6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 38

In the library with a pen

Alethea Hayter

THE CHAPLET OF PEARLS by Harriet Waugh Bloomsbury, £14.99, pp. 217 The conflict between historical truth and the biographer's preconceptions has been the central theme of such outstanding novels as Margaret Kennedy's The Heroes of Clone and A.S. Byatt's Possession. Harri- et Waugh's The Chaplet of Pearls, if not quite in that class, is convincingly and laud- ably concerned with 'going into battle on behalf of Truth and Integrity in the Writ- ten Word', as one of her characters self- justifyingly claims. The target of this campaign is Hilary Greep, a young decon- structionist feminist who is writing a biog- raphy of the Victorian novelist Charlotte Yonge. She sees her subject as a mere floor-plan on which she can impose her preconceived design. She intends to estab- lish that Charlotte Yonge was sexually abused as a child by her father, was Keble's mistress and had a lesbian relationship with her friend Marianne Dyson.

Her project comes to the attention of a society of elderly admirers of the works of Charlotte Yonge who call themselves 'the Chaplet of Pearls' after one of Miss Yonge's novels. Here I must declare an interest, as I am a member of the real-life Charlotte M. Yonge Society, on which Harriet Waugh's fictional Chaplet of Pearls group is obviously based. The num- ber of members, the themes of papers read to the Society, even the Christian names of some of the members of the fictional group are identical with those of the real society, whose members will recognise some of each other's personality quirks in those attributed to Harriet Waugh's imaginary group. But if this is to some extent a roman a clef, the keys also open the doors to sev- eral other areas of literary politics — book prizes, biographical ethics, authors' soci- eties, libraries — as well as to the prime quarry of feminist deconstruction. Harriet Waugh has amused herself with all these coteries and institutions, concealing a seri- ous judgment under an effervescence of mockery.

The members of the Chaplet of Pearls, indignant at Hilary Greep's forthcoming libel on their heroine — 'Why should Char- lotte M. Yonge's real life, thought and feel- ings be distorted for the venal advantage of some sneering smug young academic?' form a conspiracy to thwart her. Through a series of meetings in each other's vividly described houses, they mature their plans, which culminate in a thrilling denouement in the catacombs of the London Library.

Parallel with this motif of the fight for truth in biography is another theme which pervades the novel — the singularities of old age. Apart from Hilary Greep, all the central characters are old, and the novel unsparingly reveals what that involves. It expatiates on the indignities, squalor and self-disgust of the inhabitants of decaying bodies, their aberrations, suspicions and powerlessness, the tyranny or patronising nanny-talk of their carers, their clinging to the too-large houses from which the next generation want to extricate them, their jealousy, possessiveness and incomprehen- sion of their children and grandchildren, but also on the fun, the companionship, the reckless, wilful machinations which they can still share with friends of their own generation.

Hilary Greep with her pretty face, her sordid life-style, her hatred of patriarchy based on her escape from over-possessive parents, her rigid adherence to her feminist and deconstructionist mentors, does not quite come alive, nor are some of the lead- ing members of the Chaplet of Pearls endowed with enough individuality to pre- vent the reader from getting confused between them as the action leaps from house to house, from restaurant to library. The clothes, the furniture, the food in this novel are more distinct than some of the human figures. Pivots of the plot turn on the choice between sandwiches, the ingre- dients of cocktails; a whole philosophy of class and taste is invoked by the appear- ance of flying china ducks on walls.

The general reader will find this novel an entertaining extravaganza with an underly- ing thoughtfulness about important issues. It will be much disliked by the Hilary Greeps, but the fans of Charlotte Yonge will be grateful to an author whose heart is in the right place as regards their heroine, even if her knowledge of Miss Yonge's life and work, and of subsequent studies of these, appears sketchy at times.