see him during the day, and to get my flat done up, so as to make it more attractive to him, and to have time to improve my own appearance. She seems to spend a certain amount of time seeking out suitable lampshades.
She suspects and, indeed, he says that he really wants a rich wife and she is not that but he seems to enjoy the sex and her company.
Other key characters in the Hampstead set are Ziz, a British agent in Turkistan and the Russian princess Melika, known to all as Pussy and who is one of the the genteel impoverished people of Hampstead. Finally there is the yellow (urine-coloured, according to Sophie) Chesterfield sofa, which moves around during the book. Though we do not meet Mr Ruback, he plays a key role. he is variously described as a sufi, a psychic, a drug addict, a mystic and, according to Sophie, a man who looked the sort of person who would listen to my mother’s ideas on Oat-Crunchies, and would realise that this was the unique way she put over the message of her doubts and anxieties about my future and her own. Mr Ruback gives lectures which are attended by Guy.and Sophie, and others take an interest in him.
It is Pussy that advises her to see a clairvoyant to help her determine both how she and Philip feel and Pussy recommends a Mr Broughton who is in Brighton. Pussy had said he’ll never let you go, believe me. If he sees signs of you getting away, there will be a frightful to-do he’ll be round with a proposal before dark. While it is not particularly relevant, the train from Victoria takes fifty-six minutes. (This is in 1979). Trains currently take at least fifty-eight minutes for the same journey.
Broughton is an elderly man and his view is, more or less, that Philip is just stringing her along and that she should focus on her language skills. She still remains unsure but does head off to Normandy, where she spends time with a family in a château. As forecast by Pussy, Philip pursues her there.
Tonks is very happy to gently mock the whole crowd, all of whom have their foibles. Sophie, in particular, cannot make up her mind about Philip and has ambiguous feelings about her mother. She has a sense of humour, which Philip clearly does not have and Tonks enjoys mocking his lack of humour as does Sophie. Philip is sensible,has a good job and is clearly going to be successful. He is also a crashing bore which cannot make up for his better qualities.
Partially what makes this book are the several colourful characters, all with their own peculiarities. Take Rudi, for example. In his attempts to woo Sophie’s mother, he tries criticising her but also the more direct approach. He opens his country home to the public and then mingles with the crowd, who think he is weird. There was a strong reaction against this foreign-looking man who had come sightseeing alone, perhaps in the hope of picking up some woman. Others such as Pussy, Guy, Philip and the family Sophie visits in France also have they peculiarities, no doubt confirming the views of non-British readers that the British are a bit weird, which is probably true. And just to show how weird we are, I must say the character I had a soft spot for was the yellow Chesterfield sofa.
First published in 1972 by Bodley Head