Review by George Simmers
The Woman in the Back Seat is the story of a second marriage. It begins in 1946, and the central character, Ellen, is the widow of an artist whom she never really loved. A friend suggests that she gets away from her life to work as secretary to a highbrow novelist in the South of France. She refuses the novelist’s proposal of marriage (he is apparently asexual, and seems to want her for decorative and secretarial purposes) but falls for a young academic who is translating the novelist’s work into French. With him, she discovers what sexual pleasure can be – something she never experienced in years of her first marriage.
She goes back with Paul to his job at the University of Shagford, in the Midlands. She deeply dislikes the town, which is dirty and provincial, and the students, who are dirty and ill-mannered, although her husband is very serious about his his job of teaching them. The couple grow apart, while he is blamed for university scandals, and for moral turpitude among the students. She also has problems with Lavinia, the daughter of her first marriage, especially when the girl, now a teenager, develops a crush on Paul.
As a study of a marriage where a lack of shared interests and attitudes drives husband and wife apart, it is quite well done.
What I found both interesting and off-putting, though, was the book’s revelation of its cultural assumptions.
The treatment of Culver Chase, the writer of highbrow fiction, is ambivalent. He is not for the masses:
‘Mrs Gordon-Beckett had never read a line of Culver Chase in her life, and would not have understood a paragraph […] but certain names, like Eliot, Woolf, Morgan and Chase appeared to carry weight, even among addicts of popular fiction.'(31)
Ellen considers herself superior to Mrs Gordon-Beckett, but criticises Chase by conventional middlebrow criteria:
‘He’s so terribly involved! Some of his paragraphs remind me a little of Meredith – one has to read them half a dozen times to get the sense, and one isn’t quite sure of it, even then.’ (56)
Paul, the most intelligent character in the novel, even though he is Chase’s translator, sees his success as a matter of fashion. For his students :
‘You can’t criticise [Chase’s] ideas and attitudes, because, if you do, you label yourself as a pre-war fuddy-duddy, a survival of the age of Walpole and Galsworthy.’ (56)
Paul is committed to modern literature, despite the moral disapproval of the university and town notables and their wives:
“Before Paul had the chair, ‘Modern Literature’ stopped at Bennett, Wells, Mansfield, Woolf and the poets of the first world war. He gave them D’Annunzio, Proust, the new Americans, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas and Joyce: all ‘indecent’ writers and ‘morally subversive’ – according to the bitch-women who run the senate and the faculty.” (280)
By distancing herself from Mrs Gordon-Beckett and the ‘bitch-women’ (the faculty wives) Steen is making sure that she does not seem merely philistine when she presents the highbrow Chase negatively – as obscure, asexual, demanding and self-centred.
When the story moves to the Midlands town of Shagford, the book’s cultural prejudices are indistinguishable from class prejudices. In the late fifties, after Lucky Jim, redbrick universities were a fashionable subject in fiction , and Marguerite Steen takes on the task of describing the fairly new social phenomenon, the provincial and definitely non-Oxbridge student. She was in her sixties when she wrote the book, though, and she shows almost no sympathy with or understanding of the younger generation, or the institutions where they are taught. Her whole attitude to the university is negative: the buildings reek of Jeyes fluid, the academics are provincial and socially inferior, and the students are uncouth and smelly. We are told:
Many were quite pathetically dirty; she would have liked to take them and brush their hair and wash their faces and hands! Not that they gave an impression of poverty; the ones within her immediate vision were even, so far as quality went, well dressed; but so filthy, so neglected-looking that they might have come out of the slums. A perceptible smell of human bodies mingled with the smell of food. (111)
The uncleanliness of the students is constantly mentioned, as is their lack of social cultivation. Even Paul, who defends the students, is dismissive of their regional dialects and accents:
‘It takes a year, more or less, before they start to pick up standard English in the lectures and discussion groups.’ (123)
There are crises among the students – one becomes pregnant, and another commits suicide, but they are not portrayed as individuals, only as a troublesome and unmanageable mass. The only student whose background is at all explored is the exception to the crowd of hobbledehoys; his father is a vicar who cannot afford to send his youngest son to Oxford, so he has to make do with Shagford (though that is all right, because, with a missionary spirit, he has decided that his career will be teaching in a place like this, so he needs to get to know these people.)
There is confusion, too about the book’s period. It is set immediately after the Second World War, but much of it seems to be more about the late fifties. In 1947 a student writes an essay on The Uses of Literacy (Hoggart’s book was not published until 1957). The novel describes a battle between Arts and Science faculties that maybe refers to C.P. Snow’s idea of the Two Cultures, a topical theme in the late fifties.
As a novelistic portrayal of a university the book fails, because the place is only seen through the unsympathetic eyes of Ellen. At he end of the book, she comes to see that the failure of her marriage is her own fault, and she wishes that she had tried harder to take a keener interest in her husband’s work. Since Marguerite Steen has not really shown that his work among the students is in any way valuable, or that either the city or the University have any redeeming features, this is not very convincing.
A charge sometimes laid against middlebrow fiction is that its main effect is to reinforce the prejudices of its readers. In this case, I’d say that the accusation was justified.