The Knack of Existing

Jennifer Dawson, The Ha-Ha

Valancourt Books, 154pp, $15.99 , ISBN 9781939140517

reviewed by Ka Bradley

Jennifer Dawson’s debut novel, The Ha-Ha, was published in 1961, two years before Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and seven years after Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass. It is a novel very much of its time: it follows the hospitalisation, breakdown and tenacious recovery of an educated young woman who finds herself a square peg to the round hole of identity.

The opening of the novel finds the narrator, Josephine, in recovery. She has been hospitalised in a quietly, disturbingly old-fashioned asylum following a nervous breakdown in her final year at Oxford. During her weekday afternoons, she works as a cataloguer for a kindly old couple, the Mayburys, to gently reintroduce her to the real world. She is apparently on the road to being a nice, normal girl again – except that she hallucinates tropical animals, which she recognises with obsessive exactitude and will usually identify by their full Latin names.

Josephine describes her affliction as ‘want[ing] the knack of existing. [She] did not know the rules’. This seems a very mild sort of affliction, particularly in Dawson’s restrained, peculiarly English prose, but the very niceness and neatness of that turn of phrase is symptomatic of Josephine’s damaging self-containment. She is existing in a tidily built world of static categories, spoken in tight, polite sentences: ‘A gentle wind was blowing the curtain out. The door hovered backwards and forwards with a tiny creak. The sky was suddenly still.’ She has made herself, if not exactly a life, then at least a habitable timeframe of routine, punctuated with the small pleasures of seeing fixed, suspended vistas through windows or in small rooms; these suspended moments, to her, do not seem as ‘chancey’, unlikely and extraordinary to exist against the great void of the universe, as the general flow of everyday life. Her world, in short, is too controlled for any sort of growth.

Although from the outside Josephine appears to be a functional, if somewhat diffident and difficult, human being, her self-imposed emotional and social exile is better understood as learned rather than instinctive; she is in a period of recovery after a ‘bad break’, an extended period of aberrant behaviour that has forced her to leave Oxford without graduating. We do not witness the first break, although Josephine occasionally refers to it. If she were Esther Greenwood of The Bell Jar, we might pinpoint her state of mind at the beginning of The Ha-Ha as being to similar to the dog days of Esther’s summer return to Massachusetts. Esther, whose self-worth had always been easy to measure and translate under a graded academic structure, finds her identity loose, ill-fitting and impossible to measure by the standards set in ordinary life. Like Josephine, Esther reacts to the expectation that she will become a mother or a typist or some other neatly delineated feminine role by spiralling into depression. The difference is that while Esther is not yet at her worst, Josephine is, or very recently has been.

If the book comes across as dated, it is not just as a result of its style, which is classical and restrained with a whiff of the drawing-room. This pernickety moderation of the prose is one of Dawson’s great triumphs of misdirection, designed to undermine itself in the latter half of the book. The dated quality of the novel comes more from its central relationship – where bald misogyny is accepted unquestionably by the narrator. The Ha-Ha was originally conceived as a love story, but the love story can’t help but be infuriatingly unfulfilling to a modern reader; like Antonia White’s work, it frustratingly forgives and even requires a certain amount of suave, cultured selfishness (and how easy to substitute ‘twattishness’ for ‘selfishness’) in its leading men.

The first major turning point in the book is an invitation to a party – the second such invitation of Josephine’s young life. Walking from her job at the Mayburys’, back to the institution, she bumps into an old university friend, Helena, who is conquering the social world via the usual accepted route – marriage. On a whim – whims being an acceptable eccentricity in educated girls with sufficiently charming conversation – she invites Josephine to a party that she and her fiancé are giving. It is, unsurprisingly, a disaster:

It was so hot. I could feel the sweat trickling down my face. The music blared and stopped. Faces popped on and off like lamps. Mouths clapped up and down; words shot in and out, but the room full of people seemed to have escaped me. I could not reach in to it. I tried to stretch out and get caught up in it, but each time my turn came to lay a contribution I found myself catapulted into this empty space in the middle of nothing, discussing with no one but myself the longevity of badgers or Myra’s thorny spider.

It is a startling description of disassociation, made all the more disturbing for its placid adherence in tone to all preceding passages describing, for example, Mrs Maybury’s attic or conversations with nurses.

Josephine, despite her conversational difficulties, stays at the party. A drunk young man sees her standing by herself and asks her to dance:

But I did not know what to do with my arms. They hung out like the arms of a perambulator. “Put them around my neck,” he hissed, frowning… “Why so tense? Just relax.”
“I’m afraid I can’t dance,” I confessed.
“You don’t have to.” He squeezed my waist, then put his hands on my neck. “Nice smooth skin.”
“It would be easier if I had some roller-skates,” I murmured sadly. “Then you could just wheel me.”
He was still pressing me against him. Perhaps there was a specific purpose in the manoeuvres. Perhaps the gentleman was an athlete, flexing and toning up and so on.
He was stroking my neck and the sides of my cheeks again. “Nice smooth skin.”
“That’s three time you’ve said it. Is your father a taxidermist or something? You seem to have a special interest.”

This hilarious exchange also introduces us to a hitherto unsuspected aspect of Josephine’s narrative: archness. It is impossible to mistake for ingenuousness, and is the first moment that Josephine can seriously be suspected of obfuscation. The now-obvious gap between the world narrated and the world experienced widens as Josephine continues to tell her story, all the way up to her catastrophic mental breakdown. As soon as her mind fragments, the gap closes over, practically swallowing Josephine’s narration with it. The mental breakdown is characterised by rambling, declamatory prose, stripped of introspection. Her recovery, at the very last, must be on her own terms, in her own speech.

The latter half of the book is shocking and unsentimental but nevertheless fails to live up to the subtle promise of the first part. This is because it suffers too much from the novel’s greatest difficulty: Alasdair, Josephine’s friend and then lover. For Josephine, Alasdair is the movement and the happening. Her relationship with him gives her the knack of experiencing, previously impossible under the restrictions she placed on her linguistic and emotional engagement with the world. No more of glimpsed static scenes solidifying through chance: ‘The moon leaped over the sky. The stars bulged down. I stretched the length of the earth. I was as small and folded as an ant. I must have lain for hours before I fell asleep, but all the time I was smiling at the reality that seemed to be taking shape before me.’ They even manage to have quite a good time dancing, which is a personal triumph for Josephine.

Unfortunately, to the reader, Alasdair is quite obviously pretentious, a seducer, sloppily whimsical and, frankly, a bit of a shit. He has been hospitalised because of ‘nerves’; he is a smart young man convalescing from one party too many. His attitude to woman is preposterous: ‘You are one of the nicest girls I have ever met… The first woman who did not leave a bad taste in my mouth! The first woman I did not see straight through!’ he rapturously praises Josephine in a letter he sends her, after sleeping with her for the first time then discharging himself without saying goodbye. He calls Josephine his ‘nice little cat’, which is depressingly similar to the unknown dancer’s ‘nice smooth skin’. At the very last, he claims he doesn’t want to ‘spoil’ Josephine with his ‘sordid’ way of life, but his words are egotistical, self-reflexive. When he refers to her in any way, he is really referring to himself.

Yet Dawson describes Alasdair as the ‘hero’ of the novel, and makes no apologies for him; indeed, it is Alasdair’s words that Josephine remembers when she flees the hospital for the last time: ‘If you could stay away for fourteen days, I remember Alasdair had told me, they could not reclaim you’. How do we take Josephine’s breakthrough seriously if we know it has been awakened by a man who peppers his speech with French phrases for no apparent god damned reason? It is difficult to imagine such a hero in a powerfully feminist book written by anyone of an equal intellectual calibre today, and this difficulty is, if nothing else, a reassuring sign of the developments made by feminists of both genders since the days of not so very long ago.

Still, we go along with The Ha-Ha because it is a novel about Josephine, rather than Alasdair. It is a portrait of a woman who never acquires 'the knack of existing’ because she cannot align herself to existence: when she exists ‘powerfully’ she is in an unsustainable state of passion and extremity; when she exists quietly, she is self-repressive and self-denying. The woman that Jennifer Dawson creates is in a state of obsessively controlled abeyance, neither here nor there – she cannot countenance either the return to madness or the possibility of drear, sexist and unbending normality. Her world remains a nest of manageable fragments.
Ka Bradley is an editor, writer and critic based in London.