Wednesday’s Child: Beauty and the Housewife
A young lady – well, not that young, actually, let’s say about my age – has reviewed my new book in The Spectator, a British literary and political weekly once known for its conservative sympathies. Suffice it to say that when I wrote for it in the 80’s and 90’s the magazine was under the editorship of a man who was later appointed the authorized biographer of Margaret Thatcher. But that’s all water under the bridge now.
The reviewer, named Sara Wheeler, is a “travel writer.” In the West, where anybody can travel as easily and as fast as she can write, both the métier and the gender of the pronoun require some elucidation. Basically, travel is a field where housewives flourish, because it affords them near limitless opportunities for casting off the pupal cocoon of their actual condition and, while far from home, emerging as something completely different – an intrepid explorer, say, or a secret agent, or a femme fatale. Chesterton famously pronounced that nothing narrows the mind like travel. In the case of the ambulant housewife this sage paradox is largely irrelevant, since her metamorphosis has more to do with role play than with ratiocination.
A few nights ago I Googled Miss Wheeler to try and understand how anybody could have come up with a notice as foolish as the one she’s written. I noted that a close friend of Miss Wheeler’s, a biographer of Graham Greene by the name of Jeremy Lewis, once described her to a newspaper as “one of those hard-working people who’d always wanted to be a writer and lead an interesting life.” He meant no disrespect, I’m sure, but personally, if I wanted to praise a writer, I would be unable to avoid using the word “talent.” Literary talent, however, is not what modern travel writing is about. It is about having a professional cover for the occasional foray into an interesting life, or at any rate a life that a housewife may perceive as more interesting than her own.
When these travelers return home, to the routine of an existence they perceive as mundane, this invariably fills them with obvious – resentful and at times vindictive – frustration. “Husband Broke his Wife's Arm after she Boasted about Sleeping with Another Man in Marital Bed” was how the Daily Mirror headlined a court report according to which Miss Wheeler’s husband fractured her arm in three places after she had “goaded” him with tales of her infidelity.
Many scenes in the book, writes Miss Wheeler, “involve opulent hotels, vulgar restaurants of the kind favoured by Russians in London and the purchase of expensive jewellery.” London is the actual setting of my novel, and the reviewer’s gnawing resentment is as palpable as it is out of place in a magazine that, as I say, was once known for its conservative sympathies – not because conservatives have a higher tolerance for vulgarity, but because they are generally more liberal in drawing the line between vulgarity and opulence. If the novel were set abroad, in one of the faraway places whither Miss Wheeler has traveled, she would not be so angry. But the thought that a life as foreign as the one I describe is being lived in her own front yard will not let her rest.
And then, of course, there is beauty, the most galling spectacle of them all, Awful Beauty, raising a specter of inequality and social injustice more ruthless than opulent hotels and expensive jewels. My sentences, writes Miss Wheeler, “often topple into incomprehensibility,” which is not a view I instinctively dismiss as inimical, yet here is the sentence that she has chosen to single out for ridicule: “Like great wealth or exalted rank, beauty is above all else an endowment.” She adds: “I don’t think so.”
It reverberates with all the pain of a fractured limb, this simple rebuttal.