Tessa Hadley on Building a Story from Details

Your story “After the Funeral” involves a widowed mother, Marlene, and her two young daughters, living in a town in South London in the seventies. Marlene is seen as a problem by her late husband’s relatives, who disapprove of her life style. How did this scenario come to you? Was it inspired by people you’ve known?

Photograph by Sophie Davidson

I really don’t know where it came from. I remember two beautifully dressed girls from my own childhood, daughters of someone my mother knew, and I actually think the older one was called Charlotte. They had big eyes and very fine hair and this wonderful, enviable self-possession and aplomb (although in the story I give the “aplomb” to Marlene, faking it as a receptionist at the surgery). Those two children are somewhere in the mix; and also Mavis Gallant’s wonderful story “1933,” precious to me, which is about a widow with two daughters; in their reduced circumstances, like the Lyons family in my story, they have to move into a smaller place. Gallant’s Madame Carette, though, doesn’t have anything like Marlene’s sexual energy; and Berthe, the older sister in Gallant’s story, is more genuinely capable and practical, I think, than my Charlotte.

The moment when a story comes together feels like striking into a gush of life that exists outside your invention. As you tug out one tiny detail—the jelly with mandarin oranges, for instance—others come up after it, out of the dark: the telly blanket, “A Man Called Ironside,” eating from the tin of condensed milk with a spoon. You don’t know how you know what you know about your characters and their world. When I was a child, we had a lodger who kept an opened tin of condensed milk in his cupboard in his basement room; my brother and I used to steal spoonfuls when he was out, a heady delight. Also, we slept in bunk beds, and my brother used to push up with his feet on the underside of my mattress to annoy me: who knew that one day that annoyance would become a perfect small treasure to use in a story? This isn’t to say that I’ve taken the story from my own life—I haven’t. We were nothing like those girls, and our life was nothing like theirs.

Charlotte, the older daughter, is nine when her father dies. But even at that age, she is more capable than her mother and feels responsible for her mother’s behavior. Eventually, the mother-daughter roles are fully reversed: Charlotte is desperate to marry her mother off, so that someone else will take responsibility for her. When you started writing the story, did you know where or how it would end?

I had that loving, tight little triangle—the mother and her two daughters—and its female heat, for a while before I quite knew what to do with them. I suppose I knew I had to introduce a man, to disrupt the sealed-in energy of the triangle. (Damian is only a boy, his name a clue that he’s like a sweet shepherd in a pastoral idyll; they can assimilate him easily without changing.) I kept thinking at first that Charlotte would have a plan and Lulu would spoil it. But somewhere I knew that was wrong. It was too obvious—it didn’t penetrate down to the true flaw in their sealed system. It had to be Charlotte who spoiled the plan. She gives such a wonderful performance as capable and responsible, but she’s also just a girl, anguished by her own lack of attractive femininity, way out of her depth in an adult world, misreading things and oversimplifying, thinking she can have it all under her control.

Perhaps inevitably for a story set in Britain in the seventies, class plays a role. Philip’s relatives think of themselves as socially superior to Marlene. But there’s also a class distinction between Marlene and her own relatives. Is Charlotte aware of these gradations of status?

Children are usually hyperaware of these nuances of hierarchy and judgment. They won’t have any idea, to begin with, of the machinery of economics and social structure that underpins the class system. It’s just a given in their world, an arcane and intricately nuanced set of rules of behavior and perception, as richly baroque as the rituals and dogma of any religion. Inside these shapes, a child develops her or his imagination, learns to feel. Charlotte is trying to protect her mother from the censure of her father’s family by preëmpting Marlene’s mistakes. But we’re relieved that Marlene herself doesn’t succumb to her mother-in-law’s censorious judgment. We’re glad that she has fun working in the supermarket with its drug addicts and shoplifters and camaraderie.

The story also turns around the idea of shame: Marlene has none, doesn’t understand why she should. Charlotte is enveloped in the shame of having a mother and sister who don’t aspire to respectability. Why do you think she’s so sensitized to this and the others aren’t? Does she have more in common with Nanna than she thinks?

I do drop hints that, in some ways, Charlotte resembles her grandmother more than either of them is aware. But I wouldn’t want to overstate this—who knows what particular history produced Nanna’s sourness and passion for control? Charlotte’s story is going to be different—she’s shaped somewhat by the power of her father’s family, yes, and she’s sensitive to their condemnation. But, overwhelmingly, she’s formed and nourished by the warmth and crazy cheerfulness of her mother and her sister, the coziness of the three of them together under the telly blanket. Actually, I’m glad that Charlotte blunders so disastrously at the end of the story. To me, it’s a sign of her resurgent life, her capacity to make mistakes and take risks and break things. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of pain for her in the process.

Charlotte’s blunder is to embark on a relationship with Dr. Cherry that she must realize will not lead anywhere good. Is she driven by desperation? By a desire for experience? Something else?

Love, of course. She’s just a girl, a human being. Her plans are an illusion that melts to nothing at the first hint of a possibility of romance and sex. Who ever eschewed a love relationship because they knew it wouldn’t “lead anywhere good”? She adores the doctor. She has no experience of life, or men. She longs for an acknowledgment from him. When first they touch, or kiss—we don’t quite want to think about it explicitly; I expect she throws herself at him, as they say—she isn’t thinking about where it will lead. She isn’t thinking about the next hour or even the next five minutes. She is only wholly rapt inside the present with its erotic divine terror and exaltation. All new to her.

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