Sunday 28 May 2017


Continuing my progress through the (hard-to-find) novels of Elizabeth Jenkins, I have just finished reading Brightness. Though not in the same league as The Tortoise and the Hare, it's a fascinating piece of work and well worth a read, if you happen to come across it.
 Published in 1963 and set in the then present (unlike the fact-based Harriet and Dr Gully), Brightness portrays a fairly tight-knit Home Counties community with a pen as sharp as and often more brutal than Jane Austen's. The first chapter is a masterclass in skilful scene-setting, deftly introducing the key characters, telling (or rather showing) us just what we need to know about them, and placing them precisely in the social milieu of New Broadlands, a pleasant town set on a high ridge, its earliest houses 'built in the Edwardian era by a community of high-minded cranks'.
 What unfolds over the first three quarters of the novel seems to be a fictional study of parenting, good and bad, of youthful rebellion and delinquency and the 'generation gap'. The Tortoise and the Hare, you might recall, included a vitriolic portrait of a couple with modernistic progressive views, especially on the raising of children - views that amounted to an abdication of all parental responsibility. A background element in The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins's loathing of progressive thought, in particular in relation to the upbringing of children, comes right to the fore in Brightness.
 The most conspicuous representative of progressive thought in general is the frightful old humbug Mortimer Upjohn, 'a figure in the tradition of the town's Edwardian past', with his knitted waistcoat, grass green jacket, sandals and thick white woollen socks. Pursuing his self-imposed mission in life as a thinker and speaker in the progressive cause, he carries considerable weight in local affairs and is 'a man of no vices, unless a combination of bumptiousness with meanness could be called so; he was genuinely devoted to things of the mind; no sensual pleasures, to him, could compare with the interest he took in the discussion of social and psychological theories'.
 Upjohn's ruling idea, based on popular psychology, is that the blame for criminal actions 'rested entirely on those who tolerated the environment that had conditioned them'. He believed that 'the young were the only section of the human race that could be considered interesting and worth talking about. Of the young, the most sacred were the young criminals. From their double claims Mr Upjohn appeared to derive an extraordinary stimulation; he never tired of descanting upon them, as their exponent and defender; yet these subjects had nearly all to be drawn from hearsay and the public press. There was disappointingly little juvenile crime in New Broadlands...'
 Good knockabout stuff, but more central to the novel is Jenkins's withering portrayal of the nouveaux riches Sudgens, he a successful businessman, his wife a selfish and silly woman who cannot forgive or forget anything she regards as 'criticism', the pair of them engaged in bringing up their now late-teenage son with a toxic combination of unrestrained indulgence and non-existent discipline. As a result, the loathsome son is interested in nothing but the pursuit of his own massively subsidised pleasures - girls, money, jaunts to London and abroad, and fast cars.
 As contrast to the terrible Sugdens, we have Una Lambert, a widow with a beloved - and not indulged - son who is at Cambridge and, having got through a period of adolescent sullenness, is turning out to be a remarkable young man, a credit to his mother. We see much of the action through the eyes of the sympathetic Una, a woman more interested in the possibilities of Christian faith (though not a conventional 'believer') than in the inanities of progressive thought.
 As the novel progresses, a good deal of broadly theological discussion and speculation enters the picture, making the reader wonder: where is all this going? Is it a satire on progressive thought and parenting, a study of parent-child relations, a reflection on the nature of faith? It is all of those, but where it is going is towards a shocking and tragic event, about three-quarters of the way through the story, that changes everything in the most profound way, and puts all that came before in an entirely new perspective.
 It's hard to say much more without giving away the plot. Suffice to say that in its last section Brightness becomes a very different, stranger, sadder and more interesting novel than it seemed to be in its early stages. I'm not sure that it works, but it's certainly a remarkable piece of writing.
 The title, by the way, comes from St Bernard of Clairvaux, as quoted by Una's son:
'He said: "Bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright", and he described mystical experience as "an immersion in the infinite ocean of eternal light and luminous eternity".'

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