Halfway through Howards End, E.M. Forster describes a certain elm tree as a living symbol of that elusive quality called Englishness. “It was neither warrior, nor lover, nor god,” Forster writes:
In none of these roles do the English excel. It was a comrade, bending over the house, strength and adventure in its roots, but in its utmost fingers tenderness. To compare either house or tree to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within limits of the human. Their message was not of eternity, but of hope on this side of the grave.
The British novelist Philip Hensher’s expansive new book, The Northern Clemency, seems at first to be steering by a quite different set of literary lights. Its coal-country setting (Sheffield: “the city that had made fire out of water”) recalls D.H. Lawrence, while a whiff of moorish bleakness harkens back to Hardy. Beneath these provincial trappings, however, Hensher has undertaken project as sophisticated – and, in its essential conservatism, as stealthily radical – as Forster’s. Tracing the lives of two families through a quarter century of recent history, The Northern Clemency aims for nothing less than an old-fashioned anatomy of regional and national character.
Hensher’s formidable technical gifts are on full display in the novel’s opening section. The plot alternates between the Glovers, who are hosting a party for their Yorkshire neighbors, and the Sellerses, late of London and soon to take up residence in the house opposite. Meanwhile, at the level of point-of-view, Hensher works a more rapid set of changes. As the party lurches toward its inglorious end, and as the Sellerses drive north, his “free indirect” third person narration flits gracefully among a host of family members and assorted hangers-on.
This canny layering of exterior and interior achieves the effect of an architectural cutaway, illuminating both solid surfaces and buried complexities. On one hand, both the Glovers and the Sellerses are typical, even representative, of their time and place. The party is “a good party, like other parties,” where the men talk “about their jobs, their cars, about the election even; the women about their children’s schools, about the cost of living, and about each other.” On the other hand, Katharine Glover and her three children, like both of the young Sellerses, hide secretive inner worlds. Timothy Glover, for example, will spend the entire party concealed behind the couch. And his sister Jane
knew all about Mrs. Arbuthnot. Under no circumstances would she tell any of these people that she, Jane, was writing a novel. Already she hated the girl, over the road, fourteen.
Hensher’s deep feeling for workaday Northern diction and syntax (“over the road”) subtly underscores the subjectivity of these private moments:
“He’ll break some hearts,” someone was saying, in another part of the room. It was Daniel Glover they were talking about. He was sixteen, lounging over the edge of the sofa, his long legs spread… He was thinking about sex, and he counted the women. Then he eliminated the unattractive ones, the ones over thirty-five, his mother and sister, no, he brought his sister back in just for the hell of it.
Leitmotifs of flowers and snakes underscore the implication: sex is at the center of our private worlds, and will soon cost these characters their gardens. Or, as a nosy neighbor puts it on the book’s first page, “There’ll be trouble with both of those boys.”
The problem with The Northern Clemency is that the promised trouble fails, by and large, to materialize. To be sure, the climax of this first section, and Katharine Glover’s fall from grace in the second, are rich with potential. But the novel is too well-tempered to let its plot complications ramify. Instead, it solves them, and in so doing, clears away the tensions that have sustained the characters’ vivid inner lives.
By the time the children reach maturity, the characters, outwardly ordinary, have become inwardly ordinary, too. Only the Glover parents and their son Daniel, the aging Don Juan, retain a spark of life, perhaps because only they properly develop. By contrast, Sonia and Francis Sellers and Jane Glover are so alike in their solitude that the connection between their individual fates and the secret injuries of their childhoods come to seem arbitrary. (Why not Jane in Australia and Sonia in London? one wonders. Why not Francis in advertising and Jane with cats?) Perhaps this arbitrariness is meant to read as philosophical fatalism, but as novelistic practice, it’s merely fatal.
As The Northern Clemency enters the Thatcher era, Hensher attempts to rally his fading characters by enlivening the novel’s social dimension. In various ways, the Glover men and the Sellers parents become entangled – or perhaps the more neutral “involved” is the right word – in the labor strikes that will lead to the privatization of the British coal industry.
But the novelist’s negative capability should extend to history, and Hensher can’t sustain his. The supporting characters who hover at the periphery of the picket-lines are virtuous or vicious in precise proportion to their support for the unions. Thus Daniel’s girlfriend’s father, a collier who doesn’t hold much truck with organized labor, is salt-of-the-earth, a secret sweetheart, while Daniel’s brother Tim, who has become a teenage activist, collapses into a shrill caricature of the pimply leftist. (His convictions arise from perceived personal slights and inadequacies. Naturally, he will grow up to become an academic.) And at this point, Hensher’s willingness to throw his characters under the ideological bus calls attention to, and starts to undermine, the classicism of his aesthetics. As a clinic on realist technique, The Northern Clemency is impressive – impressive enough, apparently, to earn a spot on the Booker shortlist and a designation as Amazon.com’s best book of 2008 – but is there anything of much urgency here?
One may wish to object, in defense of The Northern Clemency, that urgency is not the point. Like Forster, from whom he takes his epigraph, Philip Hensher understands the Englishman not as a warrior or god, but as a creature of moderation, and of limitation. To write a 600-page novel of such a comradely temperament, never straying from “the limits of the human,” is undeniably an accomplishment. Forster did temperate well, too. Still, Howards End never lost sight of its own epigraph – “Only connect…” – and beneath its every meticulous surface a deep ardor still burns. The Northern Clemency, too clement by half, rarely permits such ardor. At the risk of sounding glib, it offers too much prose, and not enough passion.