I straightened up the car and reversed again, into a donkey. The whole village assured me that the donkey wasn’t hurt and that it would stop in a kilometre or so and come home.
This quote is from the novel My Brother Michael and it caused me to guffaw in the silent Special Collections Reading Room in the National Library of Scotland… Seriously. Reader, I guffawed.
This happened over ten years ago, when I was reading the manuscript of My Brother Michael, having a peek to see whether or where it differed from the published version of the book. The National Library of Scotland is a sanctuary where everybody speaks in reverential whispers, and the Special Collections Reading Room is the most quiet-sshh-whispery space of all. My involuntary laughter had heads whipping round in alarm.
If you have read My Brother Michael, you will know that in its opening chapters Camilla Haven suffers a string of near-disasters attempting to drive a strange car in Greece, and that these scenes are written to comic effect. Some readers are not amused. I am. The cumulative effect of it all – the overturned trestle tables, the cockerel feathers, hitting not one but two donkeys miles apart, the enraged pedestrian (‘I’d hardly touched him’) – it makes me smile. Or at the NLS, guffaw. It is also horrified laughter caused by horrified empathy: driving a familiar car in my local area is enough to make me ‘[hang] on grimly to the wheel… [jerking and nudging] our terrified and apologetic way out through the city suburbs’. I detest driving, I’m unsafe on a bicycle, skis or horseback so I’m not sure why I ever thought driving might be for me – some days I’m a danger on foot, frankly.
Other readers aren’t merely unamused by Camilla’s lack of driving skills, however: they’re annoyed or disapproving. I’ve read before that Mary Stewart undermines women and feminism by making Camilla a bad driver.
Firstly I say: look at Charity in Madam, Will You Talk?. She is an amazing driver who speeds expertly through France while being pursued by a man she fears. Also, she is cool-headed enough to disable his car in some clever way. So I’m all for cutting Mary Stewart some slack, why shouldn’t she portray a heroine as a bad driver this time round?
I’d also argue that being a bad driver doesn’t disqualify anyone from being a feminist. Obviously. And that refusing to allow a character any flaws or weaknesses is – surely? – not doing real women in the real world any favours. Superwoman syndrome is no fun.
I would also suggest studying Camilla’s character and development through the novel. The year is about 1959, she is 25 years old and has broken off a six-year engagement only ten days previously. Since she was a teenage girl she has been in a relationship with Philip. Philip who made things happen, who was always fun. Philip who seems to have been a benign tyrant, with Camilla tucked in his shadow. ‘I had drifted along at Philip’s bidding, in Philip’s wake’ and Philip had been in full control: ‘I suppose I’m a bit of a fool where money is concerned. Philip ran all that, and how right he was’; ‘Philip, understandably, had never let me touch his car’.
This was why Camilla had ended the engagement, to find out whether she had ‘some talent for living’, to establish her independence, to find and mature ‘the identity I had felt it so necessary to assert when I had sent back Phil’s ring’. Camilla is in Greece on a quest for self-worth and to discover just who she is.
By the end of the novel, of course, Camilla ‘the world’s worst coward’ discovers reservoirs of courage and no longer sits back saying that nothing ever happens: she dives into life, refusing to allow fear to stop her, motivated by care for her fellow man (this being Mary Stewart, there is room within the roller-coaster of suspense and horror for a discussion of John Donne and his poem ‘No man is an island’. How I adore Mary Stewart!)
And Simon, unlike Philip, does not try to stultify Camilla as a helpless girl-woman: he divines her quest (‘I had the idea that you were looking rather hard for something on your own account’) and encourages her:
You underrate yourself so shockingly, Camilla… Don’t go on hating yourself because there are some things you can’t do and can’t face on your own. None of us can… it’s time you stopped despising yourself for not being something you were never meant to be. You’ll do as you are, Camilla; believe me, you will.
For me, Camilla’s rotten driving serves to illustrate her initial feelings of inadequacy. The trajectory of the novel shows Camilla’s development from a young woman miserably aware of her flaws and weaknesses and unsure of her own worth or values, into someone more mature and confident who acts in accordance with her values rather than her fears.
You go, grrrl!