The Hermit's Tale
Hermits aren’t harmless. They are self protective. At the same time as I decided to live nowhere in particular, a good friend and neighbour of mine lost her husband. He was her second husband. Her first had been my closest male friend at Cambridge. After this first marriage of hers broke up I managed to stay – just about - buddies with both. She then began an adulterous and (for many years) covert affair with the man who became her second husband, with whom she had had one child, and then a second, before he finally left his wife. The two of them lived round the corner from me and, at one point, for three months, lived at my flat while their small house was extended. He was older than her and, with a young new family - the relationship now in the open – they seemed to have moved into calmer (certainly more open) waters. And then he developed lung cancer, inoperable. They went on a last holiday together to the South of France where he took ill. I was summoned out for help and we got him back, finally, to London, where he was hospitalised and died little over a month later. You do what you can. Your heart goes out. But the elder child said one day, ‘You’re our daddy now.’ Older members of the family, who had never quite taken to the second husband, smiled benignly at me, this gay, unattached man ‘of no fixed abode.’ I was convenient. I would have filled a gap. I ran a mile. I remember the last time I visited their little house, crossing London from where I was then staying in the East End. I missed the stop on the tube – it was the station where I’d got off for my fifteen years of London living. Walking round the corner into the familiar street I dry vomited into a neighbour’s privet. Something – more than an upset stomach - was going on. A few weeks later, I engineered an argument. A silence resulted. The silence (or near silence) has lasted for twelve years. I have seen her twice but I have never seen her children, who are grown up now. It took me a long time to understand this ruthlessness in myself. What I wanted at that time was freedom, psychological space. This was represented by France, not by old familiar streets and domestic entanglements. My friend was needy. I could have ‘handled’ it better but I felt she would never let go. I cut her off. Well, worse things happen in more official partnerships. It’s no wonder I have written so much over the last few years of writers and their wives. Tolstoy left his wife of over forty years and died in the attempt. I notice, that when I dramatised this story, it was from his wife’s point of view - the one who was abandoned. I have seldom read anything more moving (at least at those times when you feel she’s not writing for posterity) than Sofya Tolstoy’s diaries – there’s a new, beautifully printed edition by Cathy Porter. Up there near the top of the list of writers who fled is Dickens, who walked out on his wife late on in life. And we all presume Shakespeare preferred his life in London (at least for most of his career) to that busy household in Stratford. It is impossible, from his writings, not to imagine the great man as a self loathing adulterer. I expressed some of the resentment his elder daughter might have felt towards him in ‘The Pattern of Painful Adventures.’ But my favourite amongst this list of the damned is Flaubert, who never married, wisely, because ‘Normal love would take me out of myself too much.’ When I came to write the play ‘Adulteries of a Provincial Wife,’ about the writing of ‘Madame Bovary’ the first draft allowed no voice to Louise Colet, Flaubert’s mistress. I knew there was something missing and remember one Sunday morning coming down early and breaking into that polished, too smooth draft with her regretful, spirited voice. Flaubert cast Louise off twice, the second time for good. I liked her a lot. She is played very appealingly and instinctively by Anastasia Hille. …And to come back to the recent past and my own behaviour, I think there was another factor in my defensive retreat from that little West London family. I felt surrounded by a heterosexuality that threatened to dissolve me. There was clearly some essential self that I was determined to protect. Integrity seems an inappropriate word for it. My friend’s need to see me, be with me, was so recognisably ‘normal’. But writers are abnormal, fierce and cruel in protection of - what? – an inner solitude. I wanted to re-construct myself – but not as a family man.