The demon of the house

The pandemic has forced us all to live more wholesome lives, but some danger still exists between the pages of the novel.

In the midst of a rising coronavirus-related death toll and a flailing economy, it feels trivial to complain about a shortage of fun, like carping about the quality of the squash courts on the Titanic. Nonetheless, the shortage exists. And an early preview of the winter, with its vista of special measures to combat the Covid-19 resurgence across Europe, suggests that all the festivals which have evolved to add a little necessary sparkle to the dark, cold months will be chopped down to a very small, sorrowful size.

We have certainly rediscovered the wholesome delights of fresh air, thermos flasks and long walks with friends. But the more sociable, drunken, gossipy varieties of fun have been severely curtailed, especially for those individuals or families who have extra reason to be careful: no more house or work parties, packed pubs, dancefloors, concerts, theatre-going, dinner-parties or restaurants (unless seated outside). Cities seem largely pointless.

What has arrived in place of fun, particularly for women with children, is an intensification of domestic duty. The pandemic has ushered in long periods of household confinement, sporadic homeschooling, perpetual meal-times, extra laundry, cleaning, and the constant prepping of masks and hand sanitiser, all of which tend to fall disproportionately (although far from exclusively) on women. In terms of female role models, the Victorian ‘helpmeet’ – the smiling, patient ‘Angel in the House’ of Coventry Patmore’s poem – has currently tied up the good-time girl and locked her in the closet.

We can still read, however, and one of the key functions of literature is to distract and divert us from our present reality. By way of relief, I can recommend three novels that feature perhaps the least dutiful women in literary history. These unforgettable anti-heroines are physically attractive, and live selfishly for drink, excitement, and the attentions of a brutal cad – the kindlier men, they destroy. All three characters, of course, were written by male authors who diligently weave payback into their grim trajectories. The bad girls are destined for the gutter or the grave – but how they fizz on the page.

The first is Emile Zola’s Nana, from his 1880 novel of the same name. Nana Coupeau is perhaps the most deserving of sympathy, because of the rough childhood which Zola described in his earlier novel L’Assommoir. Both of her unlucky parents become alcoholics, and Nana is already drifting into prostitution as a working-class teenager, intermittently going missing and returning home to a beating from her father. At sixteen, she bears a son, whom she loves in a sentimental and erratic way, but who dies young.

But Zola is less interested in Nana’s victimhood than her raw power – an astonishing, almost mythic level of sex-appeal that makes her a star of the theatre, even though she’s a terrible singer and actress. Before long she is a high-class courtesan, and a Paris celebrity or ‘aristocrat of vice’. Good-natured but easily bored, she acts as ‘an unwitting ferment of destruction,’ crashing through other people’s marriages and morality. Bourgeois security and thrift are utterly alien to her, as she burns her admirers’ fortunes on expensive whims and knick-knacks, and then casts them aside.

The impetuous Nana, however, seems a riot of compassion next to Mildred Rogers, the stony object of Philip Carey’s adoration in W Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, published in 1915 – ‘Mildred was not a woman who conceived the possibility of compassion, generosity or kindness.’ Philip, a sensitive young man with a club foot, falls completely under the thrall of Mildred, a tea-shop waitress, whose toleration for him soon curdles to bored contempt. She leaves him for a married man by whom she has a baby to which she is largely indifferent. In dire straits, she returns and lives off his kindness, milking him for money before running off again with his best friend.

Yet perhaps the most strikingly cruel, feckless anti-heroine of all is Netta Longdon in Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square, the unresponsive love interest of George Harvey Bone, a psychologically disturbed loner. Netta, a failing actress who drifts through life on a tide of alcohol and spivvish male company, manipulates Bone into squandering his meagre savings on her, while wearing her attractiveness ‘as a murderous utensil with which she might wound indiscriminately right and left.’

These are brilliant novels, each one a particular portrait of the squalor and glitter of its own era. But they all deal superbly, too, with the intimate politics of attraction and repulsion, the masochistic transactions of desire. And for our own times – which currently demand an excess of domestic virtue – it feels wickedly refreshing to become reacquainted with that real piece of work, The Demon in the House.

Becky Sharp and Joseph Sedley
Becky Sharp and Joseph Sedley - characters in 'Vanity Fair',by William Makepeace Thackeray. Drawing by Chris Hammond. Caption reads: 'Bound in a web of green silk'. WMT: English novelist, 18 July 1811 - 24 December 1863. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Jenny McCartney