Since finishing her latest novel, Late in the Day, Tessa Hadley has been “in a real panic”. She was worried that the story — about two long-married couples whose seemingly well ordered, beautiful lives become messy after one of the husbands dies — was too sad, “too glum”. “I thought it was going to be a disaster,” she says. But the novel, her seventh, has just received early reviews from the US, including one in the Washington Post that begins by hailing her as “one of the greatest stylists alive”. We meet the evening before she heads off on a two-week US book tour. Many writers would grumble about this as a necessary evil of modern publishing, but Hadley is looking forward to it, especially her shared events with the Irish writer Colm Toibin , “a genius”, and the New Yorker critic James Wood. The whole thing is “amazing”, she marvels.
Success is all the more gratifying to Hadley “because it came later”. After 20 years of struggling to write, Accidents in the Home, her first novel, was published when she was 46. Much has been made of this late start but, as she points out, it’s hardly as if she were Penelope Fitzgerald (who was 61 when her first novel was published). In a long print dress and waistcoat, and with her fine bone structure and expressive manner, Hadley, now in her 60s, could be the elegant, sharply drawn heroine of one of her own books (she is not, she insists, the quietly determined painter Christine in Late in the Day, “but I felt very close to her”). She speaks with the flowing, thoughtful intensity of her prose, and says of the impending tour: “I’ve had my moments of thinking ‘wouldn’t it have been fun to do this in my 30s? Wouldn’t it have been wicked to do this in my 30s!’ But then I wouldn’t change those strange, anonymous, quiet, private years of feeling quite low sometimes because I so longed to write and I couldn’t do it. Feeling like a real person, with friends and family, I wouldn’t lose that, that seems part of everything to me. And,” she reflects, sinking back into the armchair with her glass of wine, “what a nice compensation for growing older. I’m so lucky.”
Reviews of Hadley’s work tend to sound like undergraduate reading lists, comparing her to everyone from Elizabeth Bowen to Virginia Woolf. She has a theory that if you mention writers you admire in interviews, your work becomes associated with them, and she is full of recommendations (it’s not often Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert comes up in conversation). She is yet to win one of the big literary prizes, perhaps because she is known for “domestic fiction” and is often seen as Britain’s answer to Alice Munro or Anne Tyler. Late in the Day, with its focus on the enduring conflicts between marriage and freedom (infidelity), motherhood and art, is hallmark Hadley, although, with its serious, questing characters, it is in some ways more akin to the now rather unfashionable novels of Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble.
With this book, she wanted to write about long marriages, in particular, because “they seem immensely interesting and they are kind of new in a way ... people just live so much longer.” She recalls an image from a folktale that appears in the novel of holding on to your lover as he goes through a series of metamorphoses: a fairy, a dragon, a lion. “And it seems to me marriage is a bit like that,” she says. “You either hang on or you don’t.”
Hanging on or not is the starting point for much of Hadley’s fiction and she is good on the nagging insistence of desire. “Yeah, I am always writing about the power of that, not in detail, but what a potent thing it is, and yet how hard it still is to talk about.” The sex life of one of the couples in the book, Christine and Alex, “is non-existent and quite inarticulate. You read all those wonderful Guardian advice columns, saying: ‘You must talk to each other’ and they aren’t and actually they can’t,” she says. “There’s something about cohabiting that is a little bit numbing. I have a perfectly happy marriage,” she adds, laughing.
As Anne Enright noted years ago, “Hadley, for all the felicity of her prose style, is an immensely subversive writer.” But, set in the comfortable, selfconscious world of London art dealers, artists and poets, Late in the Day hardly seems radical. In fact, in subject matter, tone and location, it could be described as a Hampstead novel for Fitbit-wearing fiftysomethings.
Apart from passing mentions of Facebook or Tinder, her fiction has an Austen-like reticence about external events. But Hadley, like her well-meaning, well-heeled characters, is acutely aware of “this dangerous globalised world”, reading and worrying about it all the time, wondering: “What am I doing wasting my time on this, when the world is going to hell in a handcart?”
Her characters, like Chekhov’s, she says, are burdened by conscience and privilege, angsty and guilt-ridden, but impotent to do anything about it. “All a novelist can do is watch the people thinking that.” But instead of the largely upper middle-class groups of the north London novels of yore, she is interested in the overlooked “much-mocked, Guardian-reading liberal intelligentsia, who are so characteristic of now, with all their comedy and all their sweetness and goodness”.
“Is it drawing to a close, do you think? Our bourgeois sensibility ... Our privilege of subtlety and irony is at an end,” one character laments, without irony.
“It looks as if we have written about that for ever and ever,” Hadley agrees. “But we haven’t done a catch-up on quite how that feels now.” This, she says, is her true subject: “Not a huge one, but here in this little Britain, now. This class of conscientious, flawed, indulgent but self-searching people that is my generation. It is slightly tragic, no, comic, the helplessness of that conscientiousness,” she says carefully. “It’s a very conscientious moment I think.”
Hadley grew up in “a very ordinary bourgeois schoolteacher’s household in Bristol”. But it was a creative one: her father was also a jazz trumpeter and her “stay at home mum” — “a very beautiful, very sexy, very glamorous woman” — was a dressmaker and artist, and her uncle is the playwright Peter Nichols (best known for A Day in the Death of Joe Egg). Although she was “quite clever”, she was “no good at formal education”, and hated her girls’ grammar school in Bristol: “It was like a prison to me ... the most unhappy time of my life.” At 14 she left to join her brother (now an art historian) at the local comprehensive, where she was much happier, and where an English teacher encouraged her to apply to Cambridge. “Did I enjoy it?” she asks herself. “I felt a bit of a fish out of water. It was a club again. I’d been no good at Brownies. I longed to do ballet. I longed to fit in at grammar school, but somehow I’m not good at it. It was fine at Cambridge. But no, I didn’t love it.”
After Cambridge, she “had no plan, except to live”. She trained to become a teacher, meeting her future husband, her tutor Eric Hadley, and thereby fulfilling her mother’s prophecy that she would “meet a lovely man, someone older, somebody in authority”. And following a brief spell teaching (“I was hopeless”), she “went off and had babies ... What madness. I blame DH Lawrence entirely.” (She is an unashamedly passionate Lawrentian.)
Over the next 10 years she had three sons, and three stepsons, who were “intimately part of our huge family”, and was “busy making a life at home and all of that, like my mother had done”. But she was seized with a “devouring, painful need to write ... pushed down with shame when I thought: ‘How dare I think of it’.” Her fervent reading only increased her “hunger to do it”. Once her boys were at school, she tried more seriously, “in secret, not really making too much of it”, finishing four novels. “But my books were no good. That was agony.” She was “trying to write other people’s books in other people’s voices”; Bertolt Brecht inspired one, Nadine Gordimer another, “but in all of them I was faking it in every sentence”. She told herself to give up because it was making her so miserable, “but the trouble was, I couldn’t”. After each rejection letter she would immediately start thinking about “the next novel and that I would get this one right”.
In desperation, she enrolled in her late 30s on an MA in creative writing, then quite new in the UK, at Bath College of Higher Education, now Bath Spa University, despite her misgivings — “Lawrence and Tolstoy didn’t do an MA course!” And she loved it so much that she stayed on to do her PhD, on Henry James. “I was being my clever self, gradually coming out from disguise,” she says. She has taught creative writing there ever since: “a joy to do”.
It was while working at the university that she got a call from her newly acquired agent to say Accidents in the Home had been bought by Jonathan Cape. In a scene that might come from one of her novels, she called her best friend, who said simply, “‘This changes everything.’ And it did!” she says, getting a little weepy.
In fact, an excerpt from the novel had already appeared in the New Yorker, “one of the miracles in my life”. She tells a good story of how, some years earlier, she had “made a pilgrimage” from Cardiff, where the family lived, to London to meet an agent who had shown interest in her work. They recommended she try placing some short stories. She naively suggested the New Yorker, where she was reading Gordimer and Munro. “I saw the agent and her assistant just glance at each other. Aaargh!” But she had the last laugh and is now a regular in the magazine. She credits Munro’s stories with giving her “a lovely sense of permission” to write as herself at last and about the world she knew: “I was thinking this is just life. I recognise this, its weave is right, its sensibility.”
Today Hadley writes at a small desk in her bedroom in her London flat, having moved from Cardiff once the boys left home. “I do always feel that if I had a beautiful study lined with books, with an exquisite desk and flowers and a view, I would think: ‘Who is that for?’ It would feel fraudulent.” After all those years writing between the school run and doing the laundry, she doesn’t have a strict regime: “The rule is, it’s not a rule, it’s for pleasure, because I want to. So I write any day I can.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of Late in the Day for Hadley is the character of Christine, who, when her marriage falls apart, is sustained by her art. “I was thinking about how I feel about work and its importance, and I was pouring that into writing about her and her painting.” She recalls her great heroes, the Elizabeths Bowen and Taylor, who responded to “the gathering despair in western culture” in the mid 20th century “by saying ‘I’m going to go on describing the everyday life of people getting on with love and parenthood and despair, because I’ve only just got this. I’m not going to give it up just out of angst and existential despair’.”
So Hadley plans to continue writing about people just getting on with the business of living. She’s already at work on her next novel. “It’s slightly mad. I suppose it is because I started late or something,” she says. “Now I’m loving it, why wouldn’t I do it as much as I can?”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd