Jennifer Johnston: a Big House guide, full of compassion but free of illusions

Book Club: Her work on the Big House novel provides us with the most revealing example of her power and subtlety as a novelist

Jennifer Johnston at the launch of Grace and Truth in 2005. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Jennifer Johnston at the launch of Grace and Truth in 2005. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

What is the enduring appeal of Jennifer Johnston’s fictions? Other admirers will find different qualities in her writing to commend but for me, right from her first novel, the outstanding quality of The Captains and the Kings is the tough directness of her imaginative vision. Writing in this newspaper, Adrienne Levy makes the point that “Johnston’s fiction reminds us of the indeterminacy of the past, and the dangers of idealising any one version of Ireland’s recent history, or our own family history”.

The history of the Anglo-Irish has been in danger of idealisation and the Irish Big House novel in the latter part of the last century has sought to counter this with healthy ambivalence and nuance. Johnston, along with Aidan Higgins, John Banville, Brian Moore and William Trevor, remade and re-interpreted this genre and to good effect. Although Johnston has written successfully on many themes and within many other contexts, to my mind, her work on the Big House novel provides us with the most revealing example of her power and subtlety as a novelist.

Johnston, more than any of her contemporaries, avoids the temptation to sentimentalise broken and stranded lives within these decaying houses and she rarely seeks to portray as heroic the struggles of these beleaguered families to survive. In her novels she is usually prepared to depict their courageous maintenance of good behaviour with empathy and to acknowledge their marginality. However, the bleakness of the lives of these characters and her honesty in presenting emotional stalemate and loss undercuts any incipient sentimentality.

This willingness to cast a cold eye on social change while depicting these lost worlds with a kind of poetic realism is challenging but Johnston succeeds again and again

This willingness to cast a cold eye on the realities of social change while depicting these lost worlds with a kind of poetic realism is a challenging balance for any novelist to maintain but Johnston succeeds again and again in her novels. As a result, her pared-down, precise style of narration allows her to chart the lives of the Anglo-Irish far into their decline and beyond, with clear-eyed precision, with unflinching honesty and, unexpectedly, with a hard-won compassion.

From the beginning, her novels display this unexpected quality and, not surprisingly, her first novel The Captains and the Kings, published in 1972, won her the first of her many literary awards and launched a career that continues to this day. Re-reading it today, 45 years later, the novel’s full impact remains intact. We see the integrity of its representation of the emotional isolation of the Big House, direct, even shocking in this sparse, confident narrative.

The world of this Big House is a world of emotional cruelty, like that of Molly Keane but without the reassuring charm of Keane’s wicked comic vision. This decaying house in Co Wicklow, is a blighted one, the owner Mr Prendergast a widower estranged from his only daughter and limiting his social outings to playing the organ for the local Church of Ireland congregation. Prendergast resists the well-meaning attempts of the vicar and his wife to befriend him and is tormented by the memory of his emotional cruelty to his dead wife.

The novel takes an unexpected turn when a local boy Diarmid calls to the house looking for work and an unlikely connection is made between Prendergast and the young boy, a rare, even singular moment of emotional richness. The old man and the boy share a love of military history and Diarmid keeps coming back to the big house as a place of refuge from his miserable family life.

Mr Prendergast’s broken past, the memory of his long-dead brother Alexander, favourite son of his beautiful, cruel mother, and his recollections of his emotionally barren marriage, all somehow find a redemption in this unlikely friendship. The reader experiences a sickening sense of doom when all turns sour and the old man is wrongly accused of abusing the boy. In some ways, elements of the characterisation are a little limited, with the grasping parents of the boy and the servile vicar lacking depth, but there is a real energy in this honest, even harsh book. At the end, Johnston presents an unexpected resolution with the sincere compassion of the local Catholic priest, Fr Mulcahy. In a pivotal final scene, Prendergast asks Mulcahy:

“You don’t sound as if you liked your flock, or should I say, pack very much?”

“I understand them. I try to love them. I have very few illusions about the human breed, Mr Prendergast, or about my own deficiencies as a guide. I’ve wished many times that you had been one of mine. The thought has often been in my mind that I could have helped you.”

“Maybe I didn’t need your help.”

“We all need help.”

With this remarkable first novel, Jennifer Johnston established her presence as one of our foremost writers and now, 18 novels later, that presence is as distinctive and as forceful as ever and worth celebrating.
Eibhear Walshe is senior lecturer in English at University College Cork. His books include studies of Kate O’Brien, Elizabeth Bowen and Colm Tóibín and the novel The Diary of Mary Travers

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