Cross the soaring Foyle Bridge from the East and take the route to Donegal. Shortly before you cross the border — now completely imperceptible — you will find the grand, imposing gates to a country house. As you descend the drive, the hum of traffic subsides and the years, centuries, roll back. Had it been built a few miles to the west it might, like many others, have been consumed in the vengeful aftermath of 1916. Partition protected it from that, but half a century later its Georgian windows shook to bomb blasts from the city.
That Jennifer Johnston has spent most of her writing career in this place is magnificently, eerily appropriate. She is a daughter of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Yeats was a friend of the family. She met him when she was young, along with O’Casey, Shaw and others who have faded from memory to legend.
Her study is enviably beautiful. The sash window is eight feet in height and beyond it a lawn the size of a meadow slopes down to Brook Hall’s private jetty on the Foyle. Frequently her characters begin their stories at a precipitate angle to the sea or an estuary. They, seem to have their backs to the land and while the expanse of water does not insinuate a desire to leave, it allows for ambivalence: I am of this island but I am able to look beyond its cloying demands.
Even her accent is neither here nor there. The mean is gentrified Englishness, but one can also pick out a south Dublin lilt and sometimes even a slight echo of Maureen O’Hara in her Quiet Man glory. But the shifts are slight and subtle and in no sense contrived. She tells of how in Notting Hill during the 1950s a woman asked her the way to the tube. Jennifer directed her to it. By way of thanks and with a curt nod towards a man across the road from whom she’d just retreated, she replied: ‘Most kind of you. You’re the first person I’ve found who isn’t’ — she paused, glanced around again and dropped to a whisper — ‘Irish.’
‘From when I was a child, and when I lived there, I felt that London was a suburb of Dublin. I only began to feel I was different when the Troubles began, and then I was suddenly aware of a huge difference in perception between the English and the Irish. And it became obvious to me that I was an alien.’ From whom, the English or the Irish? She smiles. ‘That’s the point you see. From both, and from neither. The Troubles made me feel alienated from all aspects of Ireland and England I’d previously known.’
This was the end of the 1960s when she existed, largely content, as the wife of a prosperous solicitor in a spacious early- 19th-century house in north London, with four young children. Aside from a few recreational attempts at drama, mostly for her children, she had written hardly anything. In the space of two years she had placed a novel with a top London publisher, left her husband and children in the Notting Hill home and moved into this grand manorial residence. The narrative, I comment, is almost too bizarre and beguiling for fiction. ‘Yes’, she agrees, ‘it is, isn’t it?’
A novel she wrote almost 15 years later begins with a woman, Helen Cuffe, contented with her life until her husband is shot accidentally by the IRA. She asks herself, ‘Did I feel sorrow? Anger? I hope I felt both of these emotions, but I’m not very sure.’ Helen maintains a respectful distance from her son and exchanges the family home for a cottage overlooking Donegal Lough where she can pursue her vocation as an artist and admits, ‘I was startled by my own happiness’
Few, if any, write better novels about Ireland than Jennifer Johnston; she engages with it, as was said by E. M. Forster, ‘with a sense of standing at a slight angle to the universe.’
Shadowstory, her latest novel, is the tale of two generations of an Irish family, and while politics and religion always appear incidental to private events, particularly the disappearance of the enigmatic Sam, we cannot help but perceive this little group as embodying a much broader, ineluctable sense of fate. It begins with Jennifer’s trademark, the sea, and what lies beyond it:
At my grandparents’ house … near the blue turbulent ocean, they had a tennis court … You could hear the relentless seas as you sat by the court watching and thinking your own thoughts.
The house is large, elegant, and we do not need to be told what sort of family would live there, with its own tennis court, on the beautiful coast north of Dublin. Polly, the storyteller, and her creator spent time in such a house, owned by their respective grand-parents, before the second world war. Close to the end Polly says:
That is all there is really. Not much of a story I’m afraid to say. Just the story of the slipping away of a house from its loving family, the breaking up of a family, not through any fault of their own, but circumstances, history you might say.
The Ascendancy is, or rather was, a kind of family, both captivating in its nature and pitiable. Beset by internecine squabbles yet content with their own incongruous status, they were neither quite the ruled nor the rulers, and their affiliations, in the end, lay with the island they could just about call home. The other people they shared it with, would, however, always be a people apart.
I use the past tense because while this curious tribe will endure in history and in family memories we must soon say goodbye to the generation who were part of that living inheritance; those who watched and participated in the establishment of a new nation but were at the same time, often despite themselves, of the Ireland before partition.
Jennifer Johnston belongs to this generation and Shadowstory is her elegy to it. It is a quiet book, too concerned with the lives and feelings of its members to dress them in the vulgar garments of tragedy. At the same time it is compelling, and very beautiful.
Shadowstory by Jennifer Johnston (Headline, £14.99, pp. 240, ISBN 97980755383474)