May 11 2023
THAT LITTLE THREAD: Merryn Williams reviews a thoughtful novel by John Lucas which explores both intellectual and emotional relationships.
John Lucas is a distinguished poet, critic, essayist, founder of Shoestring Press and Professor Emeritus at the universities of Loughborough and Nottingham Trent. (He is also the subject of an interesting interview by Rory Waterman in the current issue of PN Review.) In addition to all that, Lucas is a novelist; and the hero of his newest book is, like him, an academic at a Midlands university. The title comes from the poem ‘Nevertheless’ by Marianne Moore, and it’s about fortitude, that little thread which transmits the vital sap that keeps us alive.
Fortitude is what his characters need as they unravel a tragic story from the distant past. Peter Simpson, a middle-aged happily married professor of English, is accosted on the campus by a man he met very briefly twenty years ago. We are in the 1980s, Thatcher is in power, interesting foreign restaurants are starting to appear in the cities, and Peter worries about AIDS and Section 28 because his son is gay. But we are soon carried back to the 1960s when he had a brilliant student, Beatrice, nicknamed Paddy, who withdrew from his course (although she intended to come back) and went off with an unsuitable man. Her parents were appalled, refused to accept the relationship and did not want her to be a serious scholar anyway. Indeed there is a shocking suggestion that her father might have assaulted her when she was heavily pregnant. Whatever the truth, she never returned to the university but went into premature labour and died, leaving a baby girl. Now Terry DeVine, the father of that child, has reappeared and is no longer a bit of rough but a tax adviser in a sharp suit with a fast car. His daughter has been brought up by her rich snobbish grandparents and kept well away from him. Now she is a student at her mother’s old university and he has turned up because he would like Peter to take an interest in her.
Peter feels little in common with this man and suspects that the feeling is mutual. He and his wife (who sometimes gets annoyed because his career has had to come before hers) socialise mainly with other academics, already have enough to do, and even suspect that DeVine may be after his daughter’s money. But he remembers the young woman with real regret, because she was the best student he ever had. Some readers will jump to the conclusion that he and she were romantically involved, but it wasn’t that kind of affection. ‘People looking in on the close relationship between tutor and tutee, so he told himself, could never understand that what pulled them together wasn’t attraction of the flesh but the union of intellectual passion, the mutual understanding that was its own reward’.
So Peter agrees to meet DeVine again, when he would rather be doing something else, and also sets up a brief encounter with his daughter, Pat. She turns out to look very like her mother, but she is not in need of help; she has gone to an expensive school, has all the right social skills, and is not interested in getting to know her father better.
Arguably, both father and daughter should have been strongly urged to sit down and talk but DeVine is not pushing his claims. When he and Peter meet for the last time he is about to leave for a job in Sweden, and when Peter makes an inappropriate joke about Scandinavian blondes he is furious. Paddy was his Beatrice, the one woman he loved, there never was or can conceivably be anyone else. DeVine then goes on to reveal more about his own early life which causes Peter to reconsider some of his initial opinions about the man.
‘What’s a man made for?’ DeVine asks before he leaves, and Peter wonders in what context he has heard these words before. Then he remembers that they were originally spoken by the character Pancks in Little Dorrit, a crude practical man whose days are spent rushing about on his employer’s business (The Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country), doing a useless job which he doesn’t even enjoy. In Lucas’s study of Dickens, The Melancholy Man (Methuen 1970), he argues that Pancks is one of his greatest creations. It seems possible that Paddy got her lover to read Little Dorrit in one of the evenings when they were not together and that he was perfectly capable of appreciating great art. They might have had a happy marriage if her parents had not been philistines.
It is disturbing, but probably true, that educated people underestimate the less well educated. Even in the universities there is plenty of self-importance; in Chapter 12, Lucas mentions one guest lecturer doing serious work on the Pearl poet alongside another trendy young man who talks about ‘Deconstructing the Pronoun: the Turn of the Hypallagic’.
I read this novel twice and am still learning from it. It is not so much about a human story as about class, and the life of the mind.