What Hetty Did, J.L. Carr’s seventh and penultimate novel, was the first to be published through his own Quince Tree Press company. It was published in 1988 in an edition of 2,850 copies. My copy, unnumbered, is signed by Carr, leading me to assume that the entire run was signed. It was Quince Tree Press’ first publication. I saw it in the Manchester Waterstone’s one day that year and was intrigued enough by the set-up (and the limited edition) to take a punt on it. I assume I remembered Carr’s name from Steeple Sinderby, but at this range I can’t remember for certain.
There are a couple of oddities about this book. One is that, though the cover bears the name J.L. Carr, on the spine the author chose, for the only time, to identify himself as James Carr. The other is that, alone amongst the author’s work, What Hetty Did has an alternate or sub-title: or, Life and Letters.
It’s an apt sub-title since Hetty, the narrator, is a very literary inclined young woman, a tall, long-legged, red-haired, flat-chested eighteen year old who is very intelligent, and given to constant quotation. The thing about Hetty is that, whilst she’s strong on letters, she isn’t that hot on life. Only she doesn’t know that. Hetty has her own ideas, ideas and a voice that render her completely unbelievable as an eighteen year old girl, whilst convincing her of her own innate and overriding superiority. In twenty-five years, I don’t know quite what to make of this book.
Previous Carr novels have betrayed a very conservative mind-set and an ingrained contempt for the majority of every day people, their ignorance and vulgarity. Hetty is a supposed eighteen year old girl in 1988 or thereabouts but she holds the same opinions. Indeed, Hetty holds practically everybody in contempt for not being as strong as her, or not having the same literary appreciation as her. Even her best friend, Polly Horbling, is treated with a degree of contempt for no more than actually having teenage hormones, and betraying an interest in boys and sexual leanings.
To some extent, Hetty’s attitudes can be seen as a reaction to her life and upbringing. Properly, her name is Ethel Birtwistle (which explains a lot in itself, especially why, once she breaks free, she adopts the surname Beauchamp) and she’s determinedly Ethel at home. Her family is dominated by a seriously unpleasant father, miserable, ignorant, offensive, perpetually angry: a mind so small that the least thought would bang against all sides before it was half-expressed. He’s a rate collector, a miser, hates Hetty for her intelligence and plans to force her into a job on the switchboard at the local Council, rather than allow her to use the brilliant A-level results she gets to go to Cambridge.
Hetty’s mother is worse than a doormat and her younger brother Sonny, who never rises above a name on the page, is an envious sneak. Ethel, or Hetty, is an improbable cuckoo in the nest, and that’s because she isn’t the Birtwistle’s daughter, save by adoption: Mr Birtwistle couldn’t produce children. Sonny’s adopted as well.
So, after learning this, having already come to the point of knowing she has to leave, Hetty heads off to Birmingham, where she was collected from. An improbable but Carr-esque meeting on the train with a man going to Australia for adventure, sees her directed to the boarding house run by the twice-widowed Rose Gilpin-Jones, who gives Hetty a room in return for service round the house.
Later in the book, Hetty brings Polly and her eccentric grandfather, the Major, to stay for the weekend, which ends up with the Major marrying Rose. Later still, Hetty finds out who her birth mother is, by breaking and entering. She approaches her, finds her a stuck-up, reasonably wealthy wife with a husband and two legitimate children, none of whom know. Hetty, who has decided for herself that her being ‘thrown away’ is entirely down to the egregious moral flaws of Wendy, bullies and blackmails her birth mother in a nasty fashion, for money with which to go to Cambridge.
Of course, with complete improbability, she has a volte-face and hands the money back before parting with a tiny cry, and goes on to Cambridge where her Professor turns out to be her unacknowledged birth-father.
The plot, as you can see, is minimal. This is basically a portrait book, set in a world of unpleasant people doing objectionable things, but What Hetty Did extends this to the book’s first person narrator, making this an awkward experience.
Because I don’t know if Hetty is meant to be real, is meant to be taken seriously, as a paragon to be respected, an ideal to be pursued, or if she is an elaborate and ultra-black joke. Given the tenor of Carr’s work going back over a quarter century to A Day in Summer, I suspect the former, but am I falling for a more complex version of Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett, who was created as a monster to be laughed at and discredited, but who became a totem for those who saw him as justifying and amplifying their narrow and bigoted world-views?
Certainly, I have known people affected by both sides of the adoption issue that Hetty sees in black and white, and these are the last two shades that apply to such a situation, so I can’t feel anything but anger towards her in her angry self-righteousness. But this is only an extreme: Hetty thinks she knows everything, but she knows nothing. Paragon or example? I have never been able to decide, but only because I want to give Carr the benefit of the doubt.
But this reminds me of Dave Sim’s Cerebus once he got into the final book, when his misogyny ran riot, spewing forth ever more ridiculous and exaggerated situations as the ‘natural extension’ of what he found so offensive today, since it no longer mattered. Carr is his own publisher and thus his own editor. Had his prior work been toned down? There is a distinct tonal difference between his first two novels and those that followed: had he had to adapt some aspects of his work, or make it more explicitly comic to be accepted for publication? Was he now free to cut loose again, untrammelled?
As I say, I don’t know. But what I do know is that What Hetty Did is one of the most difficult books I own, and certainly the most unlikeable.
There is, thankfully, a little more to the novel than Hetty herself. Rose’s boarding house may be home to Ted, an honest, straightforward, uncomplicated young man who takes an unreciprocated liking to Hetty (who treats him abominably) but it also houses two more familiar figures, in Edward Peplow and Emma Foxberrow.
We see much of Peplow, whom Hetty adopts in minor manner but, barring the most fleeting and oblique reference to the events of A Day in Summer, we learn nothing of his life since then. He is merely an old man, troubled by pains in his legs, living without family in a Birmingham guest house. Peplow recites stirling and martial poetry to take his mind off his painful legs: it frequently keeps Hetty awake at night. His story is n story however: it has no plot, no ending.
At least there is slightly more shape to Emma Foxberrow’s tale. Until the very end when, thanks to Major Horbling, George Harpole turns up to take her away from all this, she doesn’t even appear onscreen; she is a voice behind a bedroom door, lamenting eternally losing George through her failure to simply admit she loved him. According to Rose, who is flagrantly wrong about all this, Emma is aware people are listening and is making it up for attention: she is Harpole’s widow, he having gone to the gallows for beating a woman to death.
Emma blames everything on Cambridge, teaching her to focus upon her head, not her heart. Hetty ends the novel at Cambridge. Do you see why I can’t decide how I’m supposed to take Hetty? Is Carr really, in 1988, saying that education is a bad thing for women? This is a world apart from How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup.