Listening to Stevie Davies being interviewed at the annual Writer’s Day at The Dylan Thomas Centre this May proved to be an extremely thought provoking and inspiring experience. The intensity and the seriousness with which Davies approaches her work was both infectious and plainly obvious to see. At the same time there was a real sense that she genuinely was, as it were, letting the audience behind the curtain. That she was genuinely letting everyone in on the secret of how her art is made.
This experience came back to me as I began her latest, and twelfth, novel, Awakening. Came back to me because in some ways it mirrors that interview, which had, in truth, appeared to begin a little slowly and academically. On that day it took me a few minutes to realise that it wasn’t what was being said that was a little bit dry and academic-sounding but rather myself that was being dimwitted and only half awake. In other words it takes you (or at any rate it took me), a while to acclimatise to Davies’ higher-level intensity, both as a public speaker and as a writer. Which is to say that at first it is perhaps possible to mistake her intent and to think that she is more interested in the minutiae of historical facts than in poetry and emotion.
However, to think this would truly be a grave misconception because Davies’ very subject matter is the poetry and emotion of these often ignored historical facts. She is interested in examining how things genuinely were in the past not how we are told they were in school. And the best tool, with which to go about this, besides, of course, determined historical research, is empathy. What would it feel like to be a woman given burns and enemas to flush out psychological ‘poisons’ simply because you speak your own opinions? To be sexually molested by doctors under the auspices of your own sister, a woman who burns your books and calls you hysterical if you tell the truth? These are the real histories: the histories of those people who have been not so much forgotten by history as deliberately written out of it. And, in Awakening, Davies wants to tell us what it was like to be a woman at a time when to be a woman was to have almost no public voice at all: the mid-Nineteenth Century. In order to do this, she examines the lives of two women in particular. Two sisters entwined in a damaging, symbiotic relationship, that go by the name of Beatrice and Anna Pentecost.
Davies lets the reader know right from the very beginning that this relationship is trouble:
The motherless sisters would strive silently, wielding different weapons. Beatrice, who remembered a time before Anna, would start it. From the first she’d cherished the dream of sending the usurper back where she came from, especially once she’d heard it whispered that the baby had killed Mrs Pentecost. She banged Mama’s murderer’s forehead against a window clasp, accidentally on purpose, and the telltale sign remains to this day, a curved scar between Anna’s eyebrows. Beatrice, wincing, smooths it with her fingertips. Other attacks have left further marks. Early in her life Anna mastered a knack of turning blue and toppling backwards, eyes wide but the pupils sliding upwards, mouth squared in a silent scream, not breathing.
And so their relationship repeats itself into adulthood. The Anna we meet in the first stages of the novel is the typical, sickly heroine of a Victorian novel, always weak and having to be in bed. It is as we realise that this weakness and illness is in many ways brought about by Beatrice (and by Anna’s own built in reactivity to her) that the novel really starts to get its hooks into you.
To begin with it appears as though we are in Wilkie Collins territory and that Beatrice is a kind of Sir Percival Glyde-type figure, trying to drive the Laura Fairlie-like Anna into an asylum, but as the novel progresses we see that the two sisters are each caught in a pattern of self-destruction that seemingly neither of them can escape from. Because this is far from a pastiche of a Victorian novel, Davies is too acute a psychologist for that. There are times when the reader will hate Beatrice in this novel, times indeed, when you will feel that in Beatrice, Davies has created one of the great literary monsters. However, because Davies is interested in the complexity of truth rather than historical falsification, there are times when we feel deep sorrow and even affection for Beatrice, thus enabling the creation of an extraordinarily well-realised character. Beatrice herself describes the technique Davies uses to achieve this, as she reflects on her own perception of Anna’s behaviour when their stepmother died in childbirth (the baby dying soon after):
There are times when you see into a soul. Quite nakedly. The core of a person is revealed, terrible as the pink, nude heart of a field mouse Dr Quarles exposed in vivisection.
It is Davies’ own epiphanic realisation of this nakedness and her knowledge of how to find it in her characters which marks out her quality as an artist (although, no doubt she would not use that word ‘terrible’ as emotionally thwarted Beatrice tellingly does). It is also this realisation which serves as the driving force behind the novel. Because this is what history rarely, if ever, shows: what it feels like to be alive, and how events and actions can warp and diminish and expand and do all sorts of complicated things to an individual’s consciousness.
Davies is particularly good at looking into the abused mind, first at Anna, and then at Beatrice. Anna suffers abuse from at least three different sources; from her dead step-mother Lorne Ritter, by whom, from all we can gather, she was sexually abused as a child; by the local doctor, Quarles, and his accomplice, Dr Palfrey, who manhandle her to her bedroom and poke about inside her vagina in order to release ‘the blood flow’ and bring about something called ‘hysterical paroxysm’; and of course, by her sister (who in her most chilling act, arranges for those doctors to visit Anna while she herself is away on honeymoon.)
In turn Beatrice’s abuse is more subtle. From an early age, Lorne’s brother, Christian, a preacher, takes a shine to her and asks her father, also a preacher, if he may marry her when she is old enough. Her father assents and from then on Beatrice feels that her childhood is stolen away from her because he is constantly trying to mold her into his idea of how a Christian (in both senses) wife should be. She also remembers an incident when he had bounced her up and down on his knee in a way, which while not ostensibly inappropriate, in terms of emotional atmosphere felt deeply inappropriate (Anna corroborates this by remembering it separately and by remembering how disturbing she found it to witness.) ‘Beattie hates, Beattie loathes’ is what she used to say to herself about Christian whenever she had spent time with him, a mantra made all the more unsettling when she picks it up again after they eventually marry. (Something which Christian, a master of manipulation, tricks her into doing by telling her that she accepted him when he unexpectedly embraced her. Beatrice meanwhile is sure she never agreed to any such thing.)
There is a strange duality at the heart of what happens to both Anna and Beatrice and in both cases it is caused by the Ritter siblings. Lore, having had a sexual relationship with the child Anna, dies in childbirth, leaving a baby which, before it dies, Anna takes as her own, nursing and even trying to breastfeed it. It is as though it is a product of their relationship rather than of Lore’s relationship with Anna’s father. And as such it is only a phantom and can never live. When it inevitably dies, something in Anna does so too, much as if it were her own child, and she subsequently tries to kill herself. This most forbidden of acts contributes towards Beatrice’s judgment of her sister as hysterical and morally weak, although it increasingly becomes clear that Beatrice’s attitude towards her sister is predominantly that of someone who is frightened by the truthful mirror that Anna represents.
Meanwhile the child Beatrice has by Christian also dies after a few weeks. This is particularly harsh as Beatrice adores the boy and is so filled by love for him that she begins to change as a person. When he dies Christian counsels that they should be happy because he has gone to Jesus and Beatrice thinks again, ‘Beattie hates, Beattie loathes.’ It is almost as though there is something warped and malignant about Lore and Christian, almost as though they are a virus or a poison caught up in each Pentecost sisters’ bloodstream. This is something which is underlined when we finally (not until page 274) hear Beatrice’s opinion of Lore, and learn that she thinks of her as a ‘demon’.
It is a mark of both Davies’ cunning as a novelist and of her psychological acuity that up until this moment we have largely only heard nice things about Lore because we have only really heard about her from Anna. Anna who, of course, would have been conditioned to think well of Lore by Lore herself, her abuser. It is then that we realise that both sisters’ childhoods have been stolen away by the Ritters.
As this conclusion may attest, Awakening, is a sad work but it is also a deeply moving and profound one. It is also a novel which embodies its title; a title which, as well as reflecting the books setting, (the time of Darwin, the beginnings of feminism, the time of variously oddball religious ‘awakenings’), also reflects this writer’s deep concern with personal awakenings. Indeed, much like that interview with Davies that I attended earlier in the year, you leave these pages feeling more fully conscious of yourself and the world around you than you did when you began them. What more can you ask for from a book?