Do you know this feeling we have when we quite unexpectedly understand why a particular book is a classic? When we understand what it means; when we suddenly get to know what it feels like. Have you ever felt it? When a book draws from a tradition it so thoroughly understands that it makes this tradition its own, and bends it. Do you know what I mean? The feeling we have when see this old long sturdy thing bending. I guess your novel A Game of Hide and Seek (1951) comes very close to doing just that.
The main characters, Harriet and Vesey, have known each other since they were children. Vesey’s aunt. Caroline, is the best friend of Harriet’s mother, Lilian. Both women were former suffragettes, and had spent some time in prison together when they were young.
The novel opens when the eighteen-year-old Vesey is spending his summer vacations at his aunt’s house in the countryside. Harriet also spends her days at Caroline’s, looking after her children, Deirdre and Joseph. When we are thrown into the story, they have fallen in love with each other, but are incapable of articulating and disclosing their feelings. When they are together, they are both awkward and fearful, always misunderstanding each other’s actions. Vesey is defensive and cruel, while Harriet is shy and clumsy.
They spend their summer evenings playing hide-and-seek with Deirdre and Joseph. Much older than the two children, they embark on their game as an excuse to be spend time together in private, hidden together. “Enormous calm and fortitude the young have when they are first in love and hiding it.” The young Harriet and Vesey are too self-conscious to be able to notice that their feelings are reciprocal – and their candour is highlighted by the fact that the narration interweaves their present moments of awkwardness with commentary about what they would feel about the memory of that awkwardness when they were older. “They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another. The jog-trot was a game devised from shyness and uncertainty. Neither dared to assume that the other wished to pause and inexperience barred them both from testing this.”
From the beginning, we know that the title’s Game of Hide-And-Seek will be an emblem of the protagonists’ relationship. Harriet and Vesey are entangled in a complex dance of seeking each other’s presence and drawing away from it. But the game’s main image will play a much larger role in your novel: the game will be the cherished memory of the time when they were most happy and their lives were open ahead of them – a memory they will always return to, when in need of a confirmation for their love; the game will be a metaphor for their mutual attraction – the repetitive movements of chasing each other and later withdrawing, understanding each other and later misinterpreting everything; the game will mirror the book’s iterative structure, in which Harriet and Vesey repeatedly meet and part, only to meet again later – they revive their hopes and let them perish, only to rekindle them again in a later point. They are entangled in this game of mutual seduction. More than their shared youth and their shared affection, when they get older, they hesitate to let go of their shared game.
That last summer quickly draws to an end, and Vesey is sent to Oxford, while Harriet gets a job in a gown shop. The letters she waits from Vesey never arrive, and she is left alone and broken-hearted. Meanwhile, the solicitor Charles Jephcott, “an elderly man of about thirty-five”, starts courting her. He is predictable, rather boring, but gentle. Out of loneliness and lack of option, Harriet ends up by marrying him, settling down to a domestic life.
The novel then jumps forward twenty years, and the years speed by as in life itself passes by quickly, often unnoticed: suddenly, Harriet is middle-aged, bored but still married, and has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Betsy. And after a long absence, Vesey reappears in her life.
By this time, the power in their game has changed place: while, when they were young, Vesey was the one who had a future (he would go to university, would be a famous writer) and thus the one who had more to lose, now their positions in life are inverted. Vesey dropped out of university, broke with his family to become an actor, and after WWII, he has joined a touring company. He is now stripped of his youthful arrogance, a failed actor in a third-rate production of Hamlet, and lives in poverty under precarious conditions. Harriet, on the other hand, has made a respectable life for herself, and is now the one who has more to lose – and thus the one who has the real power to decide.
Harriet’s newly acquired power, however, is not so much something she has conquered; it is much more something which was bestowed upon her because she had decided to fit the role imposed on her from the beginning (to marry, and to become a dutiful mother and diligent housewife). Similarly, Vesey’s power loss is based on his refusal to play the role socially expected from him (to finish university, get an office job at his father’s business, and get married). In a sense, both of them failed their youthful expectations: Harriet, who when young sought a passionate life, has settled for a loveless marriage, out of fear of being alone; Vesey, who had had, as a boy, to defend himself against his mother’s lack of care, has spent his life fleeing from any kind of responsibility. In a sense, both now live empty, unfulfilling lives.
When they meet again, their youthful love is inevitably rekindled. However, you don’t take easy steps with your characters here: this is a love story told with the most relentless lack of sentimentality. You leave the lines blurred between love and infatuation, betrayal and loyalty – as much blurred as the characters themselves must have felt those lines to be when they crossed them. The outcome is ambiguous: do they really have a second chance? Or are they simply deluded? Are their feelings authentic? Or are those feelings a way for them to escape the consequences of their past decisions? What is the right thing to do? And what does it really mean to follow one’s heart?
The gap between generations, and its iterative hide-and-seek quality, is another topic you explore. Both Vesey and Harriet turned out to be a disappointment to their elders. Caroline’s husband, Hugo, who had fought at WWI, is dismayed about Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” The boy throws all his opportunities away, and strays far from what his family expected from him. On the same note, Harriet is not particularly ambitious nor bright, and shows no inclination to fulfil her mother’s expectations by going to university and pursuing a career. Instead, she settles for the submissive life against which her suffragette mother had fought.
As in the game of hide-and-seek, one generation’s achievements are discarded as “a weird abnormality” by the following generation, only to be taken up once again later. While Harriet had been ashamed of her mother’s political past, Harriet’s daughter Betsy is proud of her grandmother. As if in a game, Betsy resents Harriet as Harriet had once resented Lilian. As Harriet had, when young, become hopelessly infatuated, so does Betsy now. And the wheel spins.
The novel also delves into some direct literary references, many of them twisted humorously. For instance, when the young Vesey tells Harriet that he wanted to be a writer, he pedantically mentions Virginia Woolf:
“The novel is practically finished as an art form,” he replied.
“I suppose it is,” said Harriet.
“Virginia Woolf has brought it to the edge of ruin.”
“Yes,” said Harriet.
“But it was inevitable,” he added, laying no blame.
Later on, in a moment when Charles is wary about Harriet and Vesey, he sits reading Persuasion. “‘What a novel to choose!’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow (no heaven dawning beautifully in Union Street), except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote.” Like yours, Persuasion is a novel of love lost and sought after. But your book departs from it; sometimes, A Game of Hide and Seek feels as if you had deliberately decided to tackle Persuasion, contrasting it with the real thing: a sharper, darker look on love, with a couple who grows old but remains immature and lost; a novel in which it is difficult to discern between right and wrong, and the characters are caught moving in circles in the grey area in between.
Betrayal hovers over your novel. As such, you weave your narrative with references to Hamlet and, most importantly here, Madame Bovary. When her friend Kitty warns her against following the fate of Flaubert’s famous character, Harriet provides what could be read as a passionate defence of Emma. Madame Bovary is not the female Quixote to be made fun of here. She is a woman who had poor chances in life, but is still in search of a spark, however small, and Harriet focuses upon the dignity of this search. When Kitty argues that everyone is the same and no infatuation is worth the trouble, Harriet protests: “All that makes life worth living is that we are completely different from one another and then – and it is always wonderful when it happens – see little likenesses: find some quickening, some response; some common ground.” Harriet’s is a defence of the much sought after, tiny and rare, spark: “We have only one life.”
You confront the flawed visions of marriage and passion that give rise to Emma’s condemnation: in a context where domesticity is a woman’s only respectable option, marriage cannot help but be “a frayed and tangled thing made by two strangers” who are “shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another”. When Harriet married Charles, “she had seemed to wed also a social order”. Now, she wonders if this order was only a shadow, “an illusion of society” that she had helped to create; “an oiling of the wheels which went round but not forwards; conventions which could only exist so long as emotion was in abeyance.”
Unlike Madame Bovary, in your book Vesey is the one who has delusions of grandeur, from having read many novels. Differently from Flaubert’s Emma, your Harriet gets the opportunity to define by herself her own sense of loyalty and betrayal. Furthermore, straying from a tradition that goes beyond Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, in which female deviation is sympathized with but ultimately removed with death, your book reverses the roles of the ones who are made to die.
Looking through a train window to fields enveloped in fog, in one emblematic scene, all that Harriet “could see reflected were her own frightened eyes.” You have thrown your characters in the grey area between their loyalties and their affections. They are unfulfilled and deeply flawed. Even the end seems to have been caught up in dense fog, locked in the iteration of the hide-and-seek: it keeps repeating itself, there’s no clear consummation yet. You refuse them any final judgement. Harriet’s own frightened eyes are all she can see when looking to her feelings, too. As they move through dense fog, in one of their clandestine encounters later in life, Harriet and Vesey seem to be courting ghosts rather than themselves: their lost opportunities, their lost youth, every blurred memory of what should have been, a taste of fog at the back of their throats.
“He walked beside her with the rose hanging from his hand. The taste of the fog was at the back of their throats. They could see only the shape of one another and, when they spoke, so private, so safe did they feel that they neither paused nor dissembled. In this blurred world, words were more beautiful and they used them more truthfully than at other times.” – Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek
“Cruelty had, in him, its other side of appalled tenderness. When his nature betrayed him into this tenderness, he would violently retract and cover up in cruelty.” – Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection, 2008, 306 p. Goodreads
- NYRB Classics, 2012, 328 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 1986, 260 p. Goodreads
- First published: 1951
- My rating: 5 stars
- This book was read for the #1951Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy.