Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Beryl Bainbridge’s based-on-real-life novel Watson’s Apology, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Zack Handlen: There are meet-cutes, and then there's whatever the hell this is: Years after they last met, John Watson writes to a woman who doesn't remember him, with the intention of ultimately proposing marriage. Nearly broke, and trapped living with a sister she can't stand, Anne jumps on the proposal as her last, best hope of a better life. They meet, and there are some sparks, but it's clear these aren't the sparks that kindle strong bonds. Both are too emotionally uneven to really see each other as more than a representation of their own needs. Anne immediately resents Watson's attempts at charity, becoming jealous of anyone from his past who might threaten her position as the only person who understands him. Watson fails to understand his situation at all, too embarrassed by his needs and awkward desires to really pay much attention to their intended target. They get married simply because there is nothing preventing them from doing so, and because there are no clear alternatives. It is convenience desperately masquerading as romance.
Years of increased discord follow, as Anne's horizons and social prospects shrink, and as Watson becomes increasingly unable and unwilling to understand his wife's frustrations. Unhappy marriages are common in literature, and Watson and Anne's pairing is so clearly mismatched from the start that it would be easy for the story leading up to that marriage's end-point to feel like an endless catalog of minor miseries. And really, it kind of does. Yet those miseries never become tedious to me, because Bainbridge balances them against pathetic attempts at understanding. It's easy enough to tell the story of two people who don't belong together, but what makes Apology distinctive to me, and effective, is that it shows how in some ways, unhappy marriages aren't all that different from happy ones, at least on the surface. It's easy to understand why these two people stay together, even discounting that neither party ever really considers divorce—their lives are so immediately and thoroughly entangled that the concept of separation is irrelevant. This is a continual tragedy as opposed to a culminating one, people viewed less as agents capable of enacting great change, and more as combinations of insecurities and longing, fumbling through life without any real understanding of their situation until those impulses combine almost inadvertently into action.
I'm not sure if I entirely agree with this view of the world, but it's a distinctive one, and it turns Apology into a sort of scientific study of cause and effect. It's odd—I generally read for empathy as much as for story, and Bainbridge holds herself at a distance from her characters in a way that seems to make empathy impossible. Stephen King, writing about British horror novelist Ramsey Campbell, said Campbell didn't create his protagonists so much as grow them in a lab. There's the same sense of detachment here, although I find Campbell almost unbearable to read, while I never have any problems with Bainbridge. For me, reading one of her novels is like taking a long walk on the coldest day of the year—it's too cold to snow, too cold to walk, really, but everything is so bracingly clear that it's nearly unbearable. And when you're done, you can come back inside and appreciate the warmth a little more.
Character-wise, if Apology has a fault, it's that Anne isn't ever as sympathetic as Watson—odd, considering that he's the murderer. Reading it again, I found I had to work harder to understand her point of view, but I do think her perspective is there, and given how thoroughly Watson misunderstands her, I think it's possible to feel pity for her even beyond the whole "being bludgeoned to death" aspect. There's a telling moment right before she's killed when she desperately searches for the letters Watson sent her before they were married. She wants an explanation for some minor, jealousy-inspired comment, but it's more telling to me that she values the letters at all. Earlier, she becomes completely devoted to her husband because it's what's expected, and because there really isn't anything else for her. And then he murders her, and everyone forgets she was ever more than a piece of evidence in a trial.
And with that, I pass the marriage question over to the group. What did you think of this particular relationship? And how did the Victorian-era conception of the roles of husband and wife affect things? Was this a coupling that ever could have worked?
Donna Bowman: No. But then, how many other such marriages stopped just short of homicide? That's the question that Watson and Anne's mistake of a marriage raises for me. The newspaper editorial that Bainbridge reproduces asks something similar, noting that the case has generated interest due to the class and occupation of the protagonist (middle and clergy, respectively). Murder among the poor and powerless is to be expected, but no one could have foreseen what desperation was lurking beneath the Watsons' ordinary existence.
And that's what makes this such a potent book for the present moment, I think. Because the desperation of the middle class is now on full display, both in America and globally. In England in the 19th century, only Marx, perhaps, fully understood that the measure of prestige and opportunity allotted to the petty bourgeousie leave them a hair's-breadth away from riotous, murderous despair. It's no accident that Watson is sacked from a tenuous position of power (on the page after he gets waves of applause and a silver platter, no less) and then can't find meaningful work, having his lives of the popes buried on a back shelf at the publisher's office without ceremony or comment. Anne's cruel provocations and general uselessness weren't the source of the marital trouble, although they certainly didn't help. Watson sees every avenue that might allow him to position himself as a person of value narrowing to nothingness. The propriety of his class background is revealed as a fiction—throughout the book, really, when you think of the drunkenness, fighting, and unkemptness that keep embarrassing everyone, but now, to a man reduced to begging for work from his former friends, there's no pretending otherwise.
So the last distinction between classes both economic and social melts away, and Watson bludgeons his wife like some common alley-dweller. In the epilogue, where Watson is able to construct a mental space to roam, think, and imagine, we see him attempting to build that distinction back up, only to have it invaded by the specter of the other Watson, the one for whom all those illusions have vanished, and the one who therefore cannot be restrained by them.
Leonard Pierce: I'm glad you brought in the Marxist analysis of marriage, Donna. It's something I wanted to talk about as well, but since I have a tendency to overestimate the degree of class elements in fiction, I wasn't sure if I'd be the only one reading it into the text. I'm still hesitant to say that Watson's Apology works entirely as an indictment of Victorian society, but the presence of that critique is harder to ignore the more I look back at it. George Orwell in particular wrote about the essential tragedy of the bourgeois that Marx only hinted at: the rich, protected by wealth and social standing, could more or less act as they liked, while the poor, of whom nothing was expected, also had an odd sort of freedom. But the middle-class—forever striving to ape the manners of the rich, but financially never far from the status of the poor—were truly trapped and had to constantly struggle to keep up appearances that paralyzed them.
We see this from the very beginning of Watson's relationship with Anne. He seems not to have any interest in marriage itself, beyond a vague notion that it's something someone in his position should do, but having decided to pursue it, he does so with blind determination. Anne sees the path to a better life being opened up before her, but she too is so walled in (by her ambition on one side and her circumstances on the other) that she can't even figure out where to meet her future husband that won't prove embarrassing. Once the deed is finally done, they have no idea how to live together; sexless, passionless, emotionally and intellectually incompatible, and driven more by their resentments than their commonalities, they can't even arrive at the simple, pleasant truce that some couples settle for. Their economic and social circumstances dictate that they must keep up appearances; appearance, above all, is what drives the illusion of their marriage. This is driven home by the reaction of those who knew them (I can't say "their friends," since neither had any) after the murder: Everyone agrees that Watson was an eccentric, if not an utter lunatic, and no one thinks the couple had anything like a loving marriage, but they kept up appearances, so it is shocking that things ended in such a way.
Some people think that marriage or childbirth will salvage a wrecked life. The marriage of John Watson and Anne Anderson is illustrative of why such an undertaking should never be made. It was meant to change both their lives; Watson sought a wife as an accoutrement to the lifestyle he felt someone of his talent and dedication deserved, while Anne sought an escape from poverty, resentment and despair. But as it turned out, Watson had no idea what a marriage truly entailed, on any level, while Anne simply transferred the blame for her misery from her sister to her husband. (My biggest problem with the book is that it made her a bit too villainous, so constantly miserable and prone to viciously blaming others for her circumstance that we almost wanted her to get killed. But that may be a function of the text showing us Anne's perspective more frequently; in the end chapters, where we get a clearer glimpse of Watson's personality, he seems just as unlikeable. I'd be curious to know, though, if others thought she shaded a bit too much into being a harpy.) As a portrait of family unhappiness, Watson's Apology may not be as elegant and insightful as Dostoevsky, but it's just as ruthless, and terrifyingly efficient.
Rowan Kaiser: Beryl Bainbridge does a superb job of pulling the curtains back on the often-absurd institution of marriage. Why are these people getting married? Because they're supposed to. Because in the male's case, it's necessary for his career advancement. Because in the female's case, it gets her away from her paralyzing need to take care of her sister. They have nothing else that binds them, no mutual friends, no mutual interests, nothing to keep them together except the appearance of marriage.
What's more, they immediately begin to sabotage each other's happiness. Early in the book, the inevitable marriage becomes so important that Anne starts to passively-aggressively pull Watson away from anyone else. Meanwhile, Watson sets Anne up in a house and forgets about doing anything else for her happiness, while also disparaging her one friend.
These are petty, antisocial people, and it is unlikely that they'd be happy married to anyone else. But it is definite that they're terribly unhappy with their marriage, and their unhappiness just makes the whole situation worse. So why do we, as a culture, encourage this kind of absurd behavior? Now, granted, the Victorian era was the height of what we'd now refer to as “family values,” but there's more going on here than just that. In modern times, we view marriage as a love-based relationship, which wasn't always the case. Historically speaking, romantic love for the masses has only really been a common social more since around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Otherwise, it's usually arranged marriages, or marriage via matchmaker, or some other form of practical bonding for social and/or breeding purposes.
The Watsons have the worst of all these worlds. They have an essentially arranged marriage, but without any social network that helps them to maintain it. They have no children. The marriage does not seem to further their life goals in any major respect, except perhaps for Anne escaping her sister. Yet they're supposed to live out their lives in the same house, constantly interacting, as if they are bonded based on their mutual love. This isn't just a bad idea for these particular individuals, it seems to me like it's a terrible idea for society as a whole.
The key quote, to me, comes about halfway through The Globe's editorial after the verdict: “A good deal has been said about Mr. Watson's high character and blameless life, but it must have struck everybody that there was an ominous absence of all testimony with respect to his domestic relations…” Bainbridge reconstructs those “domestic relations” as a series of conflicts, sniping, and manipulation. She also implies that there isn't much more than that to their domestic relations.
As I write this, I find myself leaning more and more toward an interpretation of Watson's Apology as a celebration. It celebrates the millions of flawed persons who engage in unhappy marriages with people they grow to hate, and yet somehow those people don't end up killing their spouses. A toast to them.
Ellen Wernecke: So cynical, Rowan! If the bar is really set so low that every marriage that doesn’t end in murder is a success, there are a lot of successful cases out there. Still, I think you’ve laid out pretty clearly the arrangement into which the Watsons have entered, and how it may structurally have been flawed from the start. Mr. Watson racks his brains for a suitable match, and without considering anything beyond a hazy memory—if that; it wasn’t clear to me that he ever actually remembered Anne out of the group in the drawing room—he selects her from afar. And as they say, he comes to repent his hasty choice at leisure. Seeking a wife purely to advance his career, he’s continually disappointed by her choice in company; she comes off a little better, seeking only escape, but learns to hate him for doting on his books and not on her.
I actually had a little more sympathy for Anne in the formation of the marriage. The hopelessness for which her husband comes to despise her seemed, while similarly economically motivated, to be advanced by a more pressing danger. The vivid details with which Anne and Olivia’s fetid quarters in Dublin are described, and the petty digs they get in at each other at every turn, made me see her permissiveness toward Mr. Watson’s courting, even as bizarre and random as it may have seemed, as an act of self-preservation. The consequences she faced from her limited income and the encroachment of old age superseded her husband’s ambitions; she was only trying not to repeat the fate of her family when she was younger. In one of their more bitter fights, Anne tells her husband, “You are responsible for me. I will not be left in a corner to rot.” While that's a grim preview of her corpse’s discovery, we can see in that flung-off remark her not-so-unrealistic concerns of being forced to rely on her own economic power to get by.
It goes without saying that Anne was ill-prepared for the escape she took, but what strikes me about this very Victorian courtship is the duplicity that had to be invested into it by both parties in order for it to have been formed in the first place. The transactional nature of their relationship, known to both of them, is never spoken aloud. Would that have made it better? It’s hard to say; even in 2010, when such marriages take place, we are sometimes loath to acknowledge motives other than love bringing people together. The class angle didn’t occur to me as I was reading, as it did to Leonard and Donna, but there’s a whiff of the idea that the Watsons together, their combined worth to society, might equal respectability (so craved by the bastard and the rent-collector’s daughter), and the couple’s inability to force that math further opened the rift between them. If they could have allowed themselves to be more honest about what they were expecting to get out of the relationship… but in this society, it would have been impossible.
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm married. Like with any married person, I would think, there have been moments when all I've wanted to do is kill my wife. I haven't followed through with it, obviously, and on the whole, my life is more enriched by her than it's not, but living with another person is all about that carefully controlled sense of making sure your lives calibrate. The Watsons are unable to do this because they're unable to fall into the rigidly prescribed roles their society holds for them. They both try to, but they both seem uninterested, ultimately. It's tempting to say that in our "modern" age, they'd feel more free to express themselves, or to escape the marriage via divorce, but I'm not entirely sure this is likely. By and large, people end up doing what's easiest, and that would likely mean these two would stay knitted together.
Yet I kept wanting them to work it out, and I saw how easy it could be before the gulf between them grew irrevocably large. I found portions of their initial meeting sort of… well, not charming, but definitely optimistic. These are two people desperate to escape themselves, and they grasp onto whatever they can find. While things fall apart roughly immediately (the wedding night is a real terror), the first two sections of the book could so easily be cleared up by them having a conversation about what they expect and hope for from the marriage that it seems absurd. By the time they actually do this, of course, everything is too far gone, and Anne cannot get John to leave his books long enough to take her on the trip she so wants. But for the first 75 pages or so? It seems like a modern-day marriage counselor could get these two sorted out, or at least figure out a way to effect an amicable separation.
Of course, that could just be my inner optimist holding sway. What I really think Bainbridge is getting at here is the way Victorian social mores kept pinning people into lives they didn't want to be in, then didn't provide them with escape routes. That's not to say these sorts of things can't happen in our day and age, but the world offers so many escape routes that it's easier to imagine a version of John and Anne that take hold of them. And, honestly, John tries to, by burying himself in his books. Which is why, ultimately, I sympathized with Anne far more than John, and am rather surprised by those of you who found her repulsive. She acts repulsively, but she's so nakedly, broadly lonely that I find it hard to grant her anything but the utmost sympathy. She's a harridan, yes, but only because she doesn't have any other person to be. John can be a husband or a teacher or a scholar or a writer. Anne is pretty much left with just being a wife, and when that avenue closes off for her, she turns to being as annoying as possible, just to be heard.