Introducing the wonderful work of Stevie Davies

by Sophie Masson

Today, I'd like to introduce you to the work of a wonderful English [sic] writer, Stevie Davies. Dr Davies has written six novels and several academic and literary works of criticism, most notably on the life and work of Emily Brontë. He limpid, tender yet passionate style, her rich, anguished cast of characters and her never predictable but also always coherent plots make her novels a great pleasure to read. They are rich, too, in irony and humour, and the absurdity of life and human beings, yet a haunting sense of tragedy pervades them. In some ways, they can be compared to the jewelled works of such writers as Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym, especially as regards the characters, who are often frustrated, gentle, humble, yet engagingly resilient people, life's victims, in a way, but with unexpected reserves. Other people tread all over them, and they often have a very poor opinion of their own abilities, they often have blighted lives, but they are nevertheless survivors, bravely trying to make the best of things — something that can be pathetic, but which has its own tattered dignity. But there is nothing depressing about the stories, especially the most recent; tragedy and comedy are equally mixed, just as in life. An interesting aside to her style, which uses by and large the carefully observed, accumulated detail of social realism, is the insertion of herself as observer in the action of the novel; but this is done so subtly that it does not impinge on the novel with its cleverness. These are not 'clever' novels, in the often heartless post-modern sense; rather they are wise, moving and full of evocative echoes.

You care about her characters.

It is particularly on her novels that I want to concentrate today, and especially on the two most recent, which are easily obtainable in Australia. I would also like to mention one of her works on Emily Brontë. Most of her books are published by The Women's Press, including all of her novels. The Women's Press is distributed in Australia through Allen and Unwin.

The Web of Belonging, Stevie Davies' most recent novel, is the story of childless, middle-aged Jess, who lives in Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, with her beloved husband Jacob and 'the oldies', Jacob's fractious and difficult elderly relatives — his mother May, aunt Brenda and cousin Nathan. Jess doesn't really mind being their carer, as long as Jacob is there, her love, her rock. Then of course the inevitable happens, Jacob announces he's fallen in love with a young, blonde single mother, and moves out, leaving Jess to look after the oldies on her own. She tries to cope, but finds it more and more difficult, especially when dealing with May; saintly Jess is becoming something else, something she doesn't recognise and doesn't like, but is powerless to stop. Her heart is broken, her mind seems about to break, too — but eventually she makes her accommodations with life, with loss, with the unfairness and absurdity of it all, with belonging itself. It is a common enough tragedy, but beautifully rendered, with great complexity (Jacob, for instance, is never a cipher, but all too human, caught up in something he seems unable to resist) and a light touch, so that one moment you get a terrific lump in your throat, the next minute, you're laughing aloud.

Highly recommended.

The novel just before that one was Four Dreamers and Emily which has been optioned by a screen producer. This novel reunites Stevie Davies' two loves, of fiction and Emily Brontë. It's set around the lives of four people who are each in their way fans of the great writer, and whose lives converge at an Emily Brontë conference in her native Yorkshire. The novel is haunted by the unseen presence of Emily, by her enigmatic wildness, which contrasts so strongly with her often prepossessed, sometimes absurd, timid and gentle aficionados. Here again, the novelist's gift of amused, yet compassionate tenderness for humanity is displayed plainly. Events at the conference soon acquire a comical and satirical turn, which almost imperceptibly shade into tragedy.

Another wonderful read.

Other novels of Stevie Davies' include her first, Boy Blue, which is set during World War II and draws on some of her own experience as an Armed Forces child; Closing the Book, which is about the anguish when a loved one is dying from cancer, and the whole meaning of life is called into question; Primavera, which is the multi-faceted story of a family on the cusp of change; and Arms and the Girl, which again draws on that Forces experience.

Her most recent book on Emily Brontë, simply called Emily Brontë: Heretic, is an interesting and passionately-argued view of this beloved and extraordinary writer.

S.M. New Englander [Australia] 20 January 1998