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Constance, by Patrick McGrath - review

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

Constance Patrick McGrath

Blooomsbury Circus,, pp.256, £12.99

Patrimony and infidelity are defining themes of the Anglo-American relationship, as they are of Constance, a novel with alternating narrators: Sidney Klein is English, in his forties, and an authority on Romantic literature. Constance Schuyler is American, 22, and believes her father hates her. Their new marriage enters crisis when Constance’s family reveals her origins in a Lady Chatterley-like tryst between her English mother and the groundsman at the family’s Hudson Valley estate, who committed suicide before she was born. (Did her parents know that ‘Constance’ was Lady Chatterley’s first name?)

New York in the 1960s hosts a tale dense in literary and historical allusion. Anglo-American themes are complicated: Constance loves London, Sidney prefers America. Sidney admires the American revolutionary Nathan Hale, Constance in childhood taught her little sister to spit on their father’s bust of Franklin Roosevelt. A surfeit of characters with German surnames further unsettles questions of Anglo-
American kinship. As the 19th-century romantics took inspiration from the American revolution and the ruins of Rome, Sidney (not long after Harold Macmillan imagined Britain as Greece to America’s Rome) makes a romantic symbol of Penn Station, which New Yorkers saw ruined during that decade.

‘Sidney said we were being forced to eat Penn Station as a punishment for letting it die,’ Constance recalls of the all-permeating dust from the structure’s demolition. Constance elects Sidney her ‘new Daddy’, and sets about demolishing relations with her family in retaliation for their deception, even as Sidney — who sympathises with her father — begins to remind her of the patriarch. She tries to undermine their marriage, first by accusing Sidney of being too old for her, then through infidelity, but Sidney likens marriage to architecture, observing: ‘What was done to Penn Station was wanton.’

At the decline of the Romantic age, railroads represented satanic modernity and sexual revolution. Patrick McGrath, setting his tale against the decline of American rail, has them lead instead to oppressive family melancholy at Ravenswood, Constance’s childhood home, near where her real father perished under an Albany train. The house is a semi-analogue for Penn Station: once classical in style, but turned by her grandfather into a ‘gothic horror house’ in 1861 — around the end of the romantic period. Constance and Sidney belong to separate genres, but their love may still work: in American literature especially, romanticism and the gothic overlap.

Constance believes in ghosts, and insists that the Hudson Valley is ‘swarming with them’. It was there that Washington Irving set The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and Ravenswood, full of busts and mossy urns, evokes Edgar Allan Poe. Sidney’s observations of life and love, meanwhile, reference Keats, Coleridge, Byron and Wordsworth. He struggles to finish a work of theory, The Conservative Heart, in which he will reconcile his taste for once-revolutionary romanticism with ideals of marriage and the family. Gothic Constance, he fears, could overthrow him: ‘The fatherless child is the radical, the revolutionary: the one who tears down the institutions that conservatism reveres.’

The era is revolutionary: ‘Like a crippled sparrow, a song of peace and love struggled past’, Sidney remarks about musicians in dangerous Central Park, where he would not allow a woman to walk alone. Constance, engaged in publishing and keener to adopt Sidney’s son from his previous marriage than to procreate, somehow belongs to it. There is between them, at least, a confluence of interests. ‘I’m a fascinating thinker and I love you,’ Sidney tells Constance, offering himself as Greece to her Rome-after-the-Goths. But McGrath, subtle and ingenious and provocative, offers no assurances regarding the health of an alliance formed across what Sidney calls ‘the angry black Atlantic’.

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