“On Literature” by Dr Keith White

Thankfully for those of us who live alongside, and try to understand, support and care for children, whether as parents, teachers, counsellors, therapists, or social workers, know that there is a range of sources of knowledge and wisdom available to help us. Such resources are over and above our own intuitions, common sense and experience.  They include professional writing and training, legislation, cultural traditions, religion, scientific findings.  But one source that can be all too easily overlooked, even dismissed, is literature in its various manifestations from poetry and drama through to novels.  Over the years it has become apparent that some of these writers blessed with extraordinary powers of observation, empathy and imagination have often arrived at insights about children and childhood long before the so-called specialists in the field.

On reflection this should not be too much of a shock: there is a huge breadth and depth to the questions that drive poets and writers.  So no wonder that drama has provided some of the basic categories of say psychoanalysis (e.g. “Oedipal Complex”), and models of how loss and trauma are worked out in human experience (e.g. Hamlet); novels have long explored aspects of the development including the abuse of children within and outside familial contexts (e.g. We Need to Talk About Kevin); poetry has handed beliefs about children (e.g. Ode: Intimations of Mortality); not to mention the vast field of children’s literature itself.

In this article I would like to share some of the wisdom of the best-selling novelist R.C. Hutchinson (1907–1975) in his novel, A Child Possessed, first published in 1964 (London: Geoffrey Bles).  Hutchinson wrote 17 novels in a writing life of 45 years between 1930 and 1975 and was short-listed for the Booker prize, but for some reason, though highly rated during his time, he is now little-known.  The reason that his work is on my mind is that I have been re-reading some of his novels in preparation for meeting one of his children soon: in this eagerly awaited conversation I hope to learn more about his own story, background and influences.

The book centres on a child, Eugenie, who was born both brain-damaged and disfigured.  Her mother is a successful actress, and her father a radical Russian who has become a lorry driver in Marseilles.  Early in the child’s life she was placed in a residential institution in Switzerland specialising in the care of such children and persons.  Her parents separated, but did not formalise this with a divorce.  So when a surgeon proposes to operate on the child’s brain, it is necessary to get the permission of both parents.  The father refuses to give his, and takes his daughter to live with him in his digs.  His work means that she travels with him in his lorry on trips whether local, or farther afield.

The child’s mother continues to hope that Eugenie will be placed in more suitable, specialist care.  At the end of the story the child dies of a respiratory condition, but in the process both her father and mother have come to know themselves better than ever before, and are drawn closer to each other once again.

As a genre the novel is probably best described as a love story of an unusual kind.  It is not primarily a novel of ideas, but as the narrative unfolds a number of troubling questions arise and are explored with considerable tenacity and rigour.  One of them concerns how far a child who cannot speak or care for herself can be described as human.  What is the essence of human being?  Eugenie is not useful in the sense that she can make any tangible contribution to her family or community.  Her father argues that this makes no difference:  “She’s a child of God, she has the same value as all the rest of us”.  This prompts the response from a friend:  “Indeed? One can only remark that God now and then goes in for rather startling progeny” (page 113). This is tested out with troubling intensity when she is compared with a herd of goats (138-141), and a pedigree dog, Coco (268-277) respectively.

Another way of considering her essence is to think of what might happen if she were to have brain surgery that transformed her intellectual ability unrecognisably.  Her father reflects in a letter to her mother: “She might be able to rehearse the works of Hume and Heidegger without a mistake, and solve problems in the calculus of variation – she might even develop the mind of another Pascal.  But she would cease to be the Eugenie who have come into the world through you and me.” (187)  Body, mind, spirit are inseparably interwoven in a particular person with a unique life-story.

In time her father, Stepan begins to realise that through relating to his daughter and trying to understand her by putting himself in her place (impossible though this seems to be, both to him and to others) he is starting to see the world in a whole new way and light.  As he begins to focus his eyes “to smallness” he discovers through her that he is no longer simply an observer of nature but a link in creation: “and he realised that he owed to her existence this fresh delight in the marvels of life about him, the enchantment of small created things…” (136)

If this sounds at all sentimental then be assured that the novel is anything but!  Stepan realises over time that there is an unbridgeable gulf between him and his daughter, and that she lives in dreadful solitude (192). But this takes him back to his own time in prison as a political radical, and particularly when he was in solitary confinement.  In his helplessness, enforced solitude and darkness he saw the essence of things with startling clarity, and part of this was that God “can only work by means of His creation…even the degenerate and the feeble” (184).  His journey of discovery leads him to see that he is closer to her than he can describe.  All through, he redoubles his efforts to find ways into her way of seeing (to stand in the place of “the Other”).

On one occasion he was walking with her on a Sunday morning when he squatted so that his eyes were level with hers.  He narrowed his field of vision to make it correspond with hers and moved his head from side to side as she did habitually.  This resulted in him becoming weirdly confused as “yellow lettering on a kiosk, the pink legs of a woman passing, the splashboard of a bus, swung to and fro before him” (191).  He marvels that with this puzzling information from her senses she has any power of identification.  (Those who have read Mark Haddon’s The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will recall the harrowing experience in the train.)  He realises that he has to get rid of assumptions and clutter in order to stand any chance of understanding her at all, and in the painful process he gains insight into his own inadequacy as a person and in relationships.

One of the most remarkable insights concerns the relationship between Eugenie as a person and Marseilles as a city! Stepan begins to realise that his daughter and the city of Marseilles are quite remarkably connected…and similar.  To devote an extended passage to the similarities between a coastal city and a brain-damaged child is an act of creative daring: but it is convincing (194-205).  It is not possible to summarise this chapter, but it helped me to see that there are limitless resources that come to our aid if we are genuinely, passionately, and unconditionally committed in our desire to understand an “other”.  I readily confess that I had never considered the nature of cities as one of these resources before.

Towards the end having been seriously injured in a crash, the paradox which comprises both the gulf between them, and their identification, has intensified to the point where he reflects:  “…I see it now –now that I’m helpless, now that my eyes have got like yours, wandering and clouded.  You and I are out of touch with the rest, perhaps we could never have learnt to fit ourselves to other people’s ways.  And now I’m no use to you any more, stuck here with a body too weak to do what I say.  But in the end it makes no difference.  We have both to be patient, for a time we have to make our own ways in the dark.  In the end our dullness and our feebleness don’t matter – God’s love will find us and our only business will be to reflect his love.” (336)

Whether in such a short piece I have been able to convey anything of the quality of this novel I rather doubt.  After all, a piece of literature is a piece of literature, and it cannot be replaced by any other form or a summary.  But I hope that this brief flavour of Hutchinson’s work will encourage those alongside children who are struggling to understand, empathise and help them, by reassuring them that there are probably innumerable additional resources in that process waiting to be found.

I have spent most of my life reading literature starting one Saturday morning in a local library with Far from the Madding Crowd and the description of Farmer Oak’s smile in the first paragraph.  Since then I have been surrounded by books.  And I have spent even longer living with and among children, most of that time at Mill Grove.  From time to time I have read something that enriches my understanding, challenges my assumptions, stirs my heart, and encourages me on my journey.  A Child Possessed is one of the most precious discoveries I have made, and that is why I commend it to others.