Tessa Hadley walks into the sitting room of a hotel in London’s West End that is a pleasant mixture of Christmassy, deserted and library-quiet – a welcome side-effect of the pandemic. At 65, she has an eager, intelligent, girlish face and an elegant angularity (I’ve not seen her handwriting but would bet on forward-sloping italics). She is wearing a long string of red beads against a white sweater that is reminiscent of her character Alice’s fashion advice in her 2015 novel, The Past: “you should go for this understated thing, that the French women do”.
I feel, from the minute we meet, as if Hadley were a friend unaccountably not seen for years, and, as swiftly, recognise this as an explicable illusion because, like all her admiring readers, I have met her through her beautifully written, quietly bestselling novels, including The Past and Late in the Day (2019) – and now through her bold new book, Free Love. It is not that her writing is autobiographical, more that she has the gift for bringing everything she has, sees and knows to the characters she creates. As soon as she is sitting down, we order a pot of Ceylon tea for two – our excuse, we agree with relief, for shedding our face masks. There is so much to talk about, I say.
Free Love is set in the 60s, and at its centre is Phyllis, an attractive, middle-aged woman who falls in love with Nicky, the grown-up son of a friend of her husband’s – young enough to be her child – and leaves her own children to be with him. The Washington Post has described Hadley as “one of the greatest stylists alive”, and in this novel, as in her others and in her short stories (many of them published in the New Yorker), the beauty of her prose is in its supple, non-attention-seeking articulacy. Free Love is brilliantly plotted and keeps its secret through two-thirds of its length so faithfully, I did not even begin to guess at the hugely satisfying slipknot ahead.
But when I put it to Hadley that Free Love is about the cost of love, the price tag attaching to passionate relationships, she just nods in acquiescence, regretfully, as if she could not be expected to be held responsible for this or any other consequence. She is surprised-bordering-on-hurt when I tell her that while she might not condemn Phyllis for abandoning her children, I do. “Do you?” she says wistfully, “My mum does too.” (Her 90-year-old mother, as well as being a critical ally, will turn out be a wonderful presence in our conversation.) Hadley’s surprise at readers not liking some of her female characters is not new (take a look at this London Review bookshop interview), but what fascinates is what this reveals about her creative process. One of her strengths is that she never judges, and this is because she is too closely involved with her characters for the distance that judgment requires: “If I met them I might not like them. But when you’re writing, you’re more interested in getting them, seeing them, just having them there.”
By suspending judgment herself, I suggest to her, it is her readers who are left holding the baby of responsibility and likely to become aghast, apprehensive and desperately sorry for Phyllis’s children. Does she feel compassion for her own characters? She wonders if that would come over as “a bit soppy”. And she decides that, anyway, she doesn’t: “It’s a little bit colder than that. When I’m writing Phyllis, I’m being her, which doesn’t involve judging her or feeling compassionate, it’s just inhabiting.”
Inhabiting – this is the key; Hadley’s gift is to move in completely. And so to what extent does she see Phyllis’s tumble into love as being about the vain longing to feel young again? “A lot,” she replies, and refers back to the opening chapter, a dinner at Phyllis’s house in which she first sets eyes on Nicky and believes he is recoiling from her physically. “It upends her and destabilises the careless, unexamined assumption she has had that she will go on being herself. She suddenly thinks she is going to be old, and that there is something she has not had. And one has to be reasonably sympathetic to that anguish.” But surely Hadley could not imagine leaving her own children for a man? “I couldn’t – and that has not arisen for me, which is good – but I can imagine the women who have done it and don’t condemn them.”
Phyllis’s relationship of loving reciprocity with her nine-year-old son, Hugh, is movingly described. But once Phyllis has deserted, the age of innocence is over. There is an excruciating moment when Hugh receives a birthday card from his mother, while at boarding school, and throws it away. I ask if Hugh is based on any of her sons but this proves too simple a serve and she hits it straight back over the net: “No, that was just made up.” She defends Phyllis by emphasising that she was about to lose her son anyway to boarding school: “It’s a precipitating factor in unloosing her. She has a marvellous, kind, companionable marriage but it’s not passionate on either side. The reward has been her blissful relationship with her son.”
Tessa Hadley met her own husband, Eric Hadley, at teacher training college. He was her tutor and she married him at 23, “ridiculously young”, and had her first baby at 24. Elsewhere, she has blamed DH Lawrence for what she describes as “crazy life choices”. She explains now that the craziness was her belief that “a career was not what I wanted”. She was in flight from a “disastrous” year of trying to be a school teacher. She had also flirted with the academic route, getting as far as applying to do a PhD on Jane Austen, but when her husband got a teaching job in Cardiff deciding against that too: “In a Lawrentian spirit I thought there was a falsity and deadness…” she does not finish her sentence. Reading between the lines, it cannot have been an easy time. She admits she kept notebooks about the “tensions of young motherhood and marriage”. As material for a novel? “No, I had nil idea – they were for myself… I loved my sons, and being domesticated gave me alibis for not going out and getting a proper job.” But she veered “backwards and forwards” between feeling she was on the right path (her mother’s) and feeling “desolate I wasn’t in the world”.
Hadley has three stepsons and three sons. Her eldest stepson is 55 – 10 years younger than she is. Her youngest son is 30. I am curious – it is something we have in common – to hear about her experience of an all-male household. She had pictured herself having daughters, but “my sons are exactly what I want because they are who they are”. She flags the positives about having boys: “Privacy and a sort of freedom in your head, although anyone who thinks boys don’t suffer from angst – there’s plenty of that. But they are ironists, jokers – you can’t get away with being too solemn. I remember a no-good book I wrote called Crazy Salad, a quotation from Shakespeare. The boys found this on my computer and would weave it into everyday conversation: ‘What’s for supper tonight, Mum? Is it crazy salad?’” They lived in Cardiff in “a house that was a bit of a slum but good for bringing up wild teenagers”. After the boys had grown up, they moved to London for 10 years but are now back in Cardiff “in a very pretty street” so her mother can be with them. “Cardiff is a wonderful city, and it’s great to be in Wales with a Labour government.”
But Hadley is, by birth, a Bristolian. She is the daughter of a teacher, Geoff Nichols, who ran a music shop and was a jazz trumpeter with a successful West Country band. He died a couple of years ago (his brother, Tessa’s uncle, was the playwright Peter Nichols). Mary, Hadley’s mother, was a dressmaker and amateur artist, and vivid, positive, glamorous. “She still is. Some people resign themselves early to being elderly, but Mum was furious the other day because she couldn’t hammer in her Christmas decorations.”
Over the course of the conversation, we track Hadley’s writing life to its beginnings, starting with the tiny, stitched books she wrote aged 10, illustrated on their backs by her mother: “These were imitation Frances Hodgson Burnett or E Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods.” She still possesses a little book entitled The Countess which she disparages as “fake” and influenced by Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, but which, she says, has one good line: “Frederick Fillet gazed into the dying coles [an Ashfordesque misspelling] of the fire.”
Hadley went to “a horrible girls grammar school” before escaping to join her brother at the local comprehensive. And throughout this time she kept “an utterly humiliating diary”. Her early entries were sweetly uneventful: “Mummy is a pig, she won’t let Kate stay for tea.” But then she sank into the teenage mire: “I don’t think I can live if I don’t see M in the morning.” She laughs. “I don’t even know who M is now!” She was too insecure to write stories: “I’d had the stuffing knocked out of me and was too busy living – or failing to live. Mum was my role model in thinking one had always, first of all, to be loved and make a home.”
When she got into Cambridge to read English, she “fell in love with other people’s writing” but still did not dare write herself. Hadley is, and always has been, a bookworm, “a compulsive, obsessive, library-going reader”. A talent for reading is seldom remarked upon but can be the making of a writer. Hadley has been compared to Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch and Anne Tyler. But it is the less mainstream novelist, Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), who matters to her most: “Bowen’s writing got into my bloodstream. It’s to do with the excitement she has at life. She can make you excited about everything from central heating in a stuffy hallway in a Regent’s Park house, to the sun setting behind hills in Ireland, to a suitcase sliding around on the back seat of a car. The work of getting those things on to the page is so vigorous.”
This is Hadley’s work too: “an urge to capture what is actual around me”. And it is work that, at first, led nowhere. Her first novel, Accidents in the Home, was not published until she was 46. For 20 years she weathered rejections (she winces in explanation for her vagueness about the precise number “about 14?”). “I was trying to write and failing catastrophically. It was a compulsion so insane… I did it badly, failed, longed to stop – but couldn’t. Every time I would give up for a bit and then this compulsion returned to write about everything I was seeing, feeling, watching – not just my own thoughts but what was out there. Our moment in Britain…”
The born writer in her refused to be still-born, and in her 30s, with scepticism, she says, she enrolled on an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University, where she would later become, from 1997 onwards, a professor of creative writing herself. She enjoyed the course, but after completing it still did not feel she was where she needed to be as a novelist. She believes “the reason I wrote so badly for so long is that I didn’t have a strongly formed, authoritative self”. She had to learn not to be “in awe of the characters I used to write about in my bad books. I was trying to write as if I were writing books by other novelists I loved – Nadine Gordimer, above all.” But it was doing a PhD on Henry James, whose novels “give you a wonderful permission to make big art out of small things”, that proved to be her turning point. She knew she was a “good critic”, and she was able to harness that authority and apply it to her fiction.
But it is plot, she says, that remains the “hardest thing to get right. Finding the story is the secret. I spend a lot of time with horrible brain ache… I used to say to my students (I am no longer teaching): work at the story but don’t work too hard. Just dream it… such a contradiction.” I tell her that, aside from her mastery of plot, what I love most is her ability to understand that minds are rogue and can host contradictory feelings (like Christine in Late in the Day who, devastated by her husband’s desertion, simultaneously and fleetingly exults at having their flat to herself). Hadley cannot account for this imaginative leaping, except by describing herself as having a “weird absorbency”.
Before we part, I briefly refer back to Phyllis and her fear of ageing. How much does Hadley mind getting older herself? “It was anguishing in my late 40s and early 50s – that was the transition, when it felt there were things that hadn’t happened. I don’t feel like that now. But it would be stupid for there not to be a sadness in being older as well as repose and a kind of calm.” And she describes the “joy” of writing a novel and the slog, the “two to three years of haulage”, and the knowing, as she gets older, that she will not be able to produce novels for ever.
But she emphasises that she feels lucky to have succeeded, and describes being published as “lovely”. Yet there remains a trace of anxiety.
“I sometimes look at my marvellous daughter-in-law who is a civil servant in housing and think, ‘Good God, I’m only making things up’, and I feel a twinge of shame.” Her self-doubt must be a burden. What is it she feels she has not done? She leans forward, says she does not know, wonders: “Maybe it is to be Phyllis and have rashly run off?” She then quickly takes that back. And it’s at this point that the thought – it could hardly be clearer – arises in us simultaneously: it is through her novels that she pursues the paths not taken and leads the lives unled.