1 JULY 1978, Page 28

Period piece

Francis King

Men on White Horses Pamela Haines (Collins £4.95)

Since it was this periodical that first brought Pamela Haines to public notice by awarding her a New Writing Prize for a short story in 1971, it is good to be able to report that Men on White Horses fully confirms the judges (of which I was not one) in the wisdom of their choice. Here, it is at once apparent, is a born writer, with a sharp eye for character, an acute ear for speech and an ability to give shape and readability to even the most humdrum happenings.

Humdrum is, indeed, the word that best describes much that takes place in this bildungsroman of a young girl, daughter of a county family, growing up and finding her true nature in the years 1907-1920; but before the reader can weary of childhood conversations with the gardener-groom, passionate convent friendships or descriptions of smart restaurants in Venice, Florence and Rome, something startling happens or is revealed at each crucial moment. Edwina's mother, though she is mistress of a splendid Yorkshire mansion and rides to hounds, is not at all typical of women in her position: her origins are decidedly ambivalent (the word 'adventurers' is used of her family), she takes to the bottle and her relationship with her glamorous brother, Edwina's Uncle Frederick, has been very much more than kith and very much more than kind. Uncle Frederick himself, who arrives at the beginning of the book from Italy to dazzle the eight-year-old Edwina with his cosmopolitan glitter and dash, may marry into a 'black' Roman patrician family; but, though far too discreet to allow any scandal to separate him from his wife and her fortune, his taste is, in fact, for boys.

At a convent school, reminiscent of that described by Antonia White in her classic Frost in May, Edwina suffers a hopeless crush on one of the older girls, daughter of a famous actress; endures some painful pinching of her nipples by a lecherous music-master (he eventually gets the sack); and strikes up a fateful friendship with madcap Fanny, who, an adopted child, only learns of her true origins many years later. Through Fanny and her working-class 'Auntie', Edwina meets one of Fanny's cousins, a fisher-boy, with whom she falls in love. In a scene that left my eyes dry but will no doubt cause boohoos among a number of Harrods library subscribers, Edwina finally walks over from the convent one night to Ben's little room and there gives herself to him before he sets off to enlist in the War. When, inevitably, the news comes through that he has been lost at sea, it seems to

Edwina a tragedy from which she will never recover; but the cynical may regard it as a blessing in disguise for her, since her ambitions to be a concert-pianist seem hardly reconcilable with life as the bride of an ill-educated sailor.

In the last and least satisfactory section of the novel Edwina and Fanny, the war now over, go to stay with Uncle Frederick's in-laws in Italy. (By now his sickly and rather sickening wife has died). The aristocratic family, which suggests a collaboration between Lampedusa and Ouida, lives in magnificent palazzi and villas, with a stern matriarch at its head and a 'monster' for one of the sons. The matriarch would like Edwina to marry the heir but Fanny has designs on him, with the result that the former school chum, now a bitter rival, fulfils the nuns' worst predictions that she will come to no good and throws a bottle of sulphuric acid into poor Edwina's face. This confirms Edwina in her determination to pursue her career as a musician.

What is most remarkable about this book is its sense of period. When the heroine gets eczema on her hands, 'it is Zambuk that is put on them; when, as an eight-year-old, she is given some copies of a magazine to look at, it is Catholic Fireside ; when Fanny spends all her savings on a dress in Venice, it is one by Fortuny which costs her, in those pre-inflation times, only £10. The talk of Nanny and her sister, dimly heard by the unsleeping child; the chatter of the 'mothers' and 'sisters' (a rigid social distinction) at the convent; the out-of-date slang, learned from English nurses and governesses of the Italian aristocrats: all of this seems entirely authentic.

The only flaw in the construction of the novel is that Uncle Frederick, who in the early chapters seems destined to play some decisive role in his niece's life, gradually dwindles and retreats, so that even in the Italian chapters he does little more than hold Edwina's hand in the Anglo-American hospital, once he has brought her and his in-laws together. It is always hard to guess a novelist's original intentions and perhaps unfair to attempt to do so; but I should not be surprised to learn that, in some earlier draft, Uncle Frederick had occupied a place nearer to the foreground.

Pamela Haines often seems to invite comparison with other women novelists. She reminds one of Rosamond Lehmann, but without quite the same romantic sheen; of Elizabeth Taylor, but without quite the same elegance and wit; of Elizabeth Bowen, but without quite the same powers of poetic evocation. But, though the influences are clear, they have all been digested and by now Miss Haines is very much her own writer. When I say that I can foresee innum erable middle-aged women avidly devouring her book, I intend no disparagement.

This is exactly the kind of novel — realistic, sexually inoffensive, and, above all, vvoiiderfully readable — that such people want and, due to the vagaries of publishers, can too seldom find. To Room Nineteen Doris Lessing (Jonathan Cape £5.50) The Temptation of Jack Orkney Doris Lessing (Jonathan Cape £5.50)

What do you say about Doris Lessing? She has shaped the attitudes of a whole generation of women; she has defined and punctured masculine pretensions and assumptions; she has torn strips off liberal double-think; and, latterly, she has entered realms of metaphysical speculation which have left many of her admirers with their enlightened knickers at half-mast. I know that just as I shall tell my daughter that she was presented to Lessing at the age of eight days (something for her to tell her children) so I shall give her these collected stories as required reading when the time comes. But it is also essential to retain a sense of balance about them: the fact is that Doris Lessing has always been a very uneven writer. Her uncompromising honesty and energy have always meant that she has sometimes experimented with wildly unsuitable styles and that craft has often been lost in the sheer tumble of words.

These two collections exemplify all that is best and worst about her writing over the last twenty years and some of them amply refute the accusation that she lacks humour. ('The Day Stalin Died' is one of the funniest, sharpest short stories ever written.) She examines marriage, women, poverty, political naiveté, private metaphysical torment. But the best stories here are and — I go out on a limb — will always be seen to be the grimly controlled examinations of the male/female relationship. The self-deluding philanderer of 'The Habit of Loving' is devastatingly cut down to size. 'One Off The Short List' — a dazzling account of female one-uppersonship has the amazonian adrenalin racing, and such unadulterated triumphal blood-lust as the intended seducee closes in for the kill. The balance between feeling and thinking has always obsessed the author; often, here, resol utions are in favour of feeling, as in 'Our Friend Judith', where a self-contained spinster is found to have depths unguessed by her more conventional friends: 'if one cannot rely on what one feels what can one rely on?' she says, to their amazement.

Lessing is constantly on guard against vanity, dissimulation, falsification, com

promise, either political or emotional, and it is in grappling with these (and the role of women is thus seen, in context, as only one aspect of this) that she excels. Her constant preoccupation, especially latterly, is to give

feeling and subconcious metaphysical intuition the intellectual validity of thought; to treat, as in 'The Temptation of Jack Orkney' spiritual insights on the same plane as 'rationality'. In spite of the uneven qual ity — there are embarrassing, dated excursions into working-class life (she can't do it) — this collection is, it goes without saying, a classic.

Mary Hope