Play Houses: Alasdair Gray, Poor Things and A History Maker. Part 1

[This is my belated contribution to Gray Day 2022, which took place last Friday, 25 February. Today is World Book Day, which also seems appropriate, since Poor Things is an embodiment of the delight in books. What follows is the first of two posts; the second will appear later in March.]


The 1990s: a rich decade for fantasy, and a suitable subject for mixed metaphors. The new millennium, that phantom barrier between the twentieth century and an unforeseeable future, was flinging out a backwash of apocalyptic premonitions, from the Millennium Bug to the End of the Civilised World. The Cold War had abruptly come to an end, and the hunt for a new enemy of late capitalism was in full cry. Not surprisingly, fantasy literature stood on the brink of reinvigoration. His Dark Materials and Harry Potter were bubbling away in the soup of their creators’ brains. The New Weird was stirring its tentacles, and a league of brilliant women from Pamela Dean and Robin Hobb to Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Terry Windling and Jane Yolen were rapidly remaking the fantastic along new-old lines, while male fantasy authors too (Gregory Maguire, Geoff Ryman, Michael Swanwick as well as Pullman) found themselves reimagining the power dynamic between women, men and others in response. An end and a beginning: the 1990s.

As brilliant as any of these male authors was the Scottish writer-artist Alasdair Gray, who had made his name with the publication of Lanark in 1981. The 1990s saw the publication of his finest novel, Poor Things (1992), and a novella called A History Maker (1994), both of which could be described as science fiction, as well as the novels Something Leather (1990), McGrotty and Ludmilla (1990), Mavis Belfrage (1996) and the short story collection Ten Tales Tall and True (1993). All these texts gave a prominent place to women, and to the sense that the experience of women at the end of the twentieth century was undergoing a transformation. Poor Things did this by examining the last two decades of the nineteenth century as a parallel moment in the history of women’s experiences, as well as of socialism and industrial capitalism. A History Maker did it by examining a moment of near-revolution against a worldwide matriarchy two centuries or so in the future. Between them, the two books suggest a pair of parentheses bracketing the calamitous twentieth century – the Century of War, as Doris Lessing calls it in Shikasta (1979). For Gray, women were stationed at the points of arrival and departure of the century, and throughout the century had always offered the best hope for a turn towards a better tomorrow.

A History Maker came out two years after Poor Things, and can be read as a witty appendix to that book. The novella feeds parasitically on the novel, replicating its form and some of its content while also performing ingenious acts of reversal and inversion on both. As if to reinforce the association with appendices, exactly a third of A History Maker is made up of notes and a postscript, parasitically feeding on the lifeblood of the ‘central’ narrative. Poor Things, too, has a hypertrophied paratext, its introduction, notes and postscript hollowing out the central narrative’s intestines from within, so to speak, like the segments of a hungry tapeworm. To understand A History Maker, then, we need to start with a consideration of Poor Things; while understanding Poor Things benefits from setting it alongside what might be loosely termed its sequel. Taken together, these books represent Gray’s meditation on the end of an era: the close of the twentieth century, the termination of the twentieth-century version of the socialist dream as embodied in the Soviet Union, the seeming lull after a period of global warfare which had extended from 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Both books, too, are about parasitism of various kinds, above all in the form of complicity, and in particular the complicity to which all citizens of the First World are inevitably doomed by virtue of their location within an increasingly unbalanced global economy. So Poor Things is where I’ll begin in this post, before moving on in a second post to its neglected younger sibling. And afterwards I’ll move on again, to their status as representations of beginnings.

Poor Things consists of a series of backward glances, each provided by one of its myriad narrators and commentators. The central narrative, as written by the Public Health Officer Archibald McCandless, looks back on the events of the last decade of the nineteenth century from 1911, when he bequeaths his memoirs to his wife just before his death. McCandless’s memoirs are then ‘edited’ in 1990 or so, under the title Poor Things, by an irascible version of Alasdair Gray himself, who looks back in his introduction to the 1970s when the manuscript was first ‘discovered’ by Michael Donnelly, co-curator with Elspeth King of the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow. Along with the memoirs themselves, Gray reproduces a letter from Victoria McCandless, Archibald’s wife, written in 1914 when she first read them after the death of her husband in 1911. Gray also adds notes incorporating various documents such as a letter from 1945, in which Victoria celebrates the election of a Labour Government as the beginning of a new epoch of social justice in the United Kingdom. The novel, in other words, is an elaborate exercise in reminiscence, so that even the hopes and political ambitions articulated by the forward-thinking Victoria McCandless are strongly tinged with nostalgia for the more committed, less irony-tainted epoch in which her life began.

Irony, however, pervades the narrative, because these successive backward glances expose the past century of human existence as a complex tissue of fabrications. Victoria insists, for instance, that Archibald’s account of their first meeting and her subsequent adventures is not just fictional but fantastic, implying as it does that Victoria herself was assembled from parts of different human beings according to the ‘Frankenstein method’ by an eccentric surgeon called Godwin Baxter (p. 274). Archibald confected this alternative origin story for his busy wife, she suspects, both to grab her attention and to coerce her into co-authoring his book by issuing some sort of denial or correction, either in her thoughts or in a covering letter of the kind we are given by the editor before the notes. But the reader knows that Victoria’s vision of a socialist future – as expressed in her later letter of 1945 – is also a fantasy, since Poor Things was first published in 1992, after twelve years of Tory rule during which social justice was for the most part conspicuous by its absence. And Victoria’s letter of 1914 shows that her socialist dreams were fantastic then, too, since she predicts that the Great War will be averted by the workers of Great Britain by means of a General Strike. Victoria’s first name, meanwhile, identifies her brand of socialism as a product of the nineteenth century, and the endurance of her and her name into the mid-century (she died, we’re told, soon after writing that letter about the election of the Labour government) symbolises the continuing legacy of Victorian cultural attitudes into the middle of the twentieth century – and beyond, thanks to the publication of the manuscript by its ‘editor’, Gray.

The batters of Poor Things, adorned with a thistle motif and a Gray proverb

Victorianism itself, meanwhile, is described by Victoria as an ornate fantasy, best understood through its embodiment in such ‘sham-gothic’ buildings as ‘the Scott Monument [in Edinburgh], Glasgow University, St. Pancras Station and the Houses of Parliament’ (p. 275). The ‘useless over-ornamentation’ of these buildings, she claims, ‘was paid for out of needlessly high profits: profits squeezed from the stunted lives of children, women and men working more than twelve hours a day, six days a week in NEEDLESSLY filthy factories; for by the nineteenth century we had the knowledge to make things cleanly’. And for Victoria, her husband’s memoir is as sham-gothic and hence as needless as any of these extravagant works of architecture. Archibald paid a high price for it to be printed in a single copy, illustrated with etchings by the well-known artist William Strang, so it is over-ornate and expensive. The first edition of Poor Things, too, with its dustjacket sporting mock reviews by made-up magazines and newspapers, its hardback covers or ‘batters’ stamped with a silver thistle motif and Gray’s personal motto, its typeface and page design both created by Gray himself, and its many illustrations, some of which have been purloined from Victorian publications while others are misattributed to Strang (in fact Gray did them), must have been hugely expensive for the publishers Bloomsbury to produce. Poor Things, then, looks backward in its ornate aesthetics and the economics that drive them as well as in its narrative and commentary. The fictionalised memoir it contains is parasitic on the working classes, because Archibald’s late-life prosperity depended on their labour, which made possible the investments on which he drew to support his ‘idle, dreamy[,] fantastical’ middle-class existence, as Victoria tells us (pp. 251-2). And it is doubly parasitic on Victoria McCandless, whose life story Archibald falsified to produce his memoir, and whose notes Alasdair Gray purloined to create his book.

18 Park Circus, Glasgow

The Gothicism of Poor Things is of the domestic variety. It uses the household as a synecdoche for society, instead of the monumental public buildings listed by Victoria. In this it recalls the great Gothic novels of the period in which it’s set, from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde (largely set in a doctor’s house) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (set in a fashionable London townhouse with a large attic) and Dracula (which is all about real estate). It focuses on the house of the surgeon Godwin Baxter, where he either builds a woman in his father’s private laboratory (p. 33) or nurses her back to health, depending on whose version of the story you choose to accept – Archibald’s or Victoria’s. Victoria tells us she grew up in needless poverty in a cramped apartment before marrying an abusive husband, fleeing from his London house and being offered shelter and support in the Glasgow mansion of Godwin Baxter. Archibald tells us she committed suicide in the Clyde, when pregnant, and was afterwards restored to life through the grotesque process of implanting her unborn baby’s brain in her skull – the resulting adult/infant hybrid being christened Bella Baxter. In both versions of her life story, Godwin’s house provides Victoria/Bella with intellectual stimulus as well as shelter: through the personal example set by its various inhabitants, through the political and medical instruction it provides, and through its architectural and economic organisation. The medical instruction comes from Godwin’s knowledge, books, instruments and conversation, while the political and economic instruction is provided by a ‘big doll’s house’ modelled on the house itself, which is present in both Archibald’s (p. 28) and Victoria’s versions.

‘See me open the hinged front of this big doll’s house and fold it back,’ Godwin tells Victoria in her version of her life story:

‘This is a type of house you will find by thousands in British cities, by hundreds in the towns, and tens in the villages. […] The servants live mostly in the basement and attics: the coldest and most crowded floors with the smallest rooms. Their body heat, while they sleep, keeps their employers in the central floors more snug. This little female doll in the kitchen is a scullery-maid who will also do rough laundry work, scrubbing and mangling the clothes. She will have plenty of hot water to use if her master or mistress is generous, and may not be overworked if the servants set over her are kind, but we live in an age when thrift and hard competition are proclaimed as the foundations of the state, so if she is meanly and cruelly used nobody will remark upon it. Now look into the parlour on the first floor. Here is a piano with another little female doll sitting at it. If her dress and hair-style were changed for the scullery-maid’s she might be the same girl, but that will not happen. She is probably trying to play Beethoven’s Für Elise without a wrong note – her parents want her one day to attract a rich husband who will use her as a social ornament and breeder of his children. Tell me, Bella, what the scullery-maid and the master’s daughter have in common, apart from their similar ages and bodies and this house.’

‘Both are used by other people,’ I said. ‘They are allowed to decide nothing for themselves.’ [pp. 262-3]

For Godwin, the house is a machine designed to replicate the Victorian class system. Its human inhabitants, represented by the models of the two young girls, have been slotted into their domestic places – each attached to an instrument they must master, the mangle and the piano – like components of the machine, their bodily energy contributing to the smooth functioning of the house and of the hegemony of which it is part. The scullery-maid is an integral part of the house’s heating and cleaning system, the piano-playing girl the inert guarantor of her class’s continued ascendancy. The girls represented by the dolls are as much ‘things’ as the dolls that represent them.

Bella/Victoria as the embodiment of Bella Caledonia, Bonnie Scotland

Victoria herself is often treated as a doll-like ‘thing’ in Poor Things. Her life is manipulated by her husband Archibald McCandless as grist for his fantastical mill; even the words she utters are reported by him as half-understood fragments, representative of the gradual assembly of her mind over time after the swifter assembly of her body by the surgeon Baxter. Archibald accuses Baxter of constructing Victoria/Bella for his own sexual gratification (pp. 36-7), so she is twice a ‘thing’ from his point of view – as a woman driven to suicide by one man (her first husband) and intended as a plaything by another (Godwin). Archibald also hints that Baxter is a ‘thing’ constructed by his surgeon father, and that Bella/Victoria’s abusive first husband – when he shows up to claim her – is a ‘thing’ reassembled by surgeons after repeated damage inflicted by acts of violence in his military career. Even Archibald is a ‘thing’, a self-made man who has been awkwardly put together from ill-fitting parts: a neglectful farm servant mother, an absent landowner father, clothes paid for by an unknown benefactor, a regional accent that sounds out of place in the gentlemen’s club of the medical faculty at the Victorian University of Glasgow. All the people in the book are ‘things’, their status as mostly damaged or defective mechanisms reinforced by the images from Gray’s Anatomy scattered through the text, each carefully placed at a point in the narrative when the portion of the body shown in the picture (nose, tongue, brain, genitals, pelvis) comes briefly to the fore in the narrative.

Illustration from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

The thing-ness of Poor Thing’s characters – their resemblance to dolls – is compounded by their affinity with the people who for the most part play with dolls – young children. Nearly all retain childish traits, and nearly all have had damaging childhoods. This is most obvious in Archibald’s version of Bella/Victoria, a grown woman with the transplanted brain of her own baby, who greets everything and everybody with surprise, delight and curiosity. But her supposed maker Godwin Baxter, too, though vast and powerful in stature, resembles a baby in his physical proportions. When Archibald first meets him he notes this resemblance at once: ‘Despite the ogreish body he had the wide hopeful eyes, snub nose and mournful mouth of an anxious infant’ (p. 12); and when he later spots him at a distance on the hills he tells us: ‘I saw what seemed a two-year-old child with a tiny puppy approaching from the Cambuslang side’, which on closer approach turns out to be Baxter ‘accompanied by a huge Newfoundland dog’ (p. 16); his powerful voice has the shrillness of a baby’s, and the hand he holds out to Archibald in friendship is so unusual that Archibald cannot bear to shake it:

The hand I intended to grasp was not to so much square as cubical, nearly as thick as broad, with huge thick first knuckles from which the fingers tapered so steeply to babyish tips with rosy wee nails that they seemed conical. A cold grue went through me – I was unable to touch such a hand. [p. 25]

Baxter’s neglected childhood and lonely adulthood, as the illegitimate and ugly son of an eminent scientist, makes his mind childishly needy too, in its longing for an unprejudiced companion who will not be disconcerted by his strange appearance; this longing, perhaps, is what suggests to Archibald that he may be another Frankenstein’s creature, constructed in his father’s laboratory, then abandoned to the whims of the world. But Archibald, too, is childish in his quest for a father figure he never had (which he finds in Godwin) and a loving, powerful woman to replace his less than loving mother (whom he finds in Bella/Victoria). He is constantly harking back to his boyhood in rural Galloway, as when he ascribes his lack of sexual hang-ups to growing up on a farm, or informs Victoria/Bella of his fighting prowess, having proved his courage ‘in the playground of Whauphill School’ (p. 63). The dustjacket of the book’s first edition shows him cuddling Bella, who is cuddling Godwin, who sits facing out of the picture, huge and implacable, with his baby’s hand planted on his knee: three children clinging together in the face of a hostile world.

Victoria/Bella’s abusive first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, is a child too. The offspring of abusive parents and an abusive education system, who continues to seek out abuse in the brothels of Europe as an anonymous masked client by the name of Monsieur Spankybot, who likes to pose ‘first […] as a baby, then as a little lad on his first night in a new boarding-school’ (p. 181). Even Victoria/Bella’s lover, Duncan Wedderburn – the man with whom she elopes to seek adventure and travel the world – is still devoted to his mother and the female servants who raised him, returning to them after the tour to resume his role as the spoiled child of the household. These men’s damaged childhoods are lodged inside them, unnurtured and underdeveloped, rendering them as fixed and helpless and eternally infantile as the dolls in the instructive doll’s house in Baxter’s living room. The doll theme continues in Victoria’s notes at the end of the book, where she describes the soldiers about to leave for the Great War as ‘young men marching in regular rows, each imitating the stiff movements of a clockwork doll’ (p. 253). Victoria herself claims to have been educated by nuns in a Swiss convent school ‘to be a rich man’s domestic toy’ (pp. 258-9) – though her subsequent education at Baxter’s hands has since liberated her from doll-like rigidity and silence. Stocked from end to end with dolls, Victorian Britain would seem to be populated by several generations of male and female citizens in various states of arrested development.

The continuing childishness of all these characters has the effect of stressing the importance of the home environment in fashioning a healthy adult mind and body. For Godwin Baxter, the need for good housing in wholesome surroundings is paramount. To Archibald he expresses the opinion that all social ills could be healed by three key elements: ‘Sunlight, cleanliness and exercise, McCandless! Fresh air, pure water, a good diet and clean roomy houses for everyone’ (p. 24). A little later he diagnoses the mental illness running rife in Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the effect of ‘an epidemic brain fever which, like typhoid, was perhaps caused by seepings from the palace graveyard into the Elsinore water supply’, and goes on to explain how he would have treated it as the family’s physician:

I imagined myself entering the palace quite early in the drama with all the executive powers of an efficient public health officer. The main carriers of the disease (Claudius, Polonius and the obviously incurable Hamlet) would be quarantined in separate wards. A fresh water supply and efficient modern plumbing would soon set the Danish state right and Ophelia, seeing this gruff Scottish doctor pointing her people toward a clean and healthy future, would be powerless to withhold her love. (p. 40)

In Godwin’s version of Hamlet the diseases of the state, which originate in the Danish royal palace, could be eradicated at once by putting in place the infrastructure that makes pure water and clean houses available to everyone – an infrastructure of the kind installed in Glasgow in the 1850s, and commemorated by the erection of the Stewart Memorial Fountain in Kelvingrove Park immediately below Godwin’s dwelling in Park Circus, where Archibald first kisses Bella/Victoria. What Godwin omits, however, from his list of essentials for a nurturing home environment, is affection; the sort of affection he dreams of obtaining from Ophelia in this passage, and which he lavishes on and receives back from that other unfortunate drowned woman, Bella/Victoria. In both versions of her life story, affection in the domestic context is more crucial than cleanliness and shelter to her wellbeing, and it’s affection (or what she calls ‘cuddling’) that she puts at the centre of her own medical philosophy when she trains as a doctor and puts her skills at the service of the city that (re)made her.

Thanks, in fact, to the domestic affection with which she is surrounded – the affection of Godwin’s many dogs as well as the people in his household – Bella/Victoria is the only person in the book whose inner childishness is allowed to grow to a healthy maturity, unstunted by neglect or arbitrary boundaries. In Archibald’s version of the narrative, the baby’s mind which has been surgically transplanted into her adult body develops rapidly under the tuition of the free-thinking Godwin (whose name, of course, recalls the great anarchist thinker, Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin). With his support, she encounters the world with fresh pleasure and bright new ideas at every stage of her preternaturally rapid mental maturation. In Victoria’s version, her complex childhood is what gives her an unusually clear understanding of how the world works before Godwin’s affection (along with his schooling in medicine and politics) completes the process. This version of her life story tells how she was raised by a hard-working mother in a Manchester slum, then transplanted to a sumptuous house by her newly-wealthy father before being transplanted again to a Swiss convent school and afterwards to the London house of an ice-cold military husband. From London she escaped to the Glasgow house of the friendly surgeon who had treated her for sexual hysteria on her husband’s orders. By this time she had witnessed both extreme poverty and excessive wealth, both the religious discipline of religious women and the martial discipline of aristocratic men, both the Manchester slums and the mountains of Switzerland, the elegant streets of central London and the splendid suburbs of industrial Glasgow. Five households made her – if you include the convent school – each with its economic and emotional peculiarities, most strikingly the profound interdependencies each entails between the house’s owners and their employees.

Each of Bella/Victoria’s households, in fact, fosters close sexual and cultural relations between social classes which are supposed to live in strict segregation from each other. Her father grows wealthy while leaving his wife to live in poverty, like a servant, before transferring her to a grand house in which she feels useless. There is a strong suggestion that the father has been having an affair with the housekeeper of that house, since she wears ‘a brighter dress than worn by housekeepers I met in later years’, as Victoria notes (p. 257), while her father observes that the woman has taught him ‘a few new tricks’ (p. 258). Later, Victoria’s soldier husband gets a young servant pregnant through the sexual attentions he denies his wife (the girl is afterwards sacked); while Godwin Baxter’s household includes another servant who had her master’s child: Godwin’s mother, Mrs Dinwiddie. As we’ve seen, Archibald is the child of a servant who slept with her master, while Duncan Wedderburn got his erotic education at the hands of a servant in his household named Auld Jessy. If the female dolls of different classes in Godwin’s doll’s house can be readily exchanged for one another, they closely match the experiences of the women in Victoria/Bella’s households, the bulk of whom are treated by men like servants – providing labour for inadequate wages, no matter what their class. Victoria’s understanding of the class system stems from her position as a woman who has first-hand experience of its operation through the set-ups of the houses she has lived in, which served as real-life equivalents of the doll’s house.

When Godwin opens up the front of that doll’s house, then, he could be said to open up her world, much as an expert anatomist (like the author of Gray’s Anatomy, from which so many of the book’s illustrations have been taken) opens up a corpse to show its inner workings. The beginning and end of Archibald’s narrative take place in Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), in the West End of Glasgow. But the house also anchors the middle section of the narrative, which moves away from Glasgow but never leaves it behind.

More illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy in Poor Things

Bella/Victoria’s travels are described in two letters delivered to the Park Circus address, the first from her lover Duncan Wedderburn, the second from herself. The letters are opened and read aloud by Godwin to Archibald in Godwin’s living room, to which the narrative returns us often as the two readers exchange observations before moving on. The formal properties of these letters – some in verse, the rest in prose, distinguished visually from the rest of the novel by being printed in italics – mark them out as created objects or ‘things’ which will eventually find a place for themselves among Godwin’s domestic possessions. The middle part of Bella/Victoria’s letter is even reproduced in her handwriting, ‘printed by a photogravure process which exactly reproduces the blurring caused by tear stains, but does not show the pressure of pen strokes which often ripped right through the paper’ (p. 144). We are never allowed to forget the materiality of these epistolary travelogues, and their Glasgow roots, no matter how far from Glasgow their contents take us.

In fact, despite the global wanderings they chronicle, the contents of both letters are as Glaswegian as the location in which they are read. Wedderburn’s letter obsessively ascribes Bella/Victoria’s behaviour (she enjoys sex with him but has no interest in marrying him) to the devilish influence of her Glasgow mentor, Godwin Baxter (or ‘GOD-SWINE BOSH BACK-STAIR, BEAST OF THE BOTTOMLESS PIT’ as he inventively dubs him [p. 95]). This culminates in an elaborate list of parallels between Godwin, Bella, the Park Circus building they live in and the biblical Book of Revelation. Twice Wedderburn mentions theatrical performances he has seen in Glasgow, and throughout their travels he funds himself with money drawn from his Glasgow-based Scottish Widows and Orphans savings and the Clydesdale and North Scotland Bank. In Bella/Victoria’s letter, meanwhile, a betting shop in Germany reminds her of the Glasgow Stock Exchange, with its ‘fluted columns, cream and gold’ (p. 110), while a ‘huge’ flight of steps in Odessa (made famous by The Battleship Potemkin) seems ‘very like the steps down to the West End Park near our house’ (p. 115), and Wedderburn splashing about in a ‘puddle’ of his winnings recalls ‘little Robbie Murdoch with a mud puddle’ (p. 121) – Robbie being the grandson of Godwin’s housekeeper. The journey as a whole reiterates the earlier stage of Bella/Victoria’s education when she toured the world with Godwin, visiting a selected set of tourist destinations with the aim of giving substance to his teachings in the front room at Park Circus. Every stage of her journey with Wedderburn, in other words, has close links to Godwin’s home.

The ‘huge’ flight of steps down to the West End Park (now Kelvingrove Park), Glasgow

At one point in the journey, the doll’s house model is briefly replaced by another, and for a while Godwin’s vision is threatened with less democratic ideas, presenting Bella/Victoria with a range of socio-political perspectives from which she must choose before she decides on her future course of action. On her cruise round the Mediterranean Bella/Victoria meets two ‘gentlemen’ who seek to supplement or correct the home-schooling Godwin gave her: an American missionary-cum-government-spy called Dr Hooker and an English businessman-cum-government spy named Astley. Each seeks to convert her to his own way of thinking – Astley as a cynical Malthusian, who thinks that keeping large groups of people in poverty is the only way to keep the world in balance, Hooker as a Christian eugenicist who thinks the world should be run by what he terms the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ (p. 139). In the interests of demonstrating the inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, Hooker invites the young woman to disembark with him at the port of Alexandria, where she will see for herself the decline of the once great Egyptian people and thereby learn the necessity for Anglo-Saxons to take charge of the global economy. Before disembarking, Bella/Victoria remembers her previous visit to Egypt under Godwin’s watchful eye: ‘When God took me to see the pyramids,’ she tells Hooker, ‘we left the hotel in the middle of a crowd’, but she did not see the people at the fringes of the crowd who were calling out for money (p. 142). This makes it clear that Godwin had been keen to shelter her from the most brutal facts of politics and economics; his teachings were suitable for the child in Bella’s brain, not the mature young woman she has rapidly become. At Alexandria the dolls in her mind are replaced with actual girls: she sits with Astley and Hooker on a hotel veranda ‘among well-dressed people like ourselves’ while a crowd of ‘nearly naked folk mostly children’ scramble for coins tossed by the wealthy on the dusty ground below the veranda, kept in order by men with whips (p. 173). Among the children is a pair who strike an instant chord in Bella/Victoria (and her tendency to resonate in sympathy with others is indicated by the name Godwin gave her, Bella, the bell – though the name has other resonances too, such as the bell of revolution, the Beauty to Godwin’s Beast, church bells, etc. etc.). The two children are ‘a thin little girl blind in one eye carrying a baby with a big head who was blind in both’ (pp. 173-4), and Bella/Victoria takes them at once for her lost daughter and a young sibling, lost to their parents just as Bella/Victoria’s unborn child was lost to her. These Egyptian youngsters, in other words, are immediately identified by Bella/Victoria as citizens of Glasgow – miniature versions of herself and her lost baby – and she at once attempts to take them back to Glasgow with her, only to be prevented by Astley and Hooker on the grounds that they will not be allowed out of the port and onto the ship. The section of her letter reproduced by photogravure, with the ‘blurring caused by tear stains’ and the rips in the paper caused by the pressure of her pen strokes (p. 144), carries material evidence of her immediate reaction back to Glasgow, as a substitute for the children and her yearning to be of use to them.

Bella/Victoria’s letter reproduced by photogravure

Later, Astley points out that the scene in which Bella/Victoria saw the girl and baby might be substituted for the Glasgow doll’s house as a miniature model of capitalist society. In seeing it, he tells her, Bella/Victoria has

seen a working model of nearly every civilized nation. The people on the veranda were the owners and rulers – their inherited intelligence and wealth set them above everyone else. The crowd of beggars represented the jealous and incompetent majority, who were kept in their place by the whips of those on the ground between: the latter represented policemen and functionaries who keep society as it is. (pp. 175-6).

For Astley, this model is like the doll’s house in its inertia; there is no better practical structure to replace it with, though he scrupulously lists the alternative political movements Bella could join in her futile quest to change it, each with its own shortcomings, or so he claims. Then after finishing his list he offers her another doll’s house to play with – a real one. After listing the political choices available to her, he proposes marriage: ‘Marry me,’ he prompts, since

My country estate has a farm on it and a [whole] village – think of the power you will have. Besides caring for my children (who we will not send to public schools) you can bully me into improving the drains and lowering the rents of a whole community. I am offering you the chance to be as happy and good as an intelligent woman can be on this filthy planet. (p. 163).

Bella/Victoria refuses, on the grounds that he has merely offered her ‘the most cunning inducement to lead a wholly selfish life you could offer a woman’ (p. 164), and chooses instead one of the political options he listed – Socialism, whose adherents aim ‘to tax the surplus of the rich and make laws to give everyone productive work in good conditions, along with good food, housing, education and health care’ (p. 161) – a vision pretty much consonant with Godwin’s. And having made this choice, she returns to Glasgow to take her place once again in the ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’ in Park Circus (p. 22), and transform it into a model for the Socialist state.

After all, the house is part way there already. In his medical career Godwin has treated factory workers and animals there for free, while he always uses the back door intended for servants as his preferred entrance (p. 26), and presents the former housekeeper Mrs Dinwiddie to strangers as his mother, despite the fact that she conceived him out of wedlock (he can afford to do this, Bella/Victoria points out, because of his private income). The social hierarchy, in other words, has been partly excluded from this building, though Godwin remains master there in legal terms. Godwin’s affection for and education of Bella/Victoria brought an end to his philanthropic activities, but on her return from Alexandria Bella kick-starts them again, first by demanding to return to Egypt to find and adopt the girl and infant. Godwin informs her that this is impractical, but that there are hundreds of equally destitute children in Glasgow’s East End, and he brings home this fact, so to speak, by pointing out that the worst slums can be found on the spot where the nearby University once stood in the East End of the city – its move to the West End, on the next hill along from Park Circus, having been precisely designed to remove it from the dispiriting sight of crowded slums in the University’s back yard.

The ‘sham Gothic’ University of Glasgow, facing the Park

But Godwin also suggests that it is no good adopting children you cannot train to look after themselves in adulthood, and that before this can be done you must learn to look after yourself; the often tritely-used Victorian proverb ‘charity begins at home’ is recalled throughout this section of the novel. Bella/Victoria determines to train as a doctor, and it’s from 18 Park Circus that Godwin plots her difficult path to a medical degree at the University. It’s at 18 Park Circus, too, that he suggests the best role for her husband-to-be, Dr McCandless: he is to be a public health officer because there are ‘no better public benefactors than those who [strive] to make Glasgow better watered, drained and lit – better housed, in fact’ (p. 198). In fact, Victoria’s postscript tells us, Archibald held this role for only a year, after which he effectively became a househusband (Victoria even describes him as ‘a very good wife’ at one point [p. 303]), focusing his energies on improving his home, above all for the benefit of his children. Under his eye the house became what it was before – a place of practical learning – and the couple’s three sons were trained there in socialist principles, and treated to affectionate cuddles (by their father at least) till the age of ten. After this they were sent to Glasgow High School, where they came disastrously into contact with military training and imperialist propaganda.

The editor’s notes at the end of the book trace the future history of the house in Park Circus, in the process developing its significance as a representative part of society in the first half of the twentieth century. Its connection with Socialism continued, so the notes suggest, from the 1890s to the 1920s and 30s, when literary figures like H G Wells (with whom Bella/Victoria had a brief affair) and later Hugh MacDiarmid (with whom she didn’t) and political figures like the revolutionary socialist John Maclean were frequent visitors. The fortunes of the house were depleted by the amount of money Bella/Victoria poured into her clinic in the Cowcaddens, where working-class women and children could go for medical treatment and training, safe and sanitary childbirth, or abortions, paying only what they could afford. By the 1920s Bella/Victoria’s residential space in the Park Circus building was reduced to the basement, to which she moved her clinic after the medical profession conspired to have the Cowcaddens clinic shut down. The rest of the house – no longer needed as a family home since the death of her three boys during and after the Great War – was let out, first to university students, then to artists and dancers, turning it from a medical and political hub into ‘one of several unofficial little arts centres flourishing in or near Sauchiehall Street’ during the Second World War (p. 315). In this way it embodies the successive processes of expansion and shrinkage to which the ambitions of British Socialism were subjected in the first half of the twentieth century, from the confines of a single building to the world, from the circuit of a city to the bounds of the United Kingdom, ending on the seeming fulfilment of those ambitions with the election of a Labour Government in 1945. Bella/Victoria hails this moment in a letter to MacDiarmid, while also describing the diminution of her own household to a single Newfoundland dog, and of her client list to a few children’s pets and a couple of hypochondriacs (p. 317). On this sweet-sour note the novel ends, as Bella/Victoria confidently predicts the emergence of a ‘worker’s co-operative nation’ that never came to pass; a notion that will have seemed as improbable in the Tory-governed Britain of 1992 as the notion mentioned in the final paragraph that when she died Bella/Victoria’s brain was 66 and her body 92.

Drawing and plan of Park Circus, Glasgow, from Poor Things

Meanwhile the editor’s notes have also identified the house in Park Circus as a site of historical contention. The archivist Michael Donnelly who discovered Archibald’s manuscript uses it as evidence that the story told in it is a fabrication. While the manuscript describes the house as having a ‘narrow garden between high walls’, Donnelly’s visit to the building confirms ‘that the space between back entrance and coach-house is too small and sunken to have ever been more than a drying-yard’ (p. 280). The editor Gray, equally determined to prove the manuscript truthful, retorts that this only proves that the coach-house was erected at a later date. The historical-architectural bickering continues in a subsequent note, where the editor tells us Donnelly has shown him the architect’s plans for 18 Park Circus, which include the coach-house, and responds that the fact ‘an architect designed such a feature would not prevent it being built much later’ (p. 285). The different readings of the ‘gloomy terrace house’ transform it into a Frankenstein’s creature of a place, cobbled together in various shapes according to the desires and interests of those who ‘read’ it, a museum curator and a writer-artist, both involved in an imaginative engagement with the intersection of past and future, the known and the unknown, the hoped-for and the actual, the remembered and the forgotten.

Overlapping, too, in the space of the house is the playful utopian space conjured up by Archibald in his memoirs – where he, Godwin and Bella/Victoria cohabit ‘in perfect equality’, having undergone what Victoria calls an ‘equality of deprivation in their childhood (p. 274) – and the unequal space it is in Bella/Victoria’s postscript and the editor’s notes. The postscript is devastatingly honest about Bella/Victoria’s contempt for Archibald, for his series of useless self-published books (including a play about Burke and Hare, an epic poem about the Borders cannibal Sawney Bean, and a volume of childhood reminiscences), and for the state of dreamy idleness into which his medical career descended, leaving him a homebody unconcerned with anyone’s happiness but his own and his little family’s. The notes, meanwhile, expose Bella/Victoria’s own decline into obscurity, from being the first female graduate of the medical school at the University of Glasgow, with elevated Socialist convictions, to a solitary idealist whose entire family has predeceased her, dreaming of an impossible future in the narrow confines of a West End basement. Like Archibald’s career, Bella/Victoria’s could be said to go nowhere, side-tracked by idle dreams; and like Archibald she compensates for its increasing irrelevance by self-publishing a series of texts which have as little practical effect as any fantastic narrative.

The subject of Bella/Victoria’s self-published pamphlets is domesticity. After the Great War she is riddled with guilt for what she considers to be her part in the deaths of her sons, blaming herself for the relentless busy-ness that meant she gave little time to their emotional needs, and driving them by neglect into the service of the British Empire. She is convinced their deaths had their roots in her own behaviour, believing that she somehow managed to instil in the boys a sense of the profound contempt in which she held the male body and mind, and which she had imagined herself to be directing only at her husband; for her, their attraction to the military offered perfect proof of their self-contempt. To placate her sense of guilt, she publishes the last of her pamphlets under the title A Loving Economy – A Mother’s Recipe for the End of All National and Class Warfare. The word ‘economy’, as A History Maker reminds us, derives from the ‘Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need’ (p. v). Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet extols the virtue of ‘cuddling’, which refers to the practice of a child sharing a bed with its parents, where ‘it will learn all about love-making and birth control by practical example’, and grow up ‘free of the Oedipus complex, penis envy and other diseases discovered or invented by Doctor Freud’ (p. 308). Contemporary reviews of the pamphlet – accusing Bella/Victoria of erotomania – force her to close her Cowcaddens clinic and retreat to the confines of the West End house. Most of the pamphlets remain undistributed and unread, like Archibald’s literary efforts. Victoria’s recommendation of a new household economy diminishes her influence largely to the circuits of her own household – where her childrearing had already proved ineffectual against the influence of imperialist propaganda. In the process she is effectively erased from a public history which is not yet ready to recognise how ‘private’ domestic practices may lie at the roots of all that is rotten in twentieth-century public life.

Equestrian statue of Lord Roberts near Park Circus, Glasgow. An inspiration for General Blessington?

At this point it’s worth returning to the concept of complicity. How we live, Gray’s novel suggests, on the smallest social scale – as single people, couples and families – makes us complicit in innumerable ways with the large-scale political failures and successes of the community we inhabit. We are made by our environment, yes, but we also make the environment that makes us and our children; our household economy interacts with the larger economy of our neighbourhood, our nation and our world. The novel traces the way Godwin’s household both reflects on the global economy as it is and offers hope for a new economy as it might be; several new economies, in fact, depending on which version of his household we choose to accept. Alongside his household there are others which reflect a desire to live quite differently, and whose influence can be clearly seen in the archives of history. The most interesting of these alternative households is that of Bella/Victoria’s first husband, General Sir Aubrey de la Pole Blessington, a great man of history – like the brilliant scientist Godwin Baxter – who has been removed from history, thanks to the disgrace of his suicide. Sir Aubrey is famous at the time of his death for acts of brutal destruction, having waged war on the enemies of British imperialism all over the Empire. As we learn more about him, however, it emerges that Sir Aubrey has been bred to wage war on himself; he is consumed with self-loathing, disgusted by his own body and its ill-managed desires, and correspondingly disgusted by the women to whom he feels attracted. His damaged limbs are a consequence of repeated efforts at self-destruction on the battlefield; his penchant for sado-masochism in brothels stems from the same impulse; while his ruined marriage is the result of an inbred contempt for the affections that bind one human being to another, and for the anatomies that propagate those affections. At the end of Archibald’s narrative occurs a scene in which Sir Aubrey seeks to snatch Bella/Victoria back from Godwin; the scene begins in Lansdowne Parish Church but quickly transfers to 18 Park Circus. It culminates in a chapter, titled ‘Blessington’s Last Stand’ (p. 234), in which Sir Aubrey barks out orders and wields a weapon as if on the battlefield, all in the living room of Godwin’s ‘tall, gloomy terrace house’, before being defeated by the powerful woman he seeks to control. At the moment of his defeat, Bella/Victoria snatches his pistol from him and aims it at his chest and Sir Aubrey bellows at her in a kind of ecstasy, ‘SHOOT! I ORDER YOU TO SHOOT!’ At this moment, Archibald tells us, ‘to my ears the order rang backward in history through Balaclava, Waterloo, Culloden and Blenheim to Agincourt and Crécy’ (p. 236). ‘This historical command and passionate plea,’ he goes on, ‘were so powerful that I imagined all the men killed in his battles rising from their graves to shoot him where he stood’ (p. 237). Sir Aunrey’s cry knits the field of battle to the living room carpet as firmly as Bella/Victoria’s pamphlet, which prescribes a capacious double bed as an antidote to war. History has its roots in the household, the space that for so many generations history did not acknowledge, the little space that makes us.

Page design for Poor Things, Chapter 22, with section of lost Who’s Who entry for General Blessington

As it happens, that historical figure General Blessington does not feature in British history. He was erased from Who’s Who after his suicide, either because he disgraced himself by this final act of unauthorised self-destruction (as against authorised self-destruction in military action) or because he had the temerity to die for personal reasons, for causes rooted in the household rather than the state. His disappearance from the history books renders his presence in Gray’s novel an irrelevance, and the book itself a luxury item, filled as it is with fantastically imagined things and people who do not feature in the factual narratives that bestow cultural capital on their readers. Godwin Baxter, Bella/Victoria, Archibald McCandless, all exist (imaginatively speaking) in the forgotten corners of the archives, as shadows at the edges of the old etchings with which the editor fills the last pages of the novel. Spending time and money on them would seem to be an act of reckless self-indulgence, on the part of both the reader and the writer-artist. The care and artistry that have been lavished on the hardback edition of the book – all that strictly unnecessary labour – render it more self-indulgent still, an item to be rejected by pragmatists: financiers, scientists, evangelists, politicians. Except that the book exposes the dreams and desires that suffuse economics, science, politics and evangelism, knitting them together with our ungainly bodies and the material conditions of our lives, identifying them as the energies that drive us. It invites us to reconsider what history is, and how it relates to the fantastic. And that’s a story that gets continued in its fine appendix, A History Maker – the subject of a follow-up blog post in a few weeks’ time.

 

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