Is this Nothing: Elizabeth Jolley’s An Innocent Gentleman
As a comedy of manners, An Innocent Gentleman makes for a mildly humorous, and easy to read novel; a brief play which is a kind of light farce. As a commentary on the sterility of English mannered life, and as a serious work exploring issues of innocence and guilt, love and pain, and how we make meaning in our lives, the book is difficult, and disturbing, leaving the reader confused, as humour and the lightness of tone mingle with the emptiness of the characters lives, and the mingling of pettiness, desire and depravity.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Elizabeth Jolley’s The Innocent Gentleman is a disturbing novel. On a superficial level, there is no reason why it should be disturbing. The main characters, Henry and Muriel Bell, appear to be fairly normal. They have two daughters, an irritating, critical mother-in-law, and they live in a low rental, but newly built suburban estate in the English Midlands during World War Two, where they manage their privations by teaching, and skimping wherever necessary. Into their lives comes Mr Hawthorne, a wealthy, refined man, whose social graces and privileged life make him attractive to both the Bells. The outcome of Mr Hawthorne’s relationship with the Bells is not surprising, nor is the reaction to the Bells by their somewhat less educated neighbours, the Tonkinsons. Everyone behaves with reasonable discretion, there are few scenes, and life doesn’t dramatically change in any way from the contact. It is possible to feel, after finishing the book, that nothing much has happened, and perhaps this is the reason why the novel is so disturbing, because quite a lot happens; dramatic things. There are love affairs, near deaths, disappearances, a birth, and much suffering, but in the end, it all amounts to nothing. The characters are detached from themselves, watching, analysing, and even deliberately walking towards tragedy, or some form of intensity in a desperate bid to break the sleepy film that seems to cover everything in this mannered life, where even love, birth and death are governed by such strong rules of etiquette that it all seems meaningless. Or perhaps the discomfort is due to the way the narrative voice conveys the characters themselves, offering dual glimpses of a literate, well spoken couple, and their conceits, meannesses, and the smallness of their desires.
Stylistically, the novel is an interesting combination of a traditional tightly mannered, narrative which moves forward in standard timeframe, with an experimental format that mixes a Jane Austin style narrator with a tongue-in-cheek Dramatis Personae, bits of poetry, asides, repeating passages, and cited notebook jottings. From the beginning, the Dramatis Personae sets the tone of a mannered, almost Pinteresque theatre piece, with a detached sarcastic narrator, and this feeling is continued throughout the book. The small comical exchange of voices just after the Dramatis Personae, “I’ll get him! I’ll get that Mr Hilter”, but before the start of the main narrative, provides an introduction to the setting, and also a reminder that whatever realism the novel appears to have, it is not meant to be taken at face value. The “Scottish voice” doesn’t reappear, however the coarse but earnest voice of Mrs Tonkinson does, along with Henry’s muse Wordsworth, Thomas Mann, and Dostoyevski, and hints that the appearances of this book are deceptive. A number of paragraphs repeat themselves, such as “Seating himself at the piano, he rubbed his hands together”, or “he seemed to be always ahead of her, on the pavement, as if by chance”. There is also the narrator, who seems to dislike, or at least to have a condescending attitude to the two main characters, providing ironic asides such as “her own phrase”, or “Henry continued his enlightening remarks from one day to the next”, or in its reference to Mr Hawthorne’s “elevated culture”, and the “little nucleus of culture” which exists at the Bell’s home. At a certain point in the story, Henry and Muriel become the Mother and the Father, and then this changes again to the Husband and the Wife. At one point Henry is referred to as Mr H Bell, Henry (schoolmaster). This shifting of voice and person is unsettling, as it occurs after the reader has become accustomed to Henry and Muriel, and makes it seem as though the reader himself were someone else in the scheme of the story, or listening to it from another narrator. . This clash between the mannered, linear story of the Bells, and the playful, ironic, and varying narrative makes up the tension in this novel, and helps to create a feeling of “something gone wrong” in the reader.
The title of the book indicates the presence of an innocent person, and this is also ironic, since, with the possible exception of Victor, no one in this novel is innocent. Henry talks of Hawthorne’s innocence as throughout the book. The “first sight of innocence”, as he sat “handsome and noble, large in their small sitting room”, and his unblemished innocence as a lover, and then his later innocence at the turn of events, being “too kind and perlite to say no”. Hawthorne is the obvious contender for the innocent gentleman of the title, but his polite love affair with Muriel, in which he continues to play the absent object, the hopelessly “in love” spectator, enjoying Muriel’s body without commitment, even to the son he has supposedly fathered, is hardly innocent. As readers, we know very little of Mr Hawthorne. We hear some of his dialogue, and know that he is well mannered, and well dressed, but aside from his physical encounters with Muriel, Hawthorne is a limited character, existing only as a shadow board for Henry and Muriel’s stilted desires. There are hints of some other life with his assistant Morton, and the nursemaid Sarah, who he onced “loved very much”. However, we never learn more about him, or his supposedly lonely life.
Henry is a much clearer character. The narrator makes some fun of his possessive and ineffectual aspirations towards poetry, even providing the reader with a rather bad poem, contrasting sharply with the Wordsworth which precedes it. The reader is made to dislike him, as he does some decidedly unpleasant things, such as keeping a diary of his wife’s monthly cycles, a “notebook kept for Muriel’s secret inner life”, and thinking that only men could be real poets. There is also the way in which his own desire for admiration from Mr Hawthorne causes him to push his wife into a relationship with him, urging her to go to the opera, and ignoring the early warnings of an affair which later causes him distress. He calls his wife “innocent, naïve, and even a little stupid”, and treats her like a little girl, and she muses on the “generous feeling” he might have had towards small boys. There is also his sympathy with German culture, and language; his imaginings of life in a German country. Henry’s desire for “poetic truth”, along with his desperation for order, and his constant self-analysing, the narrative asides of how he would “tell Muriel later”, and his later descent into his own affairs and alcohol make him seem like an unpleasant self-conscious, and ineffectual overly pompous man. Despite the negative narrative portrait, there is also much to admire in Henry. He feeds and cares for his chlidren in the face of his pretty wife’s whims and absentmindedness, and takes on much of the responsibility for her failings, while generously putting up with her difficult mother. He does also occasionally stumble on a truth, such as his desire for Muriel to “keep the real wishes in the human heart”. There is tension between the negative and positive in Henry, and like Muriel, the reader can’t determine how to view him, as wise, caretaker, poet and father, or as irritating, vain, controlling and useless.
Muriel is also a difficult character, alternating between lovelorn heroine eager for some form of fulfilment in her “gentleman”, and the self-centred, self-indulgent femme fatal, who calls her children “brats: How irritating they were when they hung onto her clothes”, and longs for status, nice clothes, and “a school where the school orchestra played Mozart and Beethoven and Vaughan Williams”. It is difficult to see who is the real protagonist, or the “dark invisible” workman, referred to repeatedly in the Wordsworth quotes. Both Henry and Muriel seem to follow some thread of desire which originates in their minds, and in the images of what love, and art are, rather than on how they really feel.
The novel takes place during WWII, although the war itself remains merely a backdrop, with ration coupons, and German lessons, and the occasional air raid. Neither Muriel nor Henry are directly involved in any fighting, and living removed from London as they do, they are hardly aware of the damage which occurs, except for Muriel’s one episode in an air raid shelter. However the real damage of the war; the real pain, provides a balance to the smaller domestic concerns of Henry and Muriel, as Muriel realises: “She reminded herself that, in the way that she lived, her prayers, if remembered, were trivial in comparison with this prayer.” The post bomb scene of the baby having his nappy changed at the edge of the crater, with the “baby boy’s tiny penis exposed” reminds Muriel how delicate life is. This brief reminder of real life, and its fragility, compared to the desperate musings of Henry and Muriel is mirrored at the end of the novel, when Muriel sees little Leopoldi’s “reliable little penis in the open air and all the responsibility in readiness”, and nearly feels something deep, and enduring, but holds back, heading the advice of Mrs Tonkonson, masseuse, woman of “second sight”, humorous neighbour, quoter of Shakespeare, and bearer of comfort for Henry, who tells Muriel that grief will stop the baby from thriving.
Another interesting character is Victor, the poorly spoken saviour of guinea pigs, and Leopoldi. Victor’s own prayer would also render those muttered by Henry and Muriel, and the Tonkinsons as trivial. His cry of grief, as he imagines having to go back to his foster home, provides a moment of colour in this black and white tale: “His cry was like the cry of a desperate animal caught in a trap”. He is the innocent gentleman, “gentle, quick, Victor”, who, despite Muriel’s bullying, still saves her child. Of course Victor fits nowhere into this English society. He is homeless, parentless, and possessed of a missing mouth roof which renders him difficult to understand. The young Bells tell Muriel that in order to make sense of Victor, “you really have to really listen”, but who has time for listening?
So what is innocence? What is love? In a sense, the label of innocence is also a way of indicating a lack of involvement; a lack of power, and most importantly, a lack of knowledge. By not fully participating in their lives, Henry, Muriel and Hawthorn maintain their innocence, even as they are guilty of hurt, pettiness, and small minded jealousies. As a comedy of manners, An Innocent Gentleman makes for a mildly humorous, and easy to read novel; a brief play which is a kind of light farce. As a commentary on the sterility of English mannered life, and as a serious work exploring issues of innocence and guilt, love and pain, and how we make meaning in our lives, the book is difficult, and disturbing, leaving the reader confused, as humour and the lightness of tone mingle with the emptiness of the characters lives, and the mingling of pettiness, desire and depravity. The characters in this novel are too familiar, their lives too similar to our own. Jolley has created an interesting novel, which explores some difficult issues in an unusual structural form. As Henry describes the salute, that “complete faith in the wholesomeness of the continuing operations”, which he later mirrors in his wrestle with Hawthorne, we begin to see that the operations are merely show, and that under the surface, “decline has already set in”.