Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews

Stillest Day

Josephine Hart
Random House, 1998 210pp
ISBN: 0-7011-6730-0

reviewed by Ann Skea

"...my mother and I both knew that a family shamed in a village is shamed for generations. And in repetition the history of an old sin takes on almost biblical resonance.

Here in this known place I learned from the lives of others. As they no doubt learned from mine. And mine is a lesson which will long be taught."

Bethesda Barnet's story is strange and compelling. It is an almost classic example of Freudian "hysteria" - obsessional neurosis - told by the woman herself in prose which reflects her imaginative nature but is bound and shaped by her fears and passions. It is a story of the effect of social and sexual restraints (which Bethesda calls "the custom and protection of prescribed procedures"), set in a turn-of-the-century English village which is still almost feudal in its observation of class distinctions, and in its patterns of habit and expectations.

Within this small world, Bethesda's life seems, at first, conventionally normal. She is twenty-nine and unmarried but for five years she has been "walking out" with Samuel Keane, waiting for him to make up his mind to defy his father and propose marriage. Their courtship is conducted with propriety and decorum dictated by watchful village eyes but Bethesda allows small liberties - the touching of a clothed breast, a closeness of bodies sufficient to arouse Samuel - which she describes unemotionally.

Art teaching, is one "pillar" of Bethesda's "vocation". Its twin pillar is the "filial duty" of caring for her widowed, invalid mother. The protection of habit and ritual sustain her and are her "fortress" against "vertiginous fall into chaotic truth". She lives a life of piety and duty. At school she teaches her young pupils "the rules of drawing", and she receives some small favours from the school's patron, Lord Grantleigh, who appreciates art and likes to discuss it with her.

In her own mind, Bethesda believes she is an artist. Her mother calls her a dreamer. Certainly she dreams of a "union between man and woman that would barely allow for children" - a death of self in other.

Bethesda's dream begins to turn to obsession when she first sees her new neighbour, Mathew Pearson. In the privacy of her room, she starts to paint his image onto mirrors, and the merging of her own reflection with the painted image allows her to play out sensual fantasies. This is an "idolatry" which she recognises and which appeals to her because of its lack of gross, "disgusting", "revolting" physicality - terms which she uses when describing Mathew's pretty, pregnant wife. As she tells this story, what earlier seemed to be a prudish attitude to the body and to sexuality, consistent with the conventions of the times in which she lived, comes to sound more like the product of fear (of motherhood and of the power of mothers) and jealousy, compounded by suppressed anger at her subservience to the will of others.

The crisis, for Bethesda, the moment which she speaks of as "the stillest day", the moment when the calm rhythm of her life is broken, comes when she performs a post-mortem caesarean section on Mary Pearson, using fragments of one of the painted mirrors. The events which follow this action are weird. They grow from, and exacerbate, her obsession and they progressively remove the last elements of control she has over her life.

It is difficult to describe the impact of this book. In outline, the story sounds like the exaggerated drama of Romantic Fiction, but it is nothing like that. Bethesda's voice is controlled, unemotional and undramatic. The seeds of her neurosis are present from the start, both in the details of her situation and in the way she tells us about it, and it is the cumulative effect of this which makes the story believable and disturbing. Bethesda's voice is mesmerising, and the least satisfactory part of the book is the few penultimate chapters when Bethesda relies mostly on reporting the speech of others, but there is a underlying tension even then which draws the reader on to the end.

In The Stillest Day, Josephine Hart has given us a small, beautifully crafted, gem of Literary Fiction.


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