A Family Failing By Honor Arundel

Helplessly, Joanna watches her parents tear themselves and each other apart…

a family failing

So, that cover: clearly Our Heroine has a lot going on here, including an entire parasitic family (sad emasculated dad, bitchy liberated mom, shiftless hippie brother) growing out of the back of her head.

The Plot: And here we have yet another example of how weird the Scholastic Book Services titles can be. For every straightforward, teen-oriented plot, there is an incomprehensible word-slurry, surreptitious translation-that-doesn’t-translate or (in this case) foreign reprint dropped on the unsuspecting reader. I hope you’re not just up on the argot of the United Kingdom before you crack this one, but specifically the dialects of Edinburgh, the Shetland Islands and Northumberland.

18 year old Joanna Douglas is an aspiring writer about to graduate from high school, living in Edinburgh with her parents Jonathan and Elspeth (both journalists) and her college-aged brother. In the introduction to the book, she explains that she wants to record the events of the past year, leading up to her parents’ separation; she has made multiple attempts to tell the story, but she feels like she hasn’t been able to capture the specifics of each family member’s point of view.

Thus, the book has an unusual structure, as Joanna tries to write from the point of view each of her family members (chapters are titled “Jonathan”, “Elspeth”, etc.), with connecting passages where she provides her own commentary on the events.

The problems start when her father, the high-minded features editor of the Edinburgh Evening Clarion, announces that the paper has been sold to a Rupert Murdoch-like tabloid mogul, and if he’s not fired he will quit because now he will be expected to do stories on celebrity gossip.

When the inevitable happens, the family has to “economise” in order to live on Elspeth’s salary as a writer for a local women’s magazine until Jonathan can find a new job (or publish that novel that he has allegedly been writing for years), but then the family has a windfall when Elspeth is selected as a panelist on a TV game show (think “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” meets “Hollywood Squares”). Elspeth is an instant success, as she crafts a dithery, pun-loving persona that meshes terrifically with the other panelists (an ex-MP and a society grande dame).

In thanks for bailing them out of the financial crisis, her family reacts with a combination of contempt and horror that she would lower herself to appear on television.

“Can people really be persuaded to watch crap like that?”

Joanna felt torn. In a way she knew what Mark meant- it was, in fact, a rather silly programme.

Actually, it was Elspeth who aplogised.

“Darlings, I’m sorry, I was overwrought and stupidly sensitive,” she said, a little pink and bright-eyed from weeping.

Honestly, this entire family of pseudo-intellectuals is insufferable. While they are constantly bickering amongst themselves, the argument always seems to be about who can hate Things That Are Popular the most hardest. Elspeth, who has good-humoredly gone along with her family assessment that her job for the magazine is stupid and trivial, clearly has the patience of a saint. I’m surprised she hasn’t poisoned all of these people years ago.

The break finally comes when Jonathan announces that he’s secured a position at a paper in the Shetland Islands during the editor’s sabbatical. This coincides with Mark’s announcement that he’s dropping out of University to go start a commune with his friends. Joanna is furious with everyone for not supporting their father’s dream of writing his imaginary novel.

With the family going their own ways for the summer (and Elspeth remaining in Edinburgh to do publicity for her TV show), Joanna is at loose ends, until Mark offers to let her come along and try out the commune for the summer.

The “communards” are pretty much just as pretentious and insufferable as the Douglases, so initially Joanna feels right at home:

When I asked Mark he explained that they all shared a dislike for competitive capitalist society and wanted to do something constructive with their lives.

“God, it’s marvelous to be free at last. Isn’t it a fantastic thing the way human beings construct prisons for themselves- school prisons, university prions, and the worst prison of all, the home prison.”

Eventually, Joanna tires of the constant arguing over which flavor of socialism they’re going to subscribe to (when one of the residents wants to keep part of the money from sale of one his paintings for beer, Mark whines that “it sounds to me like the beginning of class distinction!”)  and takes leave of the commune, deciding to go visit her father in the Shetland Islands.

After stopping in Edinburgh, where she finds the family home strangely deserted and her mother dating the ex-MP, Joanna travels on to Lerwick, where she finds her father totally not-writing his novel, still acting like a huge baby about not being the family breadwinner. When she receives word from her mother that she has been replaced on the TV show by a younger, sexier actress, Joanna becomes determined to make her mother come to Lerwick and be “a proper wife”.

While the novel ends with Joanna deciding to attend University, and her parents still separated, she is optimistic that they may reunite:

She and Jonathan have met once or twice during the year and have been much more gentle and respectful to each other. She is beginning to laugh at herself and refer ironically to the days when she was “a television personality” as if it was funny but not important.

And hence, the infuriating problem with the entire premise of the book: while it is critical of the social upheavals of the era and seems to ultimately call to a return to traditional gender roles for the sake of the family (a subplot at the commune involves a shiftless single mother redeeming herself by getting married and learning to make jelly), it also constantly denigrates traditional “Women’s Work” as being stupid and trivial (Jonathan and Elspeth’s final break is over a snotty comment about how she can report on lace shawls from the Shetland Islands, because she’s just writing for a stupid girl-magazine anyway). YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS!

And on a final weird note, author Arundel was apparently best known as the film critic for the Communist Daily Worker in the 1940s and 50s. So who knows what the takeaway is supposed to be here.

Sign It Was Written in 1972 Department: “Secretly I was flattered, already imagining myself a second Francoise Sagan.”

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7 Responses to A Family Failing By Honor Arundel

  1. Carrie Laben says:

    Nah man, if you couldn’t think women’s work was vital and trivial at the same time, the Duggars would have no reason to be on TV even now.

  2. Pingback: Truth And Consequences By Miriam Young | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

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  4. Roger Davies says:

    I don’t think the reviewer and I would agree about everything but it was an extremely eloquent and witty piece of writing. It gave me a good laugh.

  5. L says:

    I enjoyed Honor Arundel books as a teen. Her heroines were complicated and often unlikeable. The Longest Weekend is great (unwed mother!). Scotland is dour and so are the stories.

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