Monday, November 30, 2009

Mrs. Nellie Cook, a journalist

It was Saturday, a fine March morning. Two women and a man were in the basement front room. Mrs. Nellie Cook, a journalist, Mrs. Camilla Yates, a dressmaker, and Walter, a window cleaner. Mrs. Yates was making a blue dress for Mrs. Cook.

Mrs. Cook said to the window cleaner, "It's fresh today, pet. Did you try on that leather jacket of my brother's? I had a fit of conscience and wrote to him and said, I gave your leather jacket to Walter, do you mind?"

A crisp opening, so careful to label and explain everything that it seems mocking, or ridiculously jaunty, as if the writer is gathering the readers around her knee, eyes wide, saying, "Now children, one morning there was a room, and in that room there were three people: Mrs. Cook, Mrs. Yates, and Walter! And what were they doing? Why, Mrs. Yates was making Mrs. Cook a dress! And then ..." The Mrs-ing doesn't last for long, but it's enough to leave us with the idea that Walter, unMistered, is somehow on the outside of things, and of lower status than the other two, which he is, although at the end of Cotters' England he turns out to be more significant than he seems here, a fateful lumpen fairy or bad spirit. But Stead's attention in this book is directed at Mrs. Cook, or Nellie, or Cushie - her nickname. Cook is her married name, Cotter is her maiden name, and the Cotters of the title are her family.

Nellie is one of Stead's monstrous talkers. She feels vindicated whenever she can coax a miserable person into a worse mood. This, she calls facing reality. "No City of the Future! The here and now of pain!" The author calls her character's view of the world a "hall of mirrors." The tiny bit of speech in the second paragraph of this opening can serve as a sketch of Nellie's method. She starts by observing that something is wrong, searching for agreement, an opening, something she can sympathise with, and use to pry the other person open, "It's fresh today." Everyone receives an endearment, either "pet" or "chick." Stead spent time with a family in the north of England, Nellie's home territory, listening to their speech, before she adapted it. "I can vouch for the fidelity," wrote the Newcastle-born critic Rodney Pybus in the 1980s, praising the book, "with which

the harsh sounds, both guttural and flottal, and sing-song part-Scandinavian rhythms of Tyneside speech have been given form and resonance on the tongues of the Cotters."

Nellie likes to remind people that she's thinking of their welfare ("Did you try on that leather jacket"), and she spends the book fretting about her brother ("I had a fit of conscience and wrote to him"). Someone reading Cotters' England for the second time, knowing her better, is likely to look at the gift of that jacket and guess that what might have seemed an act of generosity at first, was, somewhere in the character's fictional subconscious, a loaded communication between Nellie and Tom. Even on a first reading, there's enough pushiness in her language here to make the reader suspect that the character is inauthentic, a self-deceiver. Several times during this book the plot will offer her a chance to recognise the "hall of mirrors" around her and escape, but she retreats inside. She's a destructive woman, and this is one of Stead's most sinister stories.


(n.b. The book came out in North America under a different title, Dark Places of the Heart.)

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