Stella, the eponymous Clever Girl in Tessa Hadley’s engaging novel, thinks she has her life’s trajectory pretty well plotted out. At least for the immediate future, her plans certainly include university. She’s an avid reader and a budding intellectual. She is also possessed of a passionate, intensely romantic nature.
Coming of age in mid-twentieth century England, Stella is nothing if not sure of herself. But adolescence can be a perilous time, especially for someone like Stella. On her way to young womanhood, she finds her plans suddenly derailed, largely due to her own heedlessness.
I read and enjoyed The London Train, also by this author. Hadley’s way of describing states of mind is both artless and resonant. Here is Stella as a young girl, first finding her footing in a challenging world:
My instinct in those days anyway was to smother any unpleasant truth, push it back into its hole. I was (rather abstractly) enthusiastic about dogs and horses because the emotions these aroused seemed to me clean, unproblematic: I had a dreamy image of myself running through long grass with a collie dog jumping up beside me, trying to lick my face (after long deliberation, I had elected collies as my favourites). This image was my idea of ‘nature’, and had in my private world a religious resonance.
Although this novel has its share of unanticipated twists and turns, it is not by and large highly dramatic. Hadley’s writing is not showy, but in her choice of words, she has an almost pointillist gift for precision. (In this, she reminds me of Alice Munro.) In telling Stella’s story, she is to some extent limning the life lessons learned, of necessity, by a twentieth century Everywoman:
….I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.