Thursday, April 16, 2009

Father Figure

It would be wrong to call Beverley Nichols’s memoir of his upbringing, Father Figure, a tale of unremitting horror – that would be unfair to the moments of wit, humour and insight. Yet the moments of light only serve to create counterpoints for the darkness and cruelty which shadowed and twisted his, and even more his much-adored mother’s, life.

The darkness and cruelty came from his father, John Nichols, a handsome and successful solicitor able to retire in his thirties as a gentleman of leisure. He thereafter devoted himself to his passions for domestic cruelty, spurious self-importance and drunkenness: ego inflation via pomposity and pain to hide and feed the emptiness within.

John Nichols was an alcoholic: or, as Beverley Nichols describes him, a drunk and a dipsomaniac. John Nichols was a drunk of regular patterns. Early on, Beverley Nichols was able to discern precisely, from his father’s behaviour, at precisely what stage in the cycle of drunkenness he was at: great training for a writer, no doubt.

While John Nichols was capable of great cruelty towards his sons – his destruction of young Beverley’s musical aspirations is almost unbearable to read – it was to his wife that he directed the full force of his clearly great and honed talent for cruelty. (Beverley thinks a certain physical fear of his sons retrained him towards them.) Beverley never describes any physical or sexual abuse by his father. The abuse was all emotional, but still cruelty in all its evil.
The person Beverley describes is, in many ways, not really a person at all. Father Figure is a redolent and telling title: everything was driven by the demon drink that possessed him. And possession is exactly what Beverley took it to be.

The great comfort of his upbringing was the deep mutual love between his mother and her sons. At one stage, he writes about his frustration in not being able to bring her sufficiently alive in his writing. As he says, that is partly because he cannot – as one would in a novel – create fictional moments that reveal character. He can only describe and rely on the limitations of memory. (Particularly as he wrote the book over thirty years after her death.)

But one can also see another limitation that haunts him. Why did she put up with it? That a woman of her time (she died in 1939)—the income from whose (significant) money had been handed over to her husband—had very poor choices is true enough. (Though her basic capital was beyond his reach, important at the end.) Her notion of the married state was that, once in, there was no way out. That one endured. And yet she also served as the ideal victim to possessed man she married: having been a youthful beauty with a golden childhood. Beverley describes his parents as two people perfectly formed to destroy each other. Enduring was not resisting: indeed, it was providing an object, an outlet and victim who was also a live-in nurse and protector.

Over time, she acquired various defence mechanisms, various substitutes for the autonomy and control she surrendered. Beverley describes these well, and his frustration with them. His frustration with her is a bit more removed, and seems to have got in the way of fully invoking her. In any family life of cruelty, there is the perpetrator and the facilitator (though sometimes the role shifts back and forth). Stoic endurance facilitated, even encouraged: it did not genuinely shield.

Beverley’s descriptions of his attempts to kill his father fit perfectly in with the twisted horror of it all. As do the steps of the final revenge. Her sons prevailed upon her to change her will to leave all her money to them, cutting out their father and her lifelong tormentor. Even that level of resistance was almost beyond her.

After her funeral, Beverley took his father to Plymouth – which he had nominated as having pretty girls to look at. His father was full of anticipation of getting a woman to share his well-funded old age, now he would be inheriting his wife’s money. He has one last glass of wine, then Beverley delivers the blow. He tried to use the weapon he always used against his sons – I will tell your mother! But, of course, he cannot. She is no longer there to torment and she has delivered this first and final act of resistance. His father never drank again.

Even though Beverley tells us the ending of the story, there is a certain reticence in delivering the full implications. The reader can work it out, and Beverley is certainly forthcoming on the dynamic from his father’s side. But that last element in the horror, that in his mother leaving and resisting his father’s drinking stopped, he cannot spell out anywhere near as clearly. How could he? (Those of us who had difficult upbringings will perhaps be more aware of the silences.)

In his introduction, Beverley mentions his play, The Shadow of the Vine, and receiving letters from women asking how could he have possibly have understood their lives so well, the little horrible details of living with a drunkard. As he says, the book is an answer to that. But perhaps not to the question that haunted him.

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