Tessa Hadley is a British novelist and short story writer who is highly praised by critics, frequently published in the New Yorker, and regularly compared to Alice Munro and Colm Tóibín. But I am convinced she remains underread in this country. Hadley quietly and brilliantly illuminates seemingly ordinary lives in stories that shine with emotional depth, psychological wisdom, and understated wit. Her prose is masterful and precise, and her characters linger in the mind long after the books have ended.
Her latest novel, Clever Girl, follows Stella throughout her life in Bristol, England, from when she is born in 1956 to age 50. She becomes a young single mother; has various love affairs, friendships, and careers; tries on identities and freedoms as historical eras change around her — in other words, lives her life. But Hadley's novel ignites that single life until it blazes.
We agree with London's Literary Review: "This is Hadley's extraordinary skill as a novelist: to navigate and narrate the fleeting moments in an individual's life when the future crystallises, by choice and circumstance, for good or for bad....Clever Girl is a remarkable novel by one of this country's finest, if most unassuming talents."
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of Clever Girl?
Tessa Hadley: The genesis was probably actually the first chapter, which began as a freestanding story. I got that story from the very oddest place. It almost seems lost to me now; I can't believe it. But I was reading an article about the daughter of Louis the XVI, of all things on earth, who was the survivor of the French Revolution. Both her parents were killed, and her little brother died mysteriously. Nobody ever knew when or how. It was about her surviving into subsequent decades and her strange withdrawnness, and how she didn't like people making a fuss of her. People tried to turn her into a bit of a saint. She was very dignified. I'm not at all a royalist, by the way, but it's just a story that fascinated me.
Somehow — I now don't know how — that got translated into the idea of a very ordinary working-class woman in Bristol in the 1950s, whose little boy is killed and who comes through that. It's not like me, doing a historical transposition. But it was the idea of that woman in that life, and that story took hold of me, and then just turned itself into something that was imagined from the time of my childhood. That's a very odd thing to say, isn't it? That's the last thing anybody would ever expect.
Then the story got itself told. My fascination with where an experience like that goes in somebody — where can they put it, and how can they carry on? — became something entirely different, and became a life story — Stella's life story — that ran on a parallel track to mine. She's born in the same year as me, and in the same city. I feel as if I could have known her. Stella absolutely isn't me and doesn't have my life, but I really embarked on her with that first story. It was so happy to write, and it worked so fluently. I just thought, There's much more of this.
So as I finished the story, I was waiting to see whether other people liked it and whether it had worked. Then I published it as a freestanding story in the New Yorker. Already I was thinking, I know some more things are going to happen to her. I know she's embarked on this adventure of her life, which is full of obstacles and difficulties and extreme happenings. She's a bit of a warrior. She could be, in her feisty little imagination. Stella's life, from that point, inspired her own future. There's a lot in it that I was enormously enjoying writing.
Jill: I love that you call her a warrior. She's remarkably resilient and remarkably adaptable, maybe even from that first chapter, when she wakes up early and walks home from her grandmother's house, and then makes her way to the stables. You get the sense that she will be very self-reliant throughout her life.
Hadley: Yes. I think she gets quite a lot of that probably from the upbringing she has from her mother. Although her mother is at every point a very responsible and loving mother, there's something tough about her that refuses to let Stella be too soft. She pushes her into thinking for herself. I'm not sure she knows she's doing that, exactly. That isn't the policy, but the mother's personality is a bit feisty, and a bit tough, and a bit unsentimental. Somewhere the daughter gets part of that from her, even though in so many ways she's so unlike her mother, and what she chooses is so unlike her mother.
But then, of course, that's like her mother, too, because her mother has firmly rejected her mother's way of life and way of thinking, so actually that's inherited as well. That sort of making it out for yourself, lighting out for the territory kind of thing, and making it up as you go along, though the mother's revolution has been so much smaller. But it's been bold, and she's brave, too. Yes, Stella gets a lot from her mother, I think.
Jill: How much did you think of Stella's story as tied to her time and her place in history, which is your time, too?
Hadley: Hugely. I'm such a believer that personalities and people and lives are not mysterious, intact essences.I feel we are the product of our era — in ways that are wonderful — and we would be, all of us, entirely different had we been born in a different century, in a different place.
Part of what's interesting is to think, everything that's happening in the '60s and all those huge turnarounds of sensibility, and that instability — what effect does that have on the people who are coming of age in that atmosphere? In the '70s, really, is when Stella becomes a young woman. How does that manifest in her life?
It doesn't matter how much we think we're in charge, making the shapes and forms for ourselves. Of course, alongside that, we are the heirs to what we're born into, and the possibilities open to us are whatever is there for us, in our era — and that changes from decade to decade.
I was intensely interested in what it meant, growing up at those times in particular. What kind of sensibility, what kind of intelligence, what kind of courage those decades have produced in people, and I suppose in women in particular... Though, actually, I was just as interested in what sort of young men it produced, and what was in their heads.
Jill: For Stella — as it would have been for many people, obviously, at that time — in some ways she seems very much within those tides of history, and then in other ways she also is so concerned about her children, and that's her main focus.
Hadley: Yes. What you're saying in a way (quite rightly, of course) is that there are certain underpinning fundamentals that don't turn around from decade to decade.
But where you take your children, and what forms of marriage arrangement or whatever you live inside, will vary. But first of all, the pregnancy itself is just... from time immemorial that's happened to girls, and will go on happening to them. So, yes, you're right. There's always a fascinating interplay between the new things and the new shapes and the new forms, and then the underpinning, eternal patterns of motherhood and maternal feeling and affection.
When Stella is middle aged, she feels quite panicky in retrospect, sometimes, about the mother she's been, and the thought of the slightly rocky road that she's taken her boys — and eventually her girl — down. But actually, at every point, her children are in the foreground of her thinking. It almost goes without saying in the book. It's a very interesting thing to write, motherhood. It's so difficult to write a very, very strong feeling and powerful love without sounding sentimental. It's hard, on the one hand, to do real justice to it — that overwhelming, strong loving feeling that mothers mostly have for their children — and, on the other hand, to get that on the page without writing it as a kind of advertisement-type teariness. It's much easier to write angst than it is to write strong love.
I don't think I ever state it very powerfully in the book. I thought about it a lot. I thought, I must do justice for this. I must have it in there, but it's got to be almost between the lines — in moments like that scene when she's done a runner, and then she comes back and slips into the bed beside her little boys.
That awareness of them in the dark, and knowing what pajamas they've got on, and them moving away from her in their sleep... It's that kind of intimate bodily closeness that I hope carries the feeling of the strong love in the book.
Jill: That is such a lovely scene, and I absolutely do think that the feeling carries throughout the book, between the lines, as you say. Would it have been fairly unusual for someone Stella's age to be a single mother in England in the early '70s?
Hadley: Yes, more unusual than it is now. It was on the cusp, I think, here. It was just after the age when a girl like her would have simply been hustled away, up to a different city. "Have your pregnancy in secret. Tell everybody some story, and then have the baby adopted." Ten years before, that would have happened.
It was on the way, I suppose, into the situation we have now where there would be plenty of support for a single mum, and plenty of acceptance. She was brave. She was at the forefront, and she is on the change between two worlds, in one of which having an illegitimate child and being a single parent would have been a really, really deadly stigma. That's on the way out, but it's not easy.
Again, I didn't directly write a lot of the uncomfortableness of that, but I hope it's trickling between the lines. The long unease there is between her and her mum is one of the little gaps in the book. I don't ever actually describe the scenes where she announces to her family that she's pregnant. Presumably there are quarrels about what she should do. I pass over that, and I pick up, but there's a resonating, echoing absence of something horrible that's happened there.
So yes, she was brave, and it was difficult.
Jill: Stella, looking back and speaking as an adult about her Aunt Andy, says, "She was filled out by her fate. I actually think this is quite rare, this capacity to become the whole shape of the accidents that become you."
I thought that was a fascinating line and remark and observation. I was wondering how you thought about that — if it is, in fact, quite rare — and how it applies to Stella and the "accidents" that happen throughout her life, and throughout anyone's life.
Hadley: Yes, that was an important line to me, and it was one of the markers in the book. That's a thought I'm pursuing in the book, and it's a thought I genuinely have. I do think we put a lot of emphasis these days on what goes on inside and our feelings, and how happy or unhappy we are, or how adjusted or maladjusted we are. But in the huge stories of people's lives, it's almost as though we're down among the trees and we don't see the woods.
The huge stories of our own lives are the accidents, for better and for worse, that happened — and I include in that who you meet, and therefore who you end up with. Your children, in a sense, are your accidents. The great big outlines of life that one finds oneself inside, they interest me a lot, and sometimes I think the way we think about ourselves nowadays emphasizes the other thing — what you can make of it, what you can do with it, what you are inside it.
In Andy's case, how astonishing that, yes, between one day and the next, her husband kills her son. That's a ridiculously extreme case. And then Andy's not an interesting woman, in an obvious sense. She's not very intelligent, whatever that means. She doesn't talk deeply or profoundly about what's happened, but there's something in the way she simply is, which carries it off momentously.
I think that, again, that's a lovely thought about people's fate. Often we can see people inhabiting what happens to them, really redresses all that stuff about, "Oh, some people are clever talkers, and some people aren't very articulate, and some people are shy and quiet and seem to be ordinary." But actually, look at that life. Look at the grace with which that person holds the stuff that's happened, and accepts it, and moves inside it and fills it out.
That's the thought I was having, to go right back to the beginning, when I was reading about that princess in France, who wasn't really very interesting. She was probably a bit of a stuffy, stodgy, unimaginative woman, and yet extraordinary stuff happened to her. She watched her parents being taken off for execution. Her little brother was taken away one night and didn't come back. How tremendous people are — and I'm not saying I particularly identify with her or like her — but what a thing, that a person could carry all that in their body, and in their performance of themselves, and in their encounters through all the rest of their lives. Yes, that really hugely interests me.
There's another place, later in the book, where I talk about Stella sitting with her new baby, a little girl, thinking about maybe taking her on, and she thinks how these big things have happened. The accident that maybe one day you'll choose to adopt an extra child and that will become the shape of your family.
That's much more momentous than all the little grinding angst she was having on the way home from the party, being in a bit of a down mood. That's a thought I often have.
Jill: I'm not sure if it's related to this or not — maybe only tangentially — but when you were initially talking about it, it was reminding me that, toward the end of the book, Stella is listening to Valentine, her first love, talking and is thinking about why abstract thinking and abstract meaning is always privileged over the real, over what is actually happening. She chafes against that a bit and thinks, Why is that valued more highly than the things that actually happen in one's life?
Hadley: Yes, I think it is a related thought, isn't it? That's right.
I suppose that's a bit of a woman and man thought. It certainly is at that moment, anyway, with that woman and that man. (Though I wouldn't want to have Valentine standing for all men in the least; he's one very peculiar person, and his own fate has been interesting and strange and a bit sad... very sad, maybe.)
But there he is, sort of in those realms of theory and book and idea, which obviously enormously interest me, and they enormously interest Stella. But somewhere, she's also got to be grounded in doing the cooking, and doing the washing, and the simple pragmatic facts of life.
It really, I think, is true in our European culture that, over centuries, we have privileged the theoretical and the abstract as if it were the higher form, the thing that all the other work — the daily, pragmatic, organizational work — is just there to keep the engine running, while really what we're here for and what we attain to at our highest is some kind of transcendence.
But that does tend to disadvantage women. It is always women who are making the household run and putting the dinner on the table while the scholar in his study is thinking about the nature of being. My book chafes at that a little bit, and Stella chafes at it. Of course, it's a simplification these days, because all of that is very much up for quarreling about and has been quarreled about hugely. I don't mean it to be getting at men, in some simplified way, but it is very interesting.
There's another bit where Stella's thinking about how she's loved Beckett and Burroughs, and now she feels that they're her enemies, because they would despise the things she has to spend all the hours of her day doing. I remember feeling that. I remember feeling, There's something stupid about what I have to do all day. It's demeaning, and many people would think I was stupid because I have to do it, by the standards of the things I've read in books, where all that is at the bottom of the heap. But somebody has to.
That whole problematic turning over of routines, real things, daily life, ordinariness as opposed to transcendent moments... But of course women are also fighting to get their moments of transcendence and not be always washing up and doing housework. That isn't all we're interested in at all. It's a really complicated thread.
Jill: It struck me as a bit remarkable how most of the characters stick around in Stella's life, in one way or another. Valentine comes back, she remains close to Jude and Daphne long after they lived together the first time, and Sheila comes back.
I have found that in my own life, a bit, but I wonder if that is more rare these days, or maybe just more rare in America, with people moving so frequently. I don't know.
Hadley: When you move in America, just by the nature of the place, you move farther. And Stella does something that I didn't do. I haven't spent my life at home in Bristol. I think it really helps if you do that. You stay there, at your place of origin, and that means other people — even the people who leave — will probably come back from time to time; often parents bring them back, and you're sort of at the hub.
Of course, there was a literary need for me to have that happen, unless it was to simply be a kind of whirling forward movement. I think I was very aware of that — writing the book in that episodic way, where one thing follows another, follows another, follows another — that I could end up just shedding each scene and moving on to a new one.
To some extent, I do think that's all that that is, what life is like. I think we sometimes overstress continuity and, actually, our lives really and truly swirl along and forwards, and we do shed a lot of stuff. But in a book, there's some need to curl things around as well and set up echoes at the beginning that come back later, beginning with Andy. Then I knew I needed to bring her back in somewhere, so I have her party near the end, and so on and so forth.
Bringing Valentine back... I didn't understand that that was what I needed to do for a long time, and then as I was getting towards the end — I just got it. I saw it. In fact, I'd done something more convoluted, which now sounds very clumsy. But I actually had that late scene with him much earlier on in the book, like a sort of looking forward. That was hopeless. Then I just suddenly got this, Of course. He comes back at the end and she revisits him. I think just as a fiction, it would have felt a little bit incomplete if I had left him hanging and not revisited him, not brought him back in.
But then, you know, people do that in their lives. They do, at a certain point, seek out old things that they have forgotten about in their headlong rush forwards, into the future, and people become more and more preoccupied with the past.
I know I've met up with a couple of friends who I was very, very close to in my childhood and teens, and we had very much lost touch, but when we got to about 50, we all looked back and reached out to each other again, and now we see each other every few months, or every year or so, which is very nice. That feels rounded. It has a nice form to it, like a novel should have its shape and form.
Jill: How did you think about the pacing that makes up a whole life, or as much of a life as we get of Stella's? How long to spend on one particular era or character or episode?
Hadley: I think I was very comfortable with what I've done, partly because it's a little bit like what I did in my second novel, where I had a lot of life, but rather than telling it all evenly — which, if you cover a lot of years, you're going to have to get a bit skimpy in places, and that would be unsatisfactory — what I've done is choose hot spots from each period. So what's next, but what's really next. Not filling in all the gaps in a historian's way — this, then this, then this, then this, then this — but reaching out for the next burning thing that's happening, the next urgent thing, the significant thing to take hold of.
That's how the chapters work, and it was quite easy. It's rather a joy to write, because you feel you're just exempted from all the filling in. You just have to fly, and then land, and then take off again, and then land again. You're choosing all the bits you're really excited to write, so that's nice to do.
The big structural problem with the novel was not the first half, which was a pleasure. It's so lovely writing about children and youth and teenagers, and then young motherhood. It's all so fast and intense and extreme, and the changes are so violent.
But it was the second half of this book that was really structurally difficult. I knew that from the very beginning. First of all, where to stop? I wasn't going to take it up to her death — that would have been sort of ridiculous, especially as she's telling it in the first person anyway — but then where? Why stop at one year rather than another?
I happened upon 50 because that seemed shapely. That seemed like a momentous point, a sort of midpoint. It's over the midpoint, but it's this significant marker, so I made up my mind that that was where to stop. Then I had to think of how to balance middle age against youth because, in one sense, in most middle age, 30s and 40s, there's somewhat less intensity than in childhood and youth, so what was going to balance what came in the first half and make the second half not feel like a trailing off?
Well, either it could have just felt, Oh, she's much more happy and much more settled, and therefore it's rather dull, or just unrelenting misery. I didn't want that, either. I didn't want this to be a life that really did just ricochet between disasters. You might have begun to think she is a disaster, in some way.
That was hard, finding what to do with her. The essential stories that I was able to feel my way to were, first of all, Max and the whole complicated business of getting together with him and being together with him and not writing this as a happy-ever-after either, though I do think he's really super and I think so far as happy-ever-after goes, it's fine.
But I really wanted to write about that sketchiness of long relationships. And then thinking of the baby as well, thinking of the little girl and that unexpected thing, where they suddenly take her on. That was a leftover from a story I'd had an idea for years ago, that never got written. It was just hanging around there, that someone might just really, really not be enjoying motherhood, and hand over a baby, and that someone else just might take it. I feel very confident that that has happened, here and there. It gave an intensity to the latter part of the book. Then, thinking of Valentine coming back as well, I had it. But it was harder. It was much harder to make that work than it was in the first half.
Jill: Speaking of the baby being part of an idea that you'd had earlier, Sheila and Neil themselves are characters that were in a couple other stories of yours, were they not?
Hadley: Very well spotted. I didn't think anybody would notice that. That's right.
Jill: Why did you want to bring those characters back?
Hadley: Do you know, at one point I was going to do a novel about them and also about Hilary, who's Sheila's sister, who is in my first collection of stories. I had that whole family of nine children at the vicarage in East Anglia, and then Neil, the working-class boy from Birmingham. I had a whole idea for a book around them, and actually that's where that baby was. It was always going to be Sheila's baby, funnily enough. But the context — there was no Stella yet.
That's not like me. I'm not like Ellen Gilchrist, who's wonderful at having all her stories link up, and she picks up characters from here and there. I've not done that, but in this case obviously I had some sense of Sheila and Neil being particularly rich and involving, and I was not quite finished with them yet, so there they were.
That was a hard chapter to write, actually, the commune one, for very pragmatic reasons. It's really hard writing lots of people in one place. Doing justice to all of them, without overloading the reader with, "Here's another person, here's another person, here's another person," so that was another one that probably took more rewrites than anything else. But I was determined to have them in there.
Jill: That was one of my favorite chapters to read, I will say. Maybe in part because of what you were saying earlier about the intensity of youth.
Hadley: Yeah. It's the darkest. You're right. It's like a concentrated middle to the book, and I suppose it's, in a way, the sexiest chapter and the darkest, at the end.
Jill: It is very dark. I liked what Stella said about her relationship with Andrew. She says, "Each of us wanted the other to be the darkness, listening." When I read that, I thought that can be a kind of relationship that we want in our lives, sometimes, but that goes unacknowledged, maybe somewhat more than others.
Hadley: Yes, I do thinkpeople can come together with extraordinary intensity sometimes, when each requires the other one to be their fulfillment — the place where they'll be swallowed up. I'm not a relationship counselor, but I think it's probably quite dangerous, because it's not very clear-eyed. One blunders into that.
I had it all in the story, really, but that's right, yes. I had the feeling that each of them was seeking, urgently, something they saw in the other, but they were actually slightly missing each other, which doesn't mean to say it doesn't make a good blaze, that kind of love. When it happens, it makes a very strong blaze, but there's a sort of illusion in it, whereas what happens later with Max is much more clear-eyed.
Jill: I feel like Stella, looking back on her life in general, is admirably clear-eyed. She's very fair when she's talking about her relationship with Max, or her stepfather, or her mother. She scrupulously points out her own faults, and their good points in the retelling.
Hadley: I think she probably needs to be, doesn't she? Unless I was going to write a very different book, which had an unreliable narrator. But the book gives itself over into her hands, and that's quite a special thing to do. It's the only time I've ever written a novel in the first person. One has to have the right first person, and I think, for me anyway, I needed to feel that she was generous, and that however extreme and opinionated and prone to violent swerves in what she's going to do and where she's going — in the end, she is clear-eyed. I needed her to be that.
I often say, "Doesn't one need the narrator of a story to be fair in some way?" and then I think of people like Jean Rhys who, of course, are never fair and are full of this insane, paranoid vision of the world, and then write masterpieces. So there is no requirement, but that's the kind of thing I do, and I wouldn't have been able to have her as my medium if I hadn't felt she was clear, to the extent anybody ever can be.
Jill: I also liked how Stella described the life of another character — that she thought about her "not particularly warmly nor resentfully, just aware of her existing somewhere, picking at the knot of her life in her own way." That "picking at the knot of her life" sounds like the way you show us these characters, and the characters in your stories — they're all picking at their own knots.
Hadley: It's more about that fate thing, isn't it? What's really interesting about people is not what you get out of them, or what you have in a relationship. It's just the mystery of living, which is so difficult and so strange, and everybody's doing it, getting on with it.
Whatever destiny they've embraced, there they are, picking it over, passing the days and getting through them and making a story out of it. That's deeply fascinating, that most utterly ordinary thing which, when you're in the thick of it, you hardly register, but with the long view you see the mystery of it. When people die, you see it. When somebody dies you think, Ah. They lived that story. That was them. That story was them. I felt that very intensely recently, when a friend died and I thought, So, that's what he was. He was that story of his life.
Jill: Lastly, I was just going to ask what you're reading and enjoying lately.
Hadley: I've actually just been reading Jean Rhys, which is why she popped into my head. I was reading that masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, which I've read over and over and over and over. I was actually reading it to teach it, but that didn't mean it was any kind of an obligation. I just love it. I love every word of it, so I was reading that.
I've just been discovering, very maddeningly, yet another very good Irish novelist. It's so unfair. Why is it that there are just so many good Irish writers? This is Hugo Hamilton I've been reading. He wrote a memoir which made a big stir here, called The Speckled People, which was about growing up in Dublin. He's about my age, and he grew up in Dublin with a German mother and a father from Cork, who insisted on the family speaking only Irish. He wouldn't let them speak English. That was his lovely memoir, but I thought his novel Disguise was also wonderful, so I've been reading him. Also, Deirdre Madden, who's another wonderful Irish writer. I like her a lot. Molly Fox's Birthday, that's a beautiful book. It's just superb.
Jill: I will check both of those out, and it's been many years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, so maybe I should go back to that, too.
Hadley: It's word perfect. Talk about compression. I was just talking about this with my students. The sense that every word is bursting, enormous, nothing superfluous, nothing wasted — this lean bolt of lightning. It's fabulous.
Books mentioned in this post