A class of her own
BARBARA PRYS-WILLIAMS meditates on the work of Stevie Davies and her return to Swansea
Sometimes words simply will not do the job. I struggle to give a sense of the simultaneity of the impact of a range of experiences and can only palely do so by relating sequentially 'first this' then 'that'. In May, just after the onset of his sudden, serious illness, our editor Robin Reeves asked me to write this piece to accompany the review of Stevie Davies's new book The Element of Water, knowing how much pleasure and profit I had found in her work when reviewing The Web of Belonging and Impassioned Clay (NWR 47). In the intervening period, I had sought out several of her earlier books. Now I had to catch up on Arms and the Girl. Through a sunny May afternoon on Caldey Island, seated on a window seat of a tiny chapel fashioned from a twelfth-century watch tower overlooking the straits to Tenby, I read with painful fascination this bleak and imaginatively gripping tale of how child abuse comes about. That night, I felt drawn to attend the monks' Vigils service at 3.30 am., and, a Quaker participating in a Catholic rite, had a powerful sense of the monks regularly beaming out light and love at this deep time of night, when the sick sink into death, near-suicides despair and all manner of crime is committed. Later, as I reached the end of Stevie Davies's novel, I pondered on the insight she had given me — that she always seems to give me — into the human condition. She has imaginatively inhabited the characters of her tale so tellingly and with so much compassion that the reader comes to understand the life circumstances which cause such abuse, the consequences of it from generation to generation and the possible reparation within one's grasp in small acts of love. The monks create swelling points of light in darkness; Stevie Davies had made what had initially felt deeply threatening and likely to evoke horror in the reader into something that was, however bleakly, contained and understood and thus could be confronted.

Insight, imaginative depth, the capacity to put within the reader's grasp what can normally only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye — these are some of the qualities I treasure in Stevie Davies's work. I am delighted to record that she is not, uniquely, my discovery. Some broadsheet accolades have been notable. Thus from the Times: 'this highly original writer ... has an extraordinary insight into the working of the human mind and emotions', and the Guardian: 'She is one of our most interesting as well as most shamefully neglected writers'. Finally, the Independent: 'There are good writers, there are very good writers. And there is Stevie Davies, who is in a class on her own'.

Her extraordinary versatility is one of the most impressive aspects of her achievement. Her new novel is her eighth and, a former university lecturer who is now a full-time writer, she has written thirteen further books of literary criticism, history and biography, many of which have won warm praise from specialists in their relevant fields. Her ability to do different takes on the same subject can reveal, at one level, an endearing playfulness and, at another, can seem a lively enactment of the provisional and constructed nature of 'truth'. Consider, for example, where she has been with Emily Brontë.

Her Emily Brontë, Heretic is what my late-come-to theoretical-perspectives mind clearly categorises as A Hard Book. It is a critical study of Emily Brontë's poems, novels and essays in which Davies places the author in intellectual traditions from which she is commonly excluded, as a woman and vaguely mystical 'natural genius'. Davies focuses, in particular, on German Romantic philosophy, an enthusiasm for which, could, she believes, have been picked up by Brontë during her stay in Brussels, and explores her hypothesis through a close reading of Wuthering Heights. She further sees Brontë's analysis of a strife-torn creation in terms of a proto-Darwinian apprehension of the predatory universe she suspected as being 'a vast machine constructed solely to produce evil'. This ferociously intelligent book is the brain-child of Dr. Davies, the academic; two years later Stevie Davies, novelist, surfaces with her poignant, funny novel Four Dreamers and Emily.

Here she makes gentle fun of the Brontë industry and the academic claim-staking, including her own, that builds on it: the minutiae-obsessives like the semi-colon experts; the deconstructionists; the militant feminists from opposing schools of thought. There are ordinary readers, too, for whom an 'Emily' fabricated from their own need plays a vital role. In her four dreamers who assemble at Howarth for an academic conference, she delineates compensatory fantasies which have become central to bleak lives, lives often lived with courage. Eileen Nussey James, an ageing virgin, bane of conference organisers because of her strident insistence on the centrality of Passion, is appalled and sickened on a trek across the moor when she comes upon Passion-in-the-Flesh — two of the conference theorists, 'two naked bodies, copulating' — and all her defences crumble:

A passage had been forced to her sanctuary, blinkers had been ripped from her eyes.[ ... ] How to live with the dismaying world when you stripped it of illusion?
Later, accidentally locked in the Brontë home overnight with the elderly and sick Timothy Whitty, she briefly finds with him a consoling companionship of a sort never before experienced by her. For each of the four dreamers, attendance at the catastrophic conference brings a shift to a different and richer pattern of being.

Cumulatively from Stevie Davies's writing one gets a sense of an intensely curious and empathetic personality whose lightness of touch and saving humour guard against any trace of earnestness. Her fascination with particular periods — the seventeenth century for example — produces writing in several different genres which has won the highest praise.

She is currently writing a book for Channel 4 on the seventeenth century. Her excellent biography of Henry Vaughan most rewardingly draws on her scholarly knowledge of the Civil War period; on her novelist's intuitive understanding of the psychology of bereavement and loss; and on her high level of critical acumen in teasing out every nuance of form and feeling communicated through the poetry. For most of my adult life the poetry of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan has meant a great deal to me: in an inner private sanctum where such complacency is not easily detected I had rated myself as something of an expert. I felt moved beyond measure as Stevie Davies's book helped me understand, with what I can only describe as tenderness, the important ways Herbert's poetry had proved a saving grace, 'no debt but a gift received', for Henry Vaughan struck to the heart by the death of his younger brother, and, a year later, the execution of his king and the foundering of the Royalist cause for which he had fought. Davies's biography of Vaughan was the last book I read in preparation for this piece. As I took in yet another area of consummate mastery — immensely sensitive close reading of poetry — I realised that the writing task that lay ahead for me would be as much celebration as critical evaluation.

The extraordinary narrative power of her work of straight history Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution 1640-1660 reveals to what a degree Stevie Davies was gripped, moved and entertained by her reading in the period. An impressive research effort into the printed pamphlet literature of that period, it delivers a spirited account of a world where the breakdown of public order during the 1640s and 1650s created conditions in which it was possible for a small but significant number of turbulent women to express their grievances and take radical action in the male-dominated spheres of politics and religion. Davies's account of this anarchic and cruel period takes full cognisance of the courage of those who dared to step out of line in a world where traditionally 'Women did not think, rule, advise, debate, except in a few atypical instances: they deferred'. The ducking stool and scold's bridle have remained misogynistic jokes, fun ways of controlling unruly women. Davies emphatically and convincingly categorises the bridle as an instrument of torture: routinely it would shatter teeth, break jaws and the fearsome barrage of spikes on some versions inflicted cruel oral wounds. From her own account, Margaret Drabble was so impressed and fascinated by the book that she immediately recruited Stevie Davies to help in selecting women writers of the seventeenth century for the revision of the Oxford Companion to English Literature then under way. Unbridled Spirits continued to inhabit Stevie Davies well beyond its publication. The following year her novel Impassioned Clay came out. Its heroine, fifteen-year-old Olivia, on digging a grave for her mother who had stipulated a green burial, comes upon what turns out to be a seventeenth-century skeleton with a broken neck and a scold's bridle. Her determination to discover why this woman was silenced leads her, as the years pass and her own grief remains unresolved, more and more deeply into withdrawal from the real world and into researches in the history of dissenting women. One feels that the imaginative identification involved in writing Impassioned Clay might have been a necessary step in releasing Stevie Davies herself from the grip these times exerted over her mind and heart.

Davies has a truly inspirational capacity to explain people to themselves, to look human situations that we most fear and dread boldly in the eye, to show us what they consist of and how they may be lived through. How can Closing the Book which deals with the pain of dying, the torment of bereavement and all manner of other lacks be, at times, so enheartening? The most affecting recurring theme in Davies's novels is the deep human need to love and be loved. Bridie, near death from cancer, in her rage and grief at all that she is prematurely leaving behind, behaves appallingly to her lover Ruth who has left her husband and lost custody of her children for love of her. Finally purged of her anger, through huge effort Bridie is able to show her love for Ruth through caressing her head:

And it came over her to think...that it was probably the first time she'd given anything to anyone, really given, rather than been at the receiving end, for months and months. And this was truly living — the profound caring that restored you to yourself and the person you needed to be.
So often Davies portrays people as needy and aching, yearning for the unconditional love of a good parent (which, she shows, can be supplied in all sorts of substitute ways later life). In Closing the Book Davies delicately traces the failures in mother love in Ruth's nurture that have made her feel permanently teetering on the edge of a precipice until 'Bridie drew her to safety'. Her departure from the marital home created problems for her children, both from their desolation at the loss of their mother and their difficulties in accepting their parents' new partners. The elder, Lizzie, takes the course of obnoxious defiance, the more florid expressions of which are the comic highlights of the book; the younger, Sarah, seems docile, but her compliance masks areas of disturbance which include pilfering, hair-raising swearing in private and 'although outwardly so clean and neat', cultivating 'patches of waste ground in her life in which circumscribed filthy messes blossomed and fructified'.

The main focus and excellence of the novel is its awe-inspiringly sensitive portrayal of the many manifestations of the pain of letting go: Bridie's intolerable sense early in the book of all that she is unwillingly leaving in dying and Ruth's searing grief after her death. Davies is very good at imagining the channels which such violent feeling might take. As we have seen, Bridie moves on from anger and our last view of Ruth is of her experiencing the powerful catharsis of a particularly passionate interpretation of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The last words of the novel are, however, devoted to damaged Lizzie's fire-bombing of a meat-packing warehouse for the Animal Liberation Front. Davies does not go in for facile answers.

A particular merit of the book is the framing of the suffering depicted in Bridie's and Ruth's lives by world events — the Gulf War and the persecution of the Kurds — brought into every home by television and viewed as entertainment. As founder of a very successful Third World Trust, Bridie had campaigned to change structures which are deeply unjust to poorer nations. Lizzie's defence against the excoriating pain of her intensely sensitive nature is to use her father's new partner, shallow, pretty Val, as whipping boy for all the suffering to which she sees the world turning a blind eye. Lizzie is appalled by the Marvel-comic-type depictions of the war on television — fearsome technology slickly zooming to target Pow! Wham! You're dead — and the hideous Us and Them, Cowboys and Indians division of human beings. While Val watches the news and wonders how Kate Adie, reporting from a moving tank in Saudi Arabia, keeps her hair so nice, Lizzie erupts into the room 'wreathed in uncivil smiles':

'Watching the sport?' No it's the news actually — the war in the Gulf'. That's what I mean. Sport. Blood sports... So how are you enjoying the war so far?'

Later Lizzie reflects:

The woman was a creep in a nation of creeps. She thought no lives had been lost because only about eight Brits had died; she could look at the thousands of cremated bodies of fleeing Iraqi conscripts stretching mile after mile up the Basra road and not see human beings. The 'turkey shoot' the pilots called it.

Although the callous indifference of industrially developed nations to the suffering of those who live at and below subsistence level is something that clearly angers Davies, this never develops into overt sermonising. The narrative viewpoint that comments on this is so often quirky, expostulating Lizzie, full of adolescent angst and youthful reforming zeal.

In this broad sweep across the varied landscape of Stevie Davies's output, two further novels must be mentioned for the qualities they reveal in the vision and accomplishment of her mature fiction. The Web of Belonging, with wonderful humour, enacts the almost predatory nature of a seemingly saintly carer's relating to her dependent relatives. The Element of Water, just published, is born of long-mulled experience. As a forces child, Stevie Davies lived in Germany for six years and was taken to Dachau by her father when she was 13. Her first novel, Boy Blue, gives a vivid account of her adult heroine, at a moment of grief, painfully recalling such a visit she made as a child:

Some deeply-buried memory was being stirred and dragged to the surface. What was it? She tried to name it, this obscenity seen once and packed down into the quicklime of the unconscious. It was Germany — Dachau, the museum of the Holocaust — and her father's obsessive insistence that she be taken to view it, as a representative of her generation, to be educated in the horrors committed by her species so as to avoid repeating them in the future. And Christina said to him, 'She's morbidly sensitive already, Jim, she doesn't need that kind of knowing'. ... But Jim did not seem convinced that the child of the war could claim exemption on the grounds of temperamental disaffinity with mass murder. [They visit Dachau] 'Not nice for you, girlie, but it's best you should know, don't you think so?' She refused to reply. She was angry. She remembered the hands flat on the driving wheel as they came out of the camp, the anxiety in his voice. She wondered if he had ever killed anyone in the war as she considered those hands, and whether it was his own bloodstain that induced him both to appease and implicate herself.
One comes to see that the degree of overload Lizzie experiences in confronting the cruelties of the world in Closing the Book may have resembled Davies's own adolescent experience. Further, in imaginatively recreating the horrors of the holocaust in The Element Of Water, Davies pre-empts any possible attempt by her readers to distance themselves from what they might perceive as acts of uniquely German wickedness by locating the 1958 part of her plot in a British forces boarding school of the sort she herself had attended. She depicts, in that closed, British world, indifference to suffering and active cruelty on the part of authority and savage, herd-instinct bullying and scapegoating by pupils — similar social and human forces acted out in the small, post-war community as in the large scale wartime one. One of the most impressive aspects of Davies's earlier novel Arms and the Girl had been the persuasive way it traced the capacity of the human mind for denial and scapegoating, particularly when your very survival depended on it, as in the family of a child who is being sexually abused. She helps a reader understand manifestations of evil so that it is not out there, to be scorned, vilified and only attributed to others, monsters, but potentially discernible in oneself.

Stevie Davies is a distinguished contributor to New Welsh Review. Although she has lived most of her adult life in or near Manchester, her sense of who she is is firmly predicated on her Welsh identity. In a growing up that took her to sixteen different schools from Egypt to Germany, the Swansea area — and Mumbles in particular — has always been perceived as home, her secure base in a nomadic life, where she returned for half-terms and holidays. When her father retired from the RAF, he and his family settled in Mumbles and the final four years of his life, before his early death from cancer, were spent as a lab technician in the Physics Department at the then University College, Swansea where he was idyllically happy. Stevie herself is about to become Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at the University of Wales, Swansea. She comments:

Going back to work on the Swansea campus has deep emotional meaning for me because of its connection with my father. Returning to Swansea feels like a homecoming, being where I belong. There's a sense of uncanniness in the prospect of being where I have always been except in body. I am delighted at being taken seriously as a writer in my own country and at the gentle genuine welcome I have received. My father would have been so proud.
Thanks be for schemes which honour our writers and give them the space to create. Some continually live with an imaginative perception of pain and evil, and, most valuably, reveal to us the accommodation we all make to blind ourselves to their reality. Our writers, too, help us recognise and celebrate joy. I know of no contemporary author who does more to sound the human heart and educate it than Stevie Davies.

B. P-W. New Welsh Review No. 53 Vol XIV/I (Summer '01)