In Conversation | Tessa Hadley

In Conversation | Tessa Hadley


The Wales Arts Review was at the recent Rhys Davies Conference at Swansea University, where the past, present and future of the short story form was discussed by a number of distinguished speakers. Managing Editor Phil Morris caught up with Tessa Hadley to talk about her latest novel Clever Girl.

Phil Morris: Clever Girl began life as two short stories first published in The New Yorker magazine. Did these short stories come to you as individual works before you began to envisage them as part of a larger novel?

Tessa Hadley: Only the first one really, and I think even as I was writing it – I had it in my note books for a while – I knew that this short story was possibly just one story from the beginning of an entire life.  I wasn’t quite sure until it was published, and then I thought well okay that’s worked so I’ll try another one and another one until…

That first story ‘Honour’ became the opening chapter of Clever Girl, and it seems to me that, even though the main character of the novel is a peripheral figure at that stage, ‘Honour’ is the emotional heart of everything that happens in Clever Girl.

Do you mean the notion of ‘honour’ or that story?

Well both. The story is about the hidden, untold history of women in the pre-feminist era. Was that something you were trying to do, something you were consciously trying to explore?

I was. I put that lovely epigraph from Charlotte Lennox, taken from The Female Quixote, at the beginning of the novel:

The word adventure carries in it so free and licentious a sound… that it can hardly with propriety be applied to those few and natural incidents which compose the history of a woman of honour.

In fact, my original chapters had titles like honour, fraternity and other chivalric concepts which have almost always previously applied to the masculine sphere of warriors and tests of courage. I wanted to lift all those masculine things and test them out on women’s rather ordinarily seeming lives. I wanted to apply a new vocabulary to those expectations of domesticity, marriage and children that defined the lives of women in the 1950s, which is when my novel begins. Stella, my main character is a bit of a warrior and she has her weapons.

You give women’s lives – before and after feminism – a form of dignity. You resist the temptation to say that women’s lives only became important after feminism and wipe away everything before it. You seem to be saying in Clever Girl that we should embrace feminism and its lessons, but that there was this whole realm of female experience that preceded it and that should be recognised and valued.

Absolutely. I hate that sort of ‘presentism’ by which we somehow think that everyone lived benightedly until very recently, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. I rather think we live rather benightedly even now. So yes, those millennia of women’s lives prior to feminism were not some kind of antechamber to the modern woman, of course not.  And yes. I wanted to give those past lives honour and dignity. It wasn’t always that great being a man, who most often worked in a factory or in some tedious clerical job. Being at home and having children was every bit a significant adventure as what most men did.

At what point did you decide in your initial short story – which very much belongs to Aunt Andy and her child – that your narrator Stella would become the central figure of what eventually became a novel?

I don’t know. At some point, while I was writing that story, I remember going for a walk, and often – you’ll know this – when you’re writing a novel, some of the really big strong outlines of the whole book can all come to you very quickly. You don’t painstakingly win each bit. The large arc of the story can come to you rather dreamily and quickly, and all at once. So I got the rest of Stella’s life quite early on. I knew she’d have these two sons, and I first thought that their stories would be much bigger later on in the book but that isn’t how it turned out.  I knew she’d have two sons and an early relationship with a man who was gay. I knew she’d have a pregnancy that derailed. I got all of that rather quickly.

Stella is very resilient. That seems to be a quality she possesses even in early childhood, from that first chapter.

Yes, she is rather admirable. It was funny to write a story in the first person about someone I admired, but I rather did admire her a lot. She’s not like me.

There was criticism in some quarters that Stella is unlikable, but I don’t understand that…


For a first person narrator she is honest as she can be.

Yes, well maybe honesty is not always likeable, but that’s fine.

I also liked her lack of sentimentality. There was always that danger, given her circumstances – the children and the tragedies that happen to her – I kept waiting for her to soften or to learn. But she doesn’t. She simply adapts and endures. That’s her wisdom.

Stella loves her children – that’s obvious – but she couldn’t be written with sentimentality because that’s false. If you want to be a woman loving your children passionately you try and keep sentimentality out of it, because you want to do better than that. If you want to be a writer writing about a woman loving her children the same thing applies.

One of my favourite passages in Clever Girl is when Stella goes on one of those midnight runs, when she just gets in the car and drives away, leaving her children with a friend.

Yes I never actually did that myself, but I rather envy it. It seems like a good idea to me.

It seems like a necessary break, when she is able to reclaim a tiny piece of her life back for herself away from the demands and needs of her children

Yes, and it was fun exploring that archetypal crisis of motherhood in the 1970s, when everything was so up for grabs – social arrangements were in flux. Stella is caught between the rigidity of the lives of her mother and grandmother and the unknown. So when you she runs away and throws everything up in the air – she doesn’t know how it will all come down. I wanted to explore experiments with living – like the commune – those new modes were tremendously liberating and terrifying, even a bit dizzying. You’re meant to feel in my book that some cost came with those choices. My sense is that Stella engages in a risky kind of parenting, her two boys do have to pay for that in some way…

Nicky’s son seems to, certainly.

Yes he does, or does he? He may have become who he became regardless of Stella choices, you never know do you? Parents do this analysis, and say it was because of this or that my children turned out the way they did. And certainly children are sometimes ready to seize a narrative in which their parents are at fault. But I wouldn’t want to make too much of her being irresponsible as a mother because in another sense I thought she was heroic. The book was following those women’s experiments that were of an era …

It explores different formulations of family. Stella seems to go through all these different kind of phases that seem appropriate to her at a particular time in her life, until she finally settles on something that seems to work for her.

I kept thinking of what would ultimately happen to her. Endings are so often read as a form of verdict on a novelist’s characters. So was she going to end up single? That would be a proud thing. Who says a book has to end in a marriage, in a coupling, in a match?

And what’s interesting is that there is something in Stella’s relationship with Mac that still needs to be worked out even at the end of the novel. Her final action is to take control of the family car and drive off. That seems to be important…

It is. She’s still renegotiating the terrain of that relationship, as we all do, – that’s probably not even modern – I mean throughout history, within all those rigid old frames, people have been endlessly in the dark renegotiating how they are together, and how power is arranged. And yes that’s Stella’s situation at the end.

She seems to make decisions that appear to set the course of the rest of her life, and then reverses them. For example, at one point she chooses books over men – she goes into higher education and plots a career in academia only to drop out of her PhD and become an occupational health therapist. There has been criticism of the novel about that change of heart.

Yes. What’s wrong with occupational therapy?

Well, literature is such a source of such joy for Stella.

But she is still reading at the end. She just doesn’t want to be an academic.

Because the academic life was kind of joyless for her.

It’s sterile – or, at least it seems so to her. What I was thinking about intensely when I wrote that section was D.H. Lawrence’s wonderful bits in The Rainbow. Ursula Brangwyn goes to college to study and, at first she’s entranced by these priests of knowledge. She thinks she’s entered this temple of learning, only she eventually comes to see through it and she thinks well this isn’t where life is. Well this is what I felt where Stella and I are alike. I thought there was something ersatz and unfeeding and unnourishing about the academic life. Perhaps I didn’t give enough room in Clever Girl to explaining why and how that happened. I did it quickly, in passing. I suspect that her decision to leave her postgrad studies needed more filling out – it came in an extraordinarily packed chapter with an incredible amount of life in it. I wanted to expand on her decision but there was only so much room inside of that chapter.

Well, for me, you deal with that aspect of Stella’s life in the final chapter, in the climactic scene between her and her old boyfriend Valentine. We learn that he has pursued this life of the mind, to the exclusion of all else, only to end up in a state of mental fragmentation and collapse.  Whereas Stella enjoys literature and values her education, but she’s had to accommodate these disasters in her life, and her children, and so has come to value something other than her intelligence. Her life experience is extended beyond abstractions.

Yes, you’re right. I did deal with it there.

At one point Stella says she was ‘bored by Julie Kristeva’.

Oh that was a mean little thing of mine to put in, wasn’t it?

Does that come from you?

I find that mandarin French critical prose of hers pretty irritating. And I find there is a genuine contradiction – where there’s meant to be a fascinating paradox, I just find it contradictory – that her great protest against male exclusive languages shutting out women, is itself written in the most exclusive academic language, which shuts out all except a tiny elite who are able to understand it. And I think that her argument about women’ language being some sort of primary babbling pre-language, and male language coming in as a phallocentric language of power, is wrong, deeply wrong. Language is not inherently phallocentric, it belongs to women too. It is common human property

I want to ask you about ‘cleverness’ what do you think cleverness is? Why did you call the novel Clever Girl?

It’s such a delicious phrase isn’t it – Clever Girl? I think Stella is intelligent, but being a clever girl is something that is a difficult role for her to negotiate.

Especially at that time.

She’s this clever girl whose wits are going to take her to university and beyond and then her biology intervenes. So what will she do with this cleverness? What use will she put it to? Her mother keeps saying just you wait, you’ll learn, and she replies, ‘I don’t want to learn, I don’t want to know what you know’.

And it’s funny, because her mother doesn’t know much – she’s so wrong about many other things – but she does know the extent to which Stella’s biology will play a part in her life and her choices. I found that idea very interesting, not that you ever back away from the achievements of feminism, but you write in a compelling and convincing manner about how the physio-psychological make-up of women can’t be fitted neatly within abstract or academic theories. Life doesn’t work like that. I think that’s quite a brave thing to do really. Reading the chapter in which a prepubescent Stella apprehends that she has greater intellectual capacity than her stepfather – she’s worked out a maths problem that he can’t – it seems like such a huge turning point and that she will go onto discover a cure for cancer or something. But her cleverness does not become a conventional pathway out for her.

Yes it is often useless to her, right? She has to find other things in herself apart from cleverness.

Do you think that’s also true of writing?

Tessa: Well cleverness is a real thing and sometimes you can feel your brain working in a certain way, overcoming difficulties, coming up with smart ideas. But cleverness is also equivocal; it can mean something cheap and tricksy as well.

You respect it and nurture it but at the same time are somewhat suspicious of it.

Because there’s something much bigger that you also have to get out on the page…

And because cleverness might not ready you for the challenges you’re going to have to face at some point in your career or, indeed, your life. What is it within Stella that you think enables her to withstand the blows she sometimes has to endure?

Oh that’s a good question. What it comes down to for me is discipline. What I really respect in Stella is her hard ferocity – a ferocity that emerges out of her rage against her family and the world. After Valentine just abandons her, and there’s this baby for her to look after, she has to become a fighter. And oddly, she expresses this fighting quality in her work as a domestic servant. ‘Servitude’ was going to be another of my chapter headings along with ‘Honour’. That period when Stella works in the school, when she’s subordinate and labouring and cleaning, becomes immensely important for her.

Paradoxically her servitude becomes empowering for her. She finds that she is able to withstand the rigours of hard work, and that she can survive even when she is deeply unhappy.

I think it’s an ability that quite a few women have – to live with unhappiness from day to day.

I saw that with my grandmother, she was one of those hard-grafting and stoical working-class women. I learned so much about discipline and having a work ethic from her, and how work can protect you during those times when everything is shifting around you, both in life and the wider world.

That’s such a deep truth to which women often have ready access because traditionally only certain kinds of work have been designated for them.

Your writing has a strong sensual quality to it – you’re very good on tastes and smells, particularly the smells of people – which don’t often get written about. Is that keen appreciation of sensuality something you you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve taken from your literary influences?

I think that’s me. But the writers I love best, like Elizabeth Bowen, are great at rendering physical and sensual presence. I’ve always admired literature that captures presence, because I find the presence of people to be so powerful and so important.

That’s what ensures that your work does not feel limited to the domestic sphere or the parochial setting of lower and middle-middle class life. There is always something darker, animal, even primitive, that lurks beneath the surfaces of your characters. I wanted to ask you about the influence of Alice Munro, is that something you’re conscious of?

Very much so, especially earlier in my career. Although I think her influence on me is less discernible now than it was. I notice how plain her prose is, I love her prose it’s extraordinary, it’s very, very austere and yet relaxed. And I think I write a slightly more wound up prose than her, though, I hope it’s not too wound up.

We’re here at the Rhys Davies Conference, so I wanted to ask you a few questions about the short story form. I wondered why there were no American writers in your Top 10 list printed in The Guardian earlier this week. Why no Carver? And where is Cheever?

And there’s only one English writer, I think I’m right.

Yes, DH Lawrence, which I was very happy about because I think he’s strangely under-rated now.

Coming back in I think.

And long overdue…

I thought about including Updike, he would have been my American. I find Carver sentimental.

Really? I find that an odd choice of word to describe his work.

It’s there under that hardboiled surface. I once did a practical class exercise where I looked at a Pat Barker story from Union Street and contrasted it with one of Carver’s – and I said, look I can turn this Pat Barker story into a Carver story if I simply take out all of the expressions of where everybody feels anything. And it worked. I did put Eudora Welty in my list – you said there were no American writers in it!

You did, I stand corrected, and Welty is a great choice. The name of Chekhov has come up regularly throughout this conference. He’s like this touchstone for the form, cited as a huge influence, but you can’t imitate him. A Chekhov story is almost like a magician’s trick, you reach the end and want to say, ‘I’m sorry, but could you show me just how that works again’?

He breaks all the rules. I love finding in Chekhov those paragraphs where he moves the point of view around all the different subjectivities.

Are there any young and upcoming writers that you have got your eye on as one to watch – perhaps someone you feel is currently underrated?

Well there’s Claire Keegan, but I don’t know that she’s underrated she just doesn’t write enough, for her fans to enjoy. She’s marvellous.

How do you conceive of yourself as a writer – a short story writer who writes novels or a novelist who writes short stories?


How do you know whether you are writing a novel or a short story?

The story matter feels very different in each case, at times a story feels like something that must be dealt with in one go, in other cases you have a sense that you are charting a great map. It’s certainly more pleasurable for me to write short stories, but it would be very hard to make a living as a short story writer alone, so there is that to consider.

Do you think the craft of short story writing is respected enough in Britain?

There aren’t as many outlets in this country as there are in America for sure. Respected? I don’t know. Some people seem to love them.

I find that, as a reader, short stories seem to live within me much longer than most novels.

People do love them but we are in a small group and I think there’s no point in bewailing that.



Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl is published by Jonathan Cape

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis