Daughters and Lovers

Free Love by Tessa Hadley. new york: harpercollins. 304 pages. $27.

The cover of Free Love

TESSA HADLEY’S NEW NOVEL, Free Love, begins in 1967 London. The book is split between Otterley, a fictional suburb of manicured houses and back gardens, and Ladbroke Grove, the site of hippie excess, progressive dropping out, and émigré professional striving. Hadley focuses on Phyllis Fischer, a forty-year-old housewife, and her fifteen-year-old daughter Colette. The attention to these two characters, as they break slowly and then all at once from the circuits of the lives expected for them, makes up the bulk of the plot. Phyllis is elegant, the well-groomed and beautifully dressed mistress of a tidy and perfectly kept Arts and Crafts house. She cooks Elizabeth David for her husband Roger, a member of the British Foreign Office, and her two children (Colette’s brother Hugh is an impish, energetic nine-year-old). In other words, Phyllis is an accumulation of all the tasteful markers of a comfortable middle-class life, from her L’Air du Temps perfume to her dithering about her garden’s “herbaceous border.” Her character is circumscribed and shaped by her set hair, her pink lipstick, her lightly adventurous evening gown, by the long back gardens and fish ponds behind respectable homes that make up the life of an Otterley wife and mother.

Colette is fifteen and not blooming, with a painful crush on her brittle, divorced English literature teacher. Clever but not ambitious, poised between childish selfishness and the rapacious desires of her developing sexuality, she is a finely observed teenage psyche: sensitive to the tiniest slights against herself and ignorant of the demands she places on others. As the novel opens, she is genteelly fretful with her parents—for inviting a strange young man to their house for dinner, for asking that she eat at the table with the adults, for putting her in a frothy pink dress for the occasion.

The meal is awkward: the guest, a twentysomething would-be writer, the son of one of Roger’s old friends from World War II, arrives late, drunk and disheveled. Nicky is a self-professed radical leftist and abrasive social critic. Roger generously tries to smooth the younger man’s rough edges, deflecting each of Nicky’s communistic parries with a mild leftism that catches his guest off guard. Colette is mortified to be included in this adult world, both anxious and bored stiff. Phyllis tries to keep the conversation buoyant, but her own irritation with Nicky unsettles her, as does his apparent indifference to her light flirtation:

She’d begun joking recently about becoming an old woman. . . . But all this cheerful resignation, she recognised now, had been a sham, mere self-deception. It hadn’t seriously oc-curred to her, in her deeper awareness, that anything had changed or must ever change; she’d taken for granted that at her core her sexual self would continue forever, a nugget of radioactive material charged with its power, irreducible.

Hadley uses the set piece of the dinner party to score out the novel’s preoccupations: the generational shift that arrives in the late 1960s, the rising dissatisfaction with the older forms of social life, the threat and promise of the sexual revolution. The party ends in a muddle, which prompts the first development in the novel. A neighbor, mother of one of Hugh’s school friends, telephones to ask Phyllis to look for her son’s lost shoe. Colette happily retreats from adulthood into the neighbor’s house, to feed their cat and binge on the neighbor girl’s Bunty comics. The house next door is also the site of Phyllis’s much more explosive escape from the limits of her comfortable life. As Phyllis and Nicky search in the dark and murky water for the missing shoe, she leans into her anxiety about her own erotic life and kisses her dinner guest. The strange concatenation of wet shoe, wobbly torches, dark garden, and hot, searching kisses feels like a perfect encapsulation of Hadley’s remarkable style.

Salomón Huerta, After Rodin (Kiss), 2019, oil on wood panel, 38 x 23".
Salomón Huerta, After Rodin (Kiss), 2019, oil on wood panel, 38 x 23".

The formula of the English novel, in her hands, feels fresh and surprising. Hadley’s brilliance lies in the way she turns close, domestic plotlines—a housewife leaving her family, a teenager entering sexual life—this way and that to show their cracks. Her interest in the tightly controlled third-person, never quite absorbed into the characters whose lives it narrates, is a kind of British realism on steroids:

Nicky drew Phyllis against him in the cold night, inside the heavy greatcoat with military brass buttons which he’d bought, apparently, for a shilling in an old clothes shop. It smelled of naphthalene from mothballs, and the rough fibres in the collar chafed in the cold night against her cheek. They kissed until they could hardly stand up, there in the public street: what did it matter, what anyone thought? Beyond where they were kissing there was only an uneven wasteland stretching away in the moonlight, part of the swathe of demolition for the road that was coming through, low walls and mounds where there must have been houses once, stunted bushes, the fluttering ends of advertisements pasted on wooden hoardings.

The shape of this passage is both familiar and strange. Like Hardy or Lawrence, Hadley uses the marks of time’s passage to push the perspective outward, into the future. The roadway the pair kiss in will become the Westway, the massive construction project that pulls people out of the middle of London into the ring of suburbs. The “low walls and mounds,” almost like archaeological sites, are evidence of the older—only barely older—England about to be buried under the motorway. Nicky, wearing a large military coat, is too young to remember the last war, and insulated from the war underway in the East. The precision in Hadley’s description of the coat—the scratching of its collar, the hovering weight of its mothball stench—produces the crystalline effect of erotic attachment: Phyllis’s life has shifted, she is standing in a desolate roadway, kissing her young lover inside his mothbally greatcoat. It is a surprising, sensorially dense bit of realism.

On the level of plot, the most surprising aspect of this novel, which at its base is the story of the sexual revolution’s longue durée, is the way Hadley’s gaze catches the slips and limits of hippie optimism. On Nicky’s distaste for the idea of a sexual mother: “He’d never made love before to a woman who’d had children, and had been squeamish in case he felt any difference; the idea of childbirth sickened him. But then, after all, he hadn’t cared about squeamishness or anything.” Later, when Phyllis describes a violent sexual affair, Nicky’s interest is piqued: “And was there any pleasure in it for you? Because some men say that women like it.” Phyllis’s response is firm: “I don’t know about other women,” and then the narration shifts to a blank, finely distanced omniscience. “Johnnie had drawn her in, and then once she’d shown that she was keen, his attitude changed and he began to hit her. For certain, from that point, there was only pain and fear.” It’s hard to tell, in this moment, if Phyllis is clear with Nicky about her feelings: Does he see that “there was only pain and fear,” does she describe that sensation? Or is this something that only we readers are privy to: Does Phyllis keep that feeling to herself in this moment of personal exposure?

I have been trying to figure out how to explain the way the novel moves through its final pages. In part, I don’t want to spoil the conclusion of the plot. But I think I have to, because what Hadley does with the logic of tragedy at the novel’s end is surprising and, I think, daringly feminist. Because Free Love isn’t a tragedy. Phyllis becomes pregnant with Nicky’s child, and Colette leaves her father’s home to make inroads into the city’s hippie culture. Phyllis’s pregnancy threatens to turn Free Love into an English Gothic along the lines of an Ian McEwan or Edward St. Aubyn novel. Colette has landed at her mother’s flat in Ladbroke Grove, where her forays into her mother’s new world become more adventurous: “When Colette got up eventually, everyone else had gone except Nicky, who was sprawled diagonally across the bed, face down, dirty bare feet sticking out of one end of a mess of sheets and blankets.” We think we know where this is going: “Experimentally before his empty gaze, Colette lifted her shirt up over her head, dropped it on the floor.” But this incestuous gothic plot, one that has been telegraphed from the novel’s first moments, when Colette opens her parents’ door to Nicky, isn’t quite the plot the novel produces. This is not a novel of intergenerational betrayal as much as it is a novel of awkward happenstance.

The book’s ending is a muted, gently bleak one: Phyllis’s future is telescoped out, and we see that her life will be not as satisfying, sexually or otherwise, as she might have hoped as she ducked out of a suburban drinks party and took the train to Nicky’s flat. Nicky’s star will continue to rise, not only because he is a talented writer, but because he is a man living in the middle of the twentieth century. Colette’s sharpness, her precision and intelligence, won’t find full flower, or won’t find it yet. And Phyllis’s genius—a social genius, at its core—remains on its small scale, again, because she is a woman and a mother, the two identities that bind her to a limited set of possibilities. She will find work to support herself and she will raise her son alone. But a life without love, or a man, or sex, however you think of it, isn’t a tragedy in this world. 

Claire Jarvis is working on a book about twentieth-century British women’s fiction.