In your story in this week’s issue, “The Bunty Club,” three sisters go back to their childhood home to care for their hospitalized mother. Your novel “The Past” also involved a group of adult siblings who meet up at the old family house. What makes this scenario such a rich one for fiction?
It’s almost diagrammatic, isn’t it? A house is like a stage set, and every room is a metaphor for those who’ve lived there, filled with signs and messages from the past. Assemble the people who grew up in that space, return them home for some crisis, and you can precipitate recognitions and confrontations almost without trying. A house—especially if it’s been left relatively unchanged—is like a conduit for a family’s past. Inside it, rather than existing only shallowly in the present, family members seem involuntarily to see through the present, as if it were transparent, into all the layered phases of their lives together—to their childhoods, their origins.
You describe this fading seaside town in very specific, almost tactile detail. Did you have a particular place in mind?
I was thinking loosely of Minehead, in Somerset, in the west of England, a small seaside town on the Severn Estuary, where my mother lives. (My parents moved there in their retirement; I didn’t grow up there.) It interests me to write about such places—always carefully, because I’m not an insider. Superficially, towns like these seem sleepy, marginal, with none of the thick interest of a great city. And yet each place has its mystique, its secrets, its special atmosphere on a slow summer afternoon, its human comedy, its revelations unfolding.
These three sisters grew up feeling superior to the “rough town boys.” Their mother, though, was originally a farm girl. Was their sense of superiority a matter of class, their father’s professional standing in town, or something else?
Ah, that’s interesting. That’s a bit of sociological difference, I think, between the U.K. and America. In a country area like the one in the story (we’re in the lush west of England), a farmer would rank reasonably high on the social scale—even though he’d be working the farm himself, getting mucky and handling the animals, along with a few workers, and certainly alongside his son, if he had one. I’m thinking of the sixties and seventies, when my three sisters grew up, but I’m pretty sure that the generalization would hold true now, too. The farmer would probably belong to a slightly different crowd than the local professionals—teachers, doctors, etc.—but wouldn’t rank in any way beneath them socially, and he might have some contacts, too, among the local titled gentry. Quite likely he’d hunt, or at least follow the hunt. This is a big social ritual and marker of class, or was, in the west of England. (The sociology would be wholly different in poorer areas for farming—say, the small sheep farms in south Wales.) So there’s no great surprise in the teacher who becomes the headmaster marrying a farmer’s daughter. I imagine Evelyn was clever at school. Quite often the farmers in an area like this will send their children to a private school; the sons might go to agricultural college.
But there would be a gulf between the educated professionals in the small town and the casual laborers, or those with menial jobs, or working in retail or hospitality. The headmaster’s daughters would be very likely to leave town and do better for themselves elsewhere; there wouldn’t be much expectation that a boy like Sean would get out. And yet he did—we know that he travelled the world.
And, in fact, I’m not persuaded that these women grew up feeling altogether “superior” to the town boys. Teen-age Pippa desired those boys and was humiliated by their lack of interest in her. The town boys appeared more glamorous—cooler—than the boys of their own sort; no doubt the middle-class boys also envied and tried to imitate the dangerous savoir-faire of the “rough” boys. Class is complicated, and our teen-age years especially muddle it up, alter who has the power.
The narrative of the story is divided up among the three sisters—the point of view keeps shifting. What made you choose to tell it that way, rather than inhabiting the voice of one of them?
It’s so much a story about the three of them, and the way that, at this crucial moment—as they’re on the brink of losing their mother and their past—their childhood binds them together, beyond all their differences and conflicts. It’s less about individuality than about family.
Do you feel closer to one of them than to the others?
Unusually, I really don’t think I do this time. I inhabited each in turn, identifying with her as I wrote, as well as trying to “identify” her. At a quick glance, you might think I’d side with Pippa, the bookish one who is reading George Eliot. But I’m teasing her just as much as I’m teasing the other two, if not more: this bossy elder sister—look how she reverts to that role once they find the treasures from the Bunty Club. And there’s something heavy-footed and dowdy (Serena’s word, or thought) about Pippa. I don’t want to identify with her. Though I feel for her in her anguish at finding out, when she was young, that for all her self-importance she wasn’t attractive to the boys she longed for. And then there’s Angel Serena, set apart: I like her inviolable self-possession, her fight with her father who thought he owned her because he’d prayed for her. I admire Serena’s studied performance of herself, which doesn’t depend on anyone’s admiration.
When they were children, the girls had a club whose motto was “not to do good and never to help people.” Why is Gillian, the middle child and the most conventional, the last to remember it?
Yes, Gillian might, at first sight, seem the dullest and least interesting of the sisters, with her forgetfulness and stolid ordinariness and in-between status in the family—until I give her the last word, and she’s revealed as having an intense, sensuous inner life that she hardly knows about, being largely unconscious of the deep springs of her imagination, which nonetheless run very pure. When she gets the call from the hospital, and looks out into the dark garden to check that it’s “still there,” and then remembers the Bunty Club meetings in such intense detail, as if she were actually present at one again, we see that perhaps her imagination is stronger, more profound, less under the control of her rational mind, than is either of her sisters’. Yet it’s never occurred to her to think that about herself. She has a low opinion of herself. She’s fascinating.
Did you yourself have a “Bunty Club”?
But of course—several. Not a Bunty Club as such, though, and actually nothing that was quite as much fun as one dedicated to doing wrong. I think you’d need your father to be sanctimoniously religious for that. But, with my close girlfriends, I had a Swallows and Amazons Club, and also a sort of secret spying society, which was a joy for several years. We used to go out on missions around Bristol, following innocent pedestrians home. And I still have somewhere all the typed-out documentation from the spy club, reports on family members (“Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” My brother wrote “Not likely!”). We used the same imitation bureaucratic language that I’ve borrowed for the story.