Alan Bennett: Smut

‘I gather you’re my wife,’ said the man in the waiting room. ‘I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Might one know your name?’

smut_cover

Why I read it

I only know Alan Bennett from one other book: The Uncommon Reader. That was a light, smart, short novel that wondered what might happen if the Queen of England (gasp) started a hobby and (shock!) developed opinions. It was a great story, the sort you want to (and do) loan out to all your friends; it was set in a lovely world full of gentlemen and teacups, written with pleasant humour, but with steel under its skin.

I’ve seen ‘Bennettian’ used as an adjective and I gather it refers to this style of good-natured, slice-of-life-with-a-twist writing. So when the next book comes along and it’s called ‘Smut‘, it’s like hearing Beatrix Potter had a side project in books of bondage photography. It’s got your attention, right?

The Greening of Mrs Donaldson

The first story, ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’, sees a woman finding her footing after the death of her husband. To supplement her income, she decides to take student lodgers – much to the disapproval of her married daughter Gwen – and those lodgers also hook her up with part-time work being a practice patient at the hospital. This involves acting out various maladies for medicine students to practise on, and she and the doctor in charge both discover she’s quite good at it. Interacting with the students, and portraying other people, both give her a widened experience of life – which suddenly gets taken to a new level when two of her lodgers, short on the rent, ask if they can pay instead by letting her watch them have sex.

Reading Mr Bennett write this sex scene is hilarious and delightful. Take this:

‘This is nice,’ said Andy, lifting up his knees and arching his bum as he slipped off his underpants. ‘There. See what I mean?’

Mrs Donaldson smiled in kindly acknowledgement of this new component of the scene.

Laura’s left hand now rested lightly on Andy’s right thigh.

‘We generally fool around a bit to start with,’ said Andy.

‘Oh yes,’ said Mrs Donaldson knowledgeably. ‘Foreplay.’

And this:

‘Bring back memories?’ said Laura, Andy’s face now where his hand had been.

‘Ye-es,’ said Mrs Donaldson, though the truth was it was a memory of a vase in the British Museum. In any case Laura wasn’t listening, her body lifting itself clear of the insistent head.

But the best part is afterwards, when Mrs Donaldson turns up to the hospital for work the next day, and Alan Bennett completely anticipates and subverts the cliche of ‘old woman has sexual experience, immediately starts dressing young and wearing lipstick in joyous re-found sense of youth’:

‘What are you looking so happy about?’ said Delia in the canteen. ‘Have the lodgers paid the rent?’

‘They have as a matter of fact,’ said Mrs Donaldson. ‘We’re bang up to date.’

‘Is that what’s bought the frock?’

‘This?’ said Mrs Donaldson. ‘No, I’ve had this for ages. Just thought I’d give it an outing.’

‘And a hairdo as well. Not to mention the lipstick. Jane, I think you’ve turned a corner.’

‘No, no,’ said Mrs Donaldson. ‘You don’t understand. It’s work. I’m in drag.’

(And she is, being about to play a transsexual who’s in to see a doctor about a knee complaint.)

Anyway, it’s great, and all the different scenes in the medical class are also awesome little studies of human interaction, and there’s lots of tea drinking and so forth. And then right when you feel everything is in a cozy little groove, there’s a rape scene and you have to reappraise things, even though it’s still all being narrated in that calm Bennettian way.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes

Mrs Forbes’ son, Graham, has just married Betty, even though he’s secretly gay. Well, he thinks it’s a secret, but some people close to him are more switched-on than he thinks. And when one of his gay lovers starts blackmailing him, he gets some unexpected assistance in shielding his mother Mrs Forbes from the truth.

It’s a story of a family whose tranquil existence is only maintained by complex, constant, sub-surface machinations. Every person in the story is a complex person, with faults and fortes, but written with real compassion; and every person also has a façade and a hidden truth – but as Bennett says, ‘Still, for all that everybody, while not happy, is not unhappy about it. And so they go on.’

This is a thing that’s kind of mirrored in Bennett’s writing style, too. As with the first story, there’s smut – here, sex and affairs and blackmail and scheming – but just like it all takes place hidden within respectable society, it’s also all narrated in a measured upper-class tone, with sentences like this:

None of this would have found much sympathy with the lady in question, the object of these elaborate precautions almost certainly viewing such consideration as neither necessary nor appropriate.

You would think such a sentence would have to be about a butler serving a cheese of inadequate quality, rather than homosexuality and extortion. But there you go. Fantastic.

bennett_mostlyread_smThis book was mostly read in the bath.

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