Readings — From the October 2013 issue

The Gifts of Anna Speight

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By Margaret Drabble, from The Pure Gold Baby, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Drabble is the author of many novels and the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

On the drive down to Sussex, Sylvie told us what she knew of the organization, and of her contact with it through a fellow peer with a problematic son. The peer wished to protect his troublesome and troubled son’s privacy, for the sake of the whole family, and didn’t want to exploit a personal tragedy, but he had allowed himself to become well-known as a donor to mental-health causes and as a patron of the home we were about to visit. He occasionally made enlightened speeches on mental-health issues in the House. Jess knew his name, and I let it be assumed that I, too, had heard of him, though I’m not sure if I had.

Sylvie was fond of fat bald baggy old Bob Germen and thought he did his best. She wanted to oblige. He had promised her that Wibletts, despite its silly name, was a good cause. His son, now in his thirties, had spent a year at Wibletts. The son suffered from late-diagnosed PKU, or phenylketonuria, a recessive metabolic disorder associated, according to Sylvie, with seizures, mental retardation, and rapid-twitching-finger movements. It was hitherto, Sylvie thought, unknown in the peerage, though many peers she knows are loony. But Bob was only a life peer, so, as she said, that didn’t mean anything. Nobody knew what trick nature’s germens had played on poor old Bob and his boy.

He wouldn’t be there at the fête himself, said Sylvie; he couldn’t face it. She was his envoy.

PKU is not wholly unconnected with the bladder, said Sylvie, the bladder specialist. It’s caused by an acid that dyes the urine a spectacular dark blue-green. It’s amazing that nobody identified the condition until the 1930s. You don’t see it often, but you can’t miss it when you do.

Jess was very interested in the story of Bob Germen’s son and in Bob Germen’s ambivalent paternal behavior. (I don’t think the mother was ever mentioned.) Jess knew many stories of parents who had distanced themselves from or disowned their problematic children in less enlightened days, and as we made our way past Guildford on the A3 she recited some of them to us. Jane Austen’s brother George, she now told us, had never learned to read or write, and had been cared for quietly in a neighboring village, not in the family home. There were few mentions of him in later family records, although his father had once, she thought, expressed the view that it was a comfort that he could not become a bad or wicked child.

George had lived until his seventies, presumably neither bad nor wicked.

The reverence for those whose lives were hidden with God had not, Jess thought, touched the Austen family in the way that it had touched Wordsworth. The fashionable and benign late-eighteenth-century affection for idiocy had escaped them. Jane Austen had little time for idiocy. She set a high value on rational intelligence, which George had clearly lacked.

Pearl Buck, on the other hand, had gone to very great lengths and much expense to support her brain-damaged daughter, whom she memorably described as “the child who never grew.” Jess hadn’t read any of Buck’s many onetime best-selling Nobel Prize–winning novels, and neither had we, but Jess had read Buck’s brief account of her daughter, Carol, who, like Bob Germen’s boy, had suffered from phenylketonuria, although she had been born a decade or so before this label existed, and for years nobody knew what was the matter with her. According to her mother, Carol had been, said Jess, a charming blonde baby and (like Anna) a happy and pretty child, but as she grew older she was afflicted with physical restlessness and meaningless outbursts of dancing and clapping. Her mental capacities failed to develop, despite her mother’s love and care and persistent efforts to educate her, and she was never to learn to read or write. The extreme conditions in China in the 1920s might have been thought to explain some of the child’s maladjustment but apparently had no connection with it. Buck traveled widely for years in search of a cure, and at last in the United States a truth-telling “expert” had warned her that she should give up hope. She should find her a place where the child could be safe and happy, and leave her there. She should not waste time and grief on her. Carol was uneducable and beyond help.

Buck was not wholly able to follow this practical advice. She was a mother and a missionary’s child, and she could not forget her one and only daughter. She did her best.

As she grew richer and more and more famous, she adopted other daughters in an effort to heal the maternal wound, and founded homes and institutions (not unlike Wibletts) to care for children marginalized by poverty or hereditary abnormality. Some of them are still functioning in the twenty-first century, commemorating Carol Buck. So Jess told us.

There is a story, and usually a sad story, behind every private-care home, every institution, every act of charity. Wibletts had originally belonged to a wealthy and worldly vicar, the Reverend Edgar Holden, an old-school, Jane Austen–style, younger-son-of-landed-gentry vicar. His son Felix — less worldly, more evangelical — had gone to Africa as a missionary to save the lepers. He had saved some lepers, but he had died of malaria. The house had been bequeathed for the care of unfortunate young people by a later generation. A sequence of Holden deaths in the male line (as in a Jane Austen plot) had ensured that Wibletts itself, and a missionary settlement in Northern Rhodesia, remained very well endowed.

You can read all this in the brochure. Jess will add it to her list. Jess has become an encyclopedia, a compendium of case histories, and she was now on her way to a hothouse of such histories, a concentration of parental anxiety, a communion of distressed mothers.

Arthur Miller, Jess now reminded us, has been blamed of late for ignoring the existence of his Down syndrome son, whom he’d placed in a home. Despite his reputation for high ethical thinking, despite his attraction to the dramatic possibilities of the ethical conundrum, despite his having written a play called All My Sons, Arthur Miller had ducked the issue, edited it out of the script. In his autobiography, Jess claims, he never even mentions his unwanted boy.

The Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe made his reputation and won the Nobel Prize by writing painfully, brutally, repetitively, obsessively about his grossly abnormal son, whose brain oozed horribly out of a hole in his head.

Nobel Prize–winning Doris Lessing (who does not like Oe’s work) was locked for more than sixty years into a mother-son embrace of peculiar intensity, married to a son whose strangeness, whose incapacities, whose gifts, like those of Anna Speight, remained undiagnosed, indefinable. He, too, is one of his kind. He is much cleverer than Anna Speight, but not as simple and not as golden.

Jess broods on these examples, and wonders whether she had been wise to undertake this journey to Wibletts, which will remind her of so many unanswerable questions. She does not anticipate that the visit will lead to any new departure. She is too old for new departures. It will be, she thinks, just one more round of the familiar track, a few incremental details, a few new observations to add to the map she has been forming over the years. A new creek, a new inlet, a new promontory. Maybe she will write a paper on the representation (or lack of representation) of brain damage in works of literature by Nobel laureates.

Saul Bellow’s portrait of Augie March’s simpleminded brother Georgie March is masterly and charged with loving sympathy. Georgie March loved his mother. On the first page of this epic and picaresque novel, Bellow records the idiot brother’s love in a little rhyme that Jessica knows by heart. It goes:

Georgie Mahchy, Augie, Simey
Winnie Mahchy, evwy, evwy love Mama.

For a long time now in times of stress Jess has repeated to herself this little rhyme, this little mantra, as a comfort.

(Winnie March was an overfed poodle and, according to Augie March, did not love Mama, although all her boys, all her sons, the good and not-so-good Jewish boys, certainly did.)

People who knew Saul Bellow tell Jessica that he wasn’t exactly a role model for parenthood. Not an attentive father to his four children, each one born to a different mother. But Jess isn’t going to blame him for that. She might, if she were one of those mothers, but she isn’t.

Jess knows how lucky she is in Anna. Anna lives safely at home with her mother. Anna has not been exiled to a care home or treated as a leper. She does not have seizures or assault strangers. Unlike Carol Buck, she does not dance in the street. Anna has been on many pleasant excursions, both with her mother and on organized outings with the Thelwell Day Centre and other support groups. Anna has been to France, and Italy, and Holland, and, once, as far as Turkey. But she has never been to any country where she might catch malaria or be exposed to danger. She has been well protected.

The word “overprotected” sneaks into Jess’s mind, unbidden. Maybe it is, after all, through selfishness that she has kept Anna at home. Through selfishness, through pride. As we drive onward, Jess’s anxiety inexplicably mounts, and my spirits sink. I keep thinking of that man in Oxford Street, with his handwritten placard announcing mum is dead. I do not think I have ever communicated this vision to Jess, but I know that she can read my mind.

Pearl Buck had worried that her daughter Carol would outlive her. She had longed, guiltily, rationally, for her daughter’s death. I would have welcomed death for my child and would still welcome it, for then she would be finally safe.

So she wrote, in cold blood, during Carol’s lifetime, knowing that her child would never be able to read these words.

Jane Austen’s brother George had lived a life without incident, without complications, without any plot, for seventy years, in a village called Monk Sherborne, near Basingstoke. He was boarded out with a village family, who also looked after his maternal uncle Thomas Leigh. Thomas Leigh, like George, was mentally impaired. It was the Leigh gene that was defective, not the Austen gene. The Leighs were to blame. Unlike Johnny Foy, Wordsworth’s idiot boy, George had no moonlit adventures, or none that we know of, none that were thought worthy to relate. Unlike Johnny, unlike Augie March’s brother Georgie, George Austen was not, it would seem, loved by his mother.

Maybe the village woman had loved him, as Betty Foy had loved her boy Johnny.

Jess has been to look for George Austen’s grave in Monk Sherborne, to see if it would speak to her, as he could not. Would it cry out in grief? She had caught the bus from Basingstoke on a sunny day in April years ago. She took Anna with her but did not tell her what she was looking for. It was just a day out in the country. She could not find the grave because it was unmarked. He did not call to her from his resting place. She had known it was unmarked, so there had been no point in trying to find it. But it had made a pleasant outing.

Jess thinks of the churchyard. All Saints Church is simple, rustic, humble; the wooden beams of its porch are ancient and rough-hewn; its brickwork and masonry are crumbling and patchy. Few of its tombstones have names that can be deciphered. The names are lost in time, obliterated by the unimaginable touch of time. The stones are white and gray and ocher and pale green, encrusted with sun-bleached lichen. They lean and slope. There are gaudy plastic flowers on one or two of the more recent graves. The grass is studded with daisies and dandelions and buttercups, and there are a few clumps of cowslips which the mower has left to stand.

Jess and Anna had enjoyed their day out, and the bus ride.

Jess thinks of the church, and is pleased that Anna is happy on her day out in Brighton.

Jane Austen was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Sylvie sits quietly, girding herself for the public.

The children of the lake await Jessica Speight at Wibletts. They are the voice of an other calling. Anna has been Jess’s vocation for forty years.

The children appear to us on that journey through Sussex, our own children, not the poor stranger children of Jess’s catalogue, or the children of the lake, but our own North London children, whose stories are not yet finished, whose stories no proleptic twist of plot can pre-empt. The spirit trembles before the leap of prophecy, of guesswork, of staring into futurity.

So the two brothers and their murdered man
Rode past fair Florence . . .

The children appear before us, the children of Stirling Hall Nursery and Plimsoll Primary and Highbury Barn. Ollie, Nick, Harry, Chloe, Ben, Polly, Becky, Flora, Stuart, Josh, Tim, Tom . . .

We had all thought that Sally’s Ollie was the bad boy, for whom we feared the worst, but Ollie, after years of teasing Anna and committing other minor misdemeanors, had made good. He now owns a company selling organic vegetables, and a chain of market gardens. He pioneers new eco-friendly planet-preserving glossy shining crops whose leaves deflect and reflect the violent sun. He is a success story of our time.

Big brother Stuart was Sylvie’s dropout boy as a teenager, but he dropped in again, and he’s now a highly paid if moody and dark-tempered barrister. He wears old-fashioned clothes but sports a pigtail. It’s a strong message, a strong look.

It was pretty Josh Raven who had hit the headlines, for all the wrong reasons.

I am afraid to say that we blamed Sylvie and Rick Raven for taking Joshua out of the state schools, to which we were all so loyal, and sending him to a private school, where he was bound to get into the wrong set. How smug we were and how self-righteous. What ideological prigs we were. Yes, he got into the wrong set — drugs, theft, fraud, remand, court, conviction, jail. The choir-boy-turned-crook, the toxic luminous lamb, the public-school swindler. It was quite a story. We blamed the school, we blamed Sylvie and Rick for sending him there. We had to blame somebody. It was hard to blame Josh, whom we had known when he was so very little, when he was in a state of grace, before he went to the bad. We had known him as a baby in a pushchair, as an angel in a nativity play, as a child gazing rapt at modest indoor fireworks at Christmas. There had been no harm in him then, no sign of original sin.

Young Harry Grigson, Harry with the strawberry birthmark on his face, had also been blameless. But at the age of twenty he had climbed into the lion’s den at London Zoo in Regent’s Park, confident that he could lie down with the lion like a lamb.

There was no harm in that faith, only delusion. The lion mauled him and he nearly died. He now spends his days in an institution, in one of those many institutions. It is not as pleasant as Halliday Hall was in the old days. The doctors say he is schizophrenic, but what is in a word? He is heavily medicated. We don’t know if he still hears voices. We haven’t seen him in years.

Our little children, what becomes of them? They set off so innocently on their long journey. It is hard to bear, it is hard to grow old and see the children age and suffer. It is hard to see them grow bald, and estranged, and some of them lonely.

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