The Bass Rock
by Evie Wyld
Published February 2020
‘Her job, she knew, was to stay still and be petted.’ So thinks Ruth, one of the protagonists of Evie Wyld’s new novel The Bass Rock, as she experiences the uninvited sexual attentions of her husband’s first wife’s father while washing up after a Christmas lunch. Instead of staying still, she dares him to continue, confounding the passive role assigned to her. After he retreats she completes the washing up, then goes into the drawing room and carefully snaps the head off an expensive mantelpiece ornament that had been a wedding present. ‘It made a satisfying noise, but nothing loud enough to arouse suspicion next door, and she took the two pieces and wrapped them in a bit of old newsprint from the coal box, placed it on the hearth and stamped on it with the heel of her shoe.’ That night, when she tells her husband what had happened in the kitchen, he refuses to believe her, instead contemptuously labelling her a self-regarding fantasist.
The indignities, trespasses and violence to which women are subjected, in the wider world and more particularly in their own homes, are the core subject of The Bass Rock. Paired with this is an interest in how women react to such attacks on their personhood. Do they allow themselves to be angry, or are female lives of everyday insult and violation so common that they have been normalised? When women do become angry, what happens to that feeling? Female rage hidden, displaced, diverted, transferred and – rarely – fully expressed fills this novel, which is, itself, a very angry book.
One might call The Bass Rock a family saga. At its heart is the relation between modern-day Viviane and her step-grandmother Ruth, who as a young woman after the Second World War (in which she lost her beloved brother) marries the widower Peter and tries to become a kind of mother to his two boys. One of those boys grows up to become Viviane’s father, but the intergenerational connections are far more numerous and complex than this single line of descent. They include the informal ‘taking on’ by Ruth of the child Bernadette, the niece of her housekeeper, who will become Viviane’s mother, and the story of Bernadette’s own mother, who was sexually abused by her employer when in domestic service and has been committed to a mental asylum. There is also the relation of the various women to the ‘little ghost’ who shares their house on Scotland’s east coast and is the spirit of a young girl called Sarah, an accused witch, who was murdered more than two centuries earlier.
The presence of ghosts brings a strong element of the uncanny to the narrative, and, indeed, the gothic evocation of states of psychic distress is one of Wyld’s special talents as a writer. ‘Ruth awoke at around three in the morning, with the sensation that someone had sat on the edge of the bed and then crawled over her.’ In sentences such as this, a vague sense of threat is expressed without being connected to any particular person or presence. At other times, gothic unease is tied to specific social and emotional relationships. ‘[Ruth] looked up at the doorway, sensing Peter’s presence, ready to spring into a justification of why she was sitting with her feet on the desk in the dark, but no one was there. And then it felt he had come into the room after all, and was just about to rest his hands on her shoulders, and she jumped a little in anticipation, but again no one was there.’ Wyld’s use of the haunted house motif makes The Bass Rock a gothic fiction as well as a family saga, the two genres dovetailing perfectly in the novel’s exploration of place, trauma and memory.
Yet neither of these literary labels captures what is most striking about the work, its all-pervading rage. Is there a name for the literature of anger, in the way that pastoral is the literature of nostalgia and elegy is the literature of grief? Because it is anger that holds this mosaic-like work together. To keep its various plotlines and perspectives in play, The Bass Rock has a complex narrative structure. Each of the seven named parts consists of five internal sections, which follow a 1-2-3-2-1 pattern, 1 being Viviane’s story, 2 being Ruth’s and 3 being Sarah’s. Between the parts are interleaved additional short sections – unpaginated, unnumbered and untitled – in which anonymous women within a range of historical and sociological settings are subjected to extreme violence by anonymous men. The whole is bookended by the story of a young domestic violence victim whose body, dumped in a suitcase on the beach, is discovered by the young Viviane and her mother.
It is in the anonymous micro-narratives that we come across opinions such as ‘she brought it upon herself’, ‘[i]t was just a matter of time’ and ‘there was no other way’ – statements of almost existential certainty, which function to exculpate men and inculpate women in the aftermath of sex crimes. Often matters of hearsay or report, never attached to a named speaker, such statements hover in the ether of the novel, stirring the reader’s anger at a world in which such things can be said over and over again.
Asking myself which other female novelists have written with as much anger as Wyld, I could only think of one. Anne Brontë (1820-49), whose bicentenary is this year, had many opportunities during her short life to observe the unbridled exercise of patriarchal power and the toxic version of masculinity it licensed. In her first novel, Agnes Grey (1847), and more systematically in her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), she wrote about male over-entitlement and its destructive consequences for women, for children, and for men themselves. The stories she told were based on her observations in the two houses where she worked as a governess and in her own home during the years that her brother Branwell spent drinking himself to death.
The appearance of Wyld’s novel in Brontë’s bicentennial year prompts thoughts about the relation between the writings of these two angry women. The continuities are striking. Deeply religious, Anne used the back of her prayer book to record, in tiny letters, her response to all she had witnessed: ‘sick of mankind | And their disgusting ways’. We can’t know for certain whether, when she wrote ‘mankind’, she had the human species or the male sex in mind, but I lean towards the latter. Now, reading The Bass Rock, I feel as if Wyld had written boldly underneath Anne’s words: ‘Me Too’. The tone may be funnier (at times), the violence more graphic, the anger less restrained, but Wyld’s novel shares with Brontë’s fiction an understanding that patriarchy is a system, more or less organised, for the removal of women’s and children’s human rights so that the appetites of adult males – for sex, for violence, for power, above all for control – may be satisfied without hindrance.
The double narrative of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall wraps a courtship plot around an account of marital breakdown. Gilbert Markham’s quest to win the heart and hand of the mysterious Helen Huntingdon (alias Graham), who he believes is a widow, provides a frame for Helen’s narrative of her own quest to free herself and her young son from her abusive alcoholic husband, Arthur Huntingdon. Subverting gender norms, Gilbert’s hopeful song of innocence encloses Helen’s much darker tale of bitter experience, and whereas the male narrator tells of heart flutterings, village politics, and young love impeded but not destroyed by various misunderstandings, the female narrator recounts a story in which riotous living, adultery and spousal abuse are the routine stuff of daily life.
‘I go on till she cries – and that satisfies me’, says one of Arthur Huntingdon’s friends, the boorish Mr Hattersley, explaining the pleasure he derives from tormenting his young wife, especially ‘when she looks flat and wants shaking up a bit’. The Bass Rock is full of men who take the same approach, but to further extremes. And, like Anne Brontë’s two novels, it’s also peopled by women who support such men – if not in their vilest excesses, certainly in the assumption of complete male entitlement that underwrites them. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall the mother of the hero, Gilbert Markham, articulates her idea of how marriage should work: ‘you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you.’ Mrs Markham is no villainess, but her ideas help to sustain a social structure of profound inequality.
Women who don’t fall into their given place within this system are punished by other women. In Brontë’s novel, gossip, ostracism, unkindness, and the withholding of sympathy and support are the modes of punishment meted out by socially compliant women to the one of their sex who doesn’t follow the patriarchal rules. Things are darker in The Bass Rock, although it’s a difference of degree rather than of kind. Here, a mother warns her daughter that a murdered woman has ‘paid the price’ for behaviour that she, the mother, refuses to specify. Nor does she explain who sets ‘the price’; it seems to be something the daughter is just expected to understand and not to ‘go around making things worse’ by questioning.
Once the price is paid, ‘a vast and infinite amnesia’, enforced by women as much as by men, sweeps the dead woman’s story away, along with all the other stories of rape and murder and abuse that haunt this novel. The sense of a great cover-up, a refusal by society to join the dots and acknowledge the extent of the problem and how its various parts fit together, animates Wyld, as it animated Brontë, to speak out and reveal deeply unpalatable truths. ‘Reader!’, Anne Brontë exclaimed in the Preface to the second edition of The Tenant, responding to the charges of coarseness and brutality with which reviewers had greeted the novel’s original publication, ‘if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.’ Wyld, also, is against ‘whispering “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace’. Certainly there is none in The Bass Rock, where women and children are repeatedly made to fear for their sanity, their physical safety and their lives, often by people close to them and in positions of trust and authority.
Both Wyld and Brontë write about the power men wield through their ownership of physical space. In The Bass Rock and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, husbands use the excuse of business calling them to the city to prosecute their infidelities while their wives, tasked as caretakers of the home and family, wait in remote, rural settings, thinking and fearing the worst. In both novels, women who choose to walk away from failing relationships are persecuted, stalked, threatened. ‘Don’t forget I know where you live,’ texts a furious ex-boyfriend in The Bass Rock. ‘You can’t just disappear.’ Making sure her husband does not know where she lives is a major concern for Helen Huntingdon; it is while hiding, under an alias, that she becomes the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Physical domination of space operates at a micro-level as well as a macro-level in both novels as a signifier of masculine power. Wyld writes of one character, ‘he walked with practised ease, like a man on holiday’; it may not sound like much, but the context turns this body language into a chilling expression of a dangerous man’s belief that he is allowed to do whatever he wants. Brontë catches such details often. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntingdon will not declare his intention to propose to Helen until he has made her confess her attraction to him. ‘ “You must and shall tell me,” … and the speaker threw himself on his knees, beside me on the rug … This was unendurable. I made an effort to rise, but he was kneeling on my dress.’ Later, Mr Hattersley, a guest in the Huntingdon’s house, bursts into the library where his wife and their hostess are sitting quietly with their children, plays roughly with his small daughter, makes her cry, and hands her to her mother to be comforted. Then,
Mr. Hattersley strode up to the fire, and, interposing his height and breadth between us and it, stood, with arms akimbo, expanding his chest, and gazing round him as if the house and all its appurtenances and contents were his own undisputed possessions.
Anyone who has been squashed into the corner of a bus or train seat by a ‘manspreading’ neighbour will know the feeling of powerless outrage generated by such an assumption of the automatic, sex-given right to dominate other people’s space.
Anne Brontë had a keen sense of how power relations are created or reinforced by the ways in which people occupy space. In the infamous ‘nestlings’ scene in Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey, the young boy Tom, having been granted possession of a nest of baby birds, announces his intention to torture them to death. This will provide ‘rare sport’, he says, ‘laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it, with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight’. Tom’s stance, which expresses possession and domination, is similar to Mr Hattersley’s way of standing before the fire; both males position their arms, legs and torsos in ways that occupy maximal space while also displaying confidence and ease. There seems to me to be a connection between this way of physically being in the world, carefully noted and recorded by Brontë nearly two hundred years ago, and the scene of casual, non-consensual physical domination of Viviane by her boyfriend Vincent so disturbingly presented by Wyld in The Bass Rock: ‘He straddles my chest and his thighs clamp tight around me.’ ‘He lowers his face so that his nose touches mine and he sits staring into my eyes, close up, squeezing hard with his thighs and his hands on my wrists, breathing through his nose like a bull.’ Viviane’s initial, polite request, ‘Can you get off me please? You’re heavy’, her evident fear, and her panicked follow-up question, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’, are all ignored. To Viviane, ‘It feels like it goes on for a long time’, but to Vincent it is – to borrow Brontë’s phrase – ‘rare sport’.
In Agnes Grey, Tom’s behaviour is loudly and publicly approved by his Uncle Robson. ‘Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that! He’s beyond petticoat government already: — by G—, he defies mother, granny, governess, and all!’ This attitude foreshadows Arthur Huntingdon’s intention, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, to ‘make a man of’ his son by teaching him to indulge his appetites, scorn his mother, and in all things ‘to have his own way like a man’. It is the father’s intention with regard to their son, more than her husband’s treatment of her, that motivates Helen’s flight (with her child) from the marriage. Helen is able to prevent her son’s life being ruined by his father’s attachment to a twisted patriarchal ideology.
Ruth and her stepsons, in The Bass Rock, are not so fortunate. When informed that one of Peter’s sons has (uncharacteristically) been getting into fights and the other ‘making up stories’ about the masters at their boarding school, Ruth’s instinct is to remove the boys from the school and demand an investigation of their ‘stories’, but Peter is adamant that nothing should be done. He argues that Christopher’s fighting is ‘just all part of growing up and becoming a man’, and that Michael must learn to stop telling tales, for ‘this sort of behaviour is not tolerated in a man’. The consequences for the boys of their father’s intransigence (‘Ruth imagined a hand thrust into his back making his mouth move, like a puppet’) are incalculably sad and terrible, for it emerges that a paedophile ring has been operating at their school, protected by a network of powerful institutional affiliations and the wilful blindness of parents such as Peter. The crimes committed at the school leave behind an ineradicable legacy of suffering, shown poignantly in the depiction of Viv’s ageing uncle Christopher. Wyld’s sensitive portrait of this gentle, deeply damaged figure reveals the harm that unrestrained masculine power and appetite can cause to men as well as women.
The paedophile ring is a conspiracy with which Peter becomes unwittingly, or half-wittingly, complicit, because its perpetrators are his allies in the disciplinary work of maintaining his dominance over his wife and children. There are many conspiracies in The Bass Rock – too many to enumerate here – and they operate at all levels from the marital and familial to the social units of village, school and church. Most of the conspiracies are of men against women and children, although some are of men and women against other women. Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall is also full of plots by men who collude in hiding their bad behaviour from their wives and, in one instance, to help one of their number carry on an affair with the wife of another man in the group without his knowing. In this case, as in that of the mistress who fraudulently has herself installed in her lover’s household as governess to his son, women work against other women in conspiracies that mainly benefit men. The most terrible example of this is the conspiracy to marry Helen’s friend Milicent to the awful Mr. Hattersley. Brontë’s presentation of this conspiracy between Milicent’s mother and her daughter’s unwelcome suitor shines a very modern spotlight upon the idea of what constitutes consent. ‘I dread the thoughts of marrying him,’ Milicent writes to Helen.
‘Then why have you accepted him?’ you will ask; and I didn’t know I had accepted him; but mamma tells me I have, and he seems to think so too. I certainly didn’t mean to do so; but I did not like to give him a flat refusal for fear mamma should be grieved and angry (for I knew she wished me to marry him), and I wanted to talk to her first about it, so I gave him what I thought was an evasive, half negative answer; but she says it was as good as an acceptance, and he would think me very capricious if I were to attempt to draw back – and indeed, I was so confused and frightened at the moment, I can hardly tell what I said. And next time I saw him, he accosted me in all confidence as his affianced bride, and immediately began to settle matters with mamma.
So begin years of misery for, as Helen later warns Milicent’s younger sister, ‘You might as well sell yourself to slavery at once, as marry a man you dislike.’
All conspiracies are, ultimately, conspiracies of silence, both Wyld and Brontë demonstrate. Milicent is caught in the net woven by her mother and suitor, because her sense of dutiful, mannerly, rational behaviour prevents her from speaking up in her own interest. ‘I had not courage to contradict them then,’ her account to Helen continues, ‘and how can I do it now? I cannot: they would think me mad.’ The desire not to rock the boat, not to cause offence, not to seem hysterical or delusional, is the basis of so much compliance by women (especially young women) with the loss of their own agency. In The Bass Rock, after Vincent assaults Viviane he makes her feel ‘stupid’ and ‘embarrassed’ for treating his actions as serious. When, sitting on a train, Viviane and her sister Katherine see Katherine’s estranged husband running along the platform, bearing down on them with apparent violent intent, they sit frozen.
Why did we just sit there? We knew something bad was coming. We could have hidden in the toilets, or got off the train and run to the lifts, we could have pulled the emergency cord, we could have called the police. But we waited, just in case we were wrong. What would Dom have done if he had got those doors open? I think Katherine knows.
Women are easy prey when they worry more about being wrong than about defending themselves. So too when women’s righteous anger is silenced by ingrained habits of politeness and consideration for others. Increasingly bullied by her husband, Ruth is finally subjected to the outrage of marital rape, an ordeal through which she remains still and quiet, ‘because the absolute worst thing she could think of was the children [her husband’s children] hearing’.
To shatter the silence, to reveal what is rude, uncomfortable, disgusting and horrific about the patriarchal system, is the purpose of both these novels. Written nearly two hundred years apart, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and The Bass Rock are connected by a rage that at times feels incandescent. Does such powerful anger, however necessary, produce good literature? And is there a tradition of such works by women, a sub-section of feminist writing that we might call does the literature of rage? Picking up Elaine Showalter’s 1977 classic A Literature of their Own, a foundational text within feminist literary studies, I came across the following sentence, which cast a discouraging shadow on this line of inquiry: ‘The novels of the 1860s and 1870s, pregnant with their inchoate rage, generally miscarry.’ As they say, with friends like this, who needs enemies. I’m not referring to the verdict on these novels, which may well be deserved, but to the way the judgement is expressed. I wonder what figurative language would be considered appropriate for discussing artistic failures by angry male writers?
Anne Brontë’s rage was not ‘inchoate’ and therefore her novels did not ‘miscarry’, although her older sister Charlotte thought the second one did. In her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, published after the deaths of both her sisters, Charlotte declared that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s ‘choice of subject was an entire mistake’ and that Anne’s decision not to ‘varnish, soften, or conceal’ as she translated into fiction ‘what she saw’ in the world was an artistic miscalculation. Effectively, Charlotte assumed the role of censor, overseeing the posthumous republication of Anne’s first novel, the more benign and less mature Agnes Grey, but leaving The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to – she believed – deserved oblivion. Now it seems obvious that the second novel is the greater work, not only in the force of its ideas but also in its technical skill. The damage to Anne’s authorial reputation had been done, though: with her best work effectively suppressed because of its supposed unseemliness, the hardworking and prolific Anne would henceforth be the least heralded Brontë sibling. From a feminist point of view the irony is that, while her older sisters were encouraging readers to swoon over their novels’ bad-boy love interests, Rochester and Heathcliff, it fell to ‘gentle Anne’ to confront the sordid reality of domestic abuse, refusing and refuting patriarchy’s seductions while advocating the rights of its victims.
The anger that suffuses The Bass Rock almost always fuels rather than overwhelms the clarity of its vision and the tautness of its prose. At its most effective, the novel’s rage is strongly felt but hard to locate, as in the second of the unnumbered, anonymous narratives. Here, a ‘girl lies with dirt in her mouth, naked from the waist down’, her body slowly decomposing and being eaten by animals, until the narrator observes: ‘It is a relief, to be picked clean, to be rid of the worst of the flesh’. For whom is this ‘a relief’, and what is the valency of the word in this context – ironic? heartfelt? matter-of-fact? In what world of horror do we live, that one might wish to be relieved ‘of the worst of the flesh’? Scenes such as this punctuate the three main lines of narrative, in which it is striking that the anger felt by abused women, and by men who were abused as children, is rarely expressed in words, but rather is distributed through small acts of defiance or channelled into transgressive thoughts. Only once is a woman’s fury directed into organised and consequential action, in an expression of pure rage that provides the most satisfying moment of the novel.
Meanwhile, the only character who consistently speaks her anger is Maggie, the homeless sex worker and part-time witch who becomes Viviane’s accidental but increasingly necessary friend. Maggie is integral to the resolution of the three plotlines, and the novel would be much poorer without her disinhibited presence, but some of her long rants about male violence and female dysfunction are stylistically jarring, because they set aside the rhythm and register of her normal speech. Simply, these monologues don’t sound like Maggie speaking, but like the author speaking through her. This technical slip is the one instance of Wyld’s anger overwhelming her artistic purpose, and draws my only criticism of this extraordinary novel.
It’s a shame that Maggie’s sociological speeches don’t feel quite right as the utterances of this particular character, because they express the novel’s core sense of how the world is. The map Maggie carries around with her showing the sites in Scotland where women have been murdered is a version of Sherele Moody’s Australian Femicide and Child Death Map, which Wyld cites in her Acknowledgements as ‘the baseline of what I think about’. Maggie’s argument that the crimes marked on her map are the work of ‘a serial killer’ – the killer not an individual person, but a single misogynistic ideology – also reflects Wyld’s Foucauldian sense of social agency operating through a range of actors and institutions. For Wyld, as for Maggie, the ‘serial killer’ is patriarchy itself.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, similarly, the serial offender that needs to be apprehended is the patriarchal system as a whole, rather than any particular man (or woman) who supports it, but Brontë’s Christian faith inflects this insight differently from Wyld. Her belief that every soul can be saved, every sinner reformed – this plus the fortunate demise of Arthur Huntingdon while Helen is still young enough to embark on a fulfilling and fruitful second marriage – allows Brontë to imagine new family groups forming within social networks of greater equality between men and women. Not only her deserving heroine and hero, but even the reprehensible Mr Hattersley, now improbably reconstructed, find places within the novel’s happy ending.
With one sweet exception, such optimism about the possibilities of heterosexual relationships as sites of equal human thriving is absent from the ending of The Bass Rock. Instead, it is the saving grace of relations between women in a sisterhood spreading across generations and centuries that offers a way through the horror of patriarchal violence. There is elation when women find each other across divisions of class and prejudice and history, as in the vision, near the end of the novel, of ‘a hundred thousand different ghosts’ coming to join the living in the house and landscape where the three storylines have unfolded. Their presences acknowledge Maggie’s earlier question, ‘What would it take?’, for ‘all the women that have been killed by men through history … [to be] visible to us, all at once?’ The answer: women united, a witch’s spell, and this novelist’s angry, powerful imagination. The poetics of female rage, so courageously initiated by Anne Brontë, is in safe hands with the phenomenally talented Evie Wyld.