Gillian Tindall Essay - Critical Essays

Tindall, Gillian

Tindall, Gillian 1938–

Gillian Tindall is a British novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

On the face of it we have been here before. Gillian Tindall's latest novel [The Youngest] bears all the characteristics of what one might call the Drabble school of the mid-1960s. Elizabeth: intelligent, articulate, educated, sensitive, doing a bit of teaching here, the odd article there, in between looking after lecturer husband, Jo and three small sons. Location: large, Victorian, shabby but OK house somewhere in not-too-North London. But disaster strikes and complexity sets in; the fourth baby, carefully timed to complete the family, is born hopelessly deformed: a terrible, crucial, nullifying mistake in the logical thesis of Elizabeth's life. She smothers it.

Gillian Tindall has used the trappings of the woman novelist before, the sensitive, rational treatment of love, sex, and pregnancy; but with her they are never used for their own sake. She explores the familiar female experiences to get at deeper, more general themes. The problem here is not, what does a woman do about a deformed child but, what does Elizabeth's confident, initially unquestioning, action tell her about herself?… [Like] Miss Tindall's other novels, The Youngest is a kind of psychological detective story of the soul….

It has always seemed before that Miss Tindall's use of symbolism has been strong but not wholly integrated into her schemes. But here the deformed baby is the terrifying, pathetic nexus of the book, revealing Elizabeth's guilt, triggering her self-discovery and itself resulting from her actions. Gillian Tindall has always been fascinated by the act of naming: of creating reality and at the same time de-fusing its terrors. In another book, The Edge of the Paper, one character is terrified of unburdening herself:

She feared the act, as giving more reality to facts only half understood and half acknowledged. There seemed to her something obscene about horror revealed to another, like a shameful monster, brought forth unfit for the light of day, carrying an old cruel taint of curse and blame, needing only to be hurried quickly under the cleansing earth….

In The Youngest the monster materializes, totally unexpected, the first indication that there is anything to unburden. In its complexity and insight, this is Miss Tindall's best book so far.

"I Dunnit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 15, 1967, p. 525.

This comfortable, gossipy English novel [Someone Else]… is a convincing and seemingly inside view of how a pleasant and not extraordinary young woman responds to shock and grief, and what her experience evokes in the lives of the people around her. More importantly, it's a satisfying story about an adult who is given a second chance to grow up, and takes it. If it's true that an unconscionable amount of its space is spent on its characters confiding their opinions of one another to interested third parties, the effect is no more nor less oppressive than when the exercise occurs in real life. What is most engaging about Someone Else is that it has no pretense toward levels loftier than the solidly middle-brow one upon which it actually rests. Joanna and most of her friends are very ordinary indeed, but Miss Tindall's knowledge of them, and her sympathy for them, involves us, even if disapprovingly, in their lives. Anyone who reads novels today knows that that is no small accomplishment.

Sara Blackburn, "The Cost of Marriage," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.), January 4, 1970, p. 7.

[Fly Away Home represents] a serious, valid and occasionally moving attempt to reproduce the texture of a life. Yet often life escapes. Mainly, I think, it's a question of style. Measured, flat, undemonstrative, analytic, the language takes off so rarely into metaphor that when it does, the diarist herself remarks upon the fact. Certainly it's well suited to the heroine's role of non-participant observer, and to her meditations on time lived and remembered. But the rare events are muted by the sombre process of reflection, separated and neutralised by the solution which contains them. (p. 24)

Clive Jordan, in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 2, 1971.

Gillian Tindall's novel [Fly Away Home] places her in the familiar school of middle-class married lady novelists complaining about being middle-class and married, too intelligent for their station in life, too intelligent for their husbands, anxious only to discover themselves, come to terms with themselves etc etc. If this sounds glib and dismissive it is also I think, accurate. Plainly, it is a predicament in which many heavily educated middle-class housewives find themselves, and I only hope they enjoy reading about it as much as they feel the need to write about it.

Within the rigid conventions of the school, Gillian Tindall writes conscientiously. She never descends to the inarticulate whimsicality where so many of her sisters find refuge from their own laziness. She never—bless her for this—allows her heroine to suffer a nervous breakdown. Instead, she explores her heroine's reactions minutely. Every aspect is examined, analysed and judged. (p. 62)

The writing is so conscientiously undertaken and the characterization so painstakingly accurate that it seems impossible to believe that [Fly Away Home] is not what it pretends to be, the journal of a sad, over-intelligent housewife of the middle-class. She is a little neurotic, of course. She is both smug and coy, in her spinsterish way, about the fact that she likes the smell of human sweat. I hate her and would happily break a leg to avoid any social gathering where she might be present, but I must be fair, I must be fair, as the heroine keeps reminding herself. For those who like conventionally daring views expounded at enormous length with that intense, unremitting introspection which passes for intelligence among women of a certain class, this [Antonia Boileau] is the very thing. She is desperately grown-up, and assures us that she becomes more and more grown-up as the book proceeds. By the end, she has come to terms with herself pretty thoroughly, I am happy to say. (pp. 62-3)

Antonia Boileau is an extremely thoughtful sort of person, within the limits imposed by her inability to think of anything except herself. All the characters, without exception whom she allows from time to time to intrude on the sacred area of her consciousness, are vividly portrayed and totally convincing. Gillian Tindall kills them off with an almost bloodthirsty callousness if their death can add anything to the wretched Antonia Boileau's self-knowledge….

Perhaps not everybody will hate this Boileau as much as I do. "Reflecting self-consciously on marriage, I caught my bus," she says at one point, and that more or less sums up the whole book. (p. 63)

Auberon Waugh, in The Spectator (© 1971 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 10, 1971.

Each of Gillian Tindall's stories [in Dances of Death] is concerned with death (actual, reported, anticipated or in some other way obsessively present) in this social context. Nearly all of them reflect the awkwardness of death's mystery by having as their spokesman a member of that class most concerned to sweep death under the carpet. As a consequence, the speaking voice in these stories is often vulgarly middle-class, full of clumsy English middle-class phrases…. What should shatter the bland respectability of this prose-style—as it does the often bland lives of the stories' characters—is death's sudden visitation. But, although the stories are always interesting and often moving, Miss Tindall's style seems to be the victim of her bourgeois points of view. (p. 155)

Michael Taylor, in International Fiction Review, July, 1974.

[The] Gillian Tindall fictions … The Traveller and his Child and … Someone Else [bring] home the studied limitations of the Bourgeois Hausfrau novel. On this showing alone, there's a fair chance that its cast will entail mediamen and educators and their novel-writing wifies, that its geography will centre in the NW-somethings with side excursions to the cottage in Wales or the Dordogne, and that its people's anxieties will range all the way from the choice between private schools and progressive primaries to the question whether the one-night lay with the husband/wife of a close friend will mature into something bigger. Writing about the house, as it were, is clearly ore in a domestic vein that has already endured—and again and again—heavy mining operations.

Not that Gillian Tindall doesn't add some distinctive touches all of her own—even if she does then repeat her tricks. Both these novels have characters with a background of suffering as European Jews, as well as men who go on about being enormously hairy; in both of them somebody observes that mortality is surprisingly taboo in hospitals, whose professional business death might be supposed to be: and, in both, art—if that's the word—writes a programme for life, and hence for the plot….

Every effect is of course calculated—Gillian Tindall's novels are generally very cerebral stuff—but there are at least some effects. And, as ever, she lays bare the pains and ambivalences of her domestic scenes with unflinching exactitude. (p. 833)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 27, 1975.

Gillian Tindall's The Traveller and his Child is more concerned with the search for a love object rather than the state of love itself. (p. 60)

Miss Tindall is an excellent observer of the perplexing quality of [her protagonist's] loneliness. It is certainly not the loss of his wife that he regrets—on the contrary his memories of her are among the most painful that he possesses—and initially his own lost child figures scarcely at all in his thoughts, except as an appendage to its mother's imagined new American way of life. Then the journey, bringing the necessary absence from over familiar landmarks and solid companionship, indicates the true direction of his sense of loss. Such a discovery cannot be other than a gradual process; and The Traveller and his Child is a slow novel, gathering speed only as it steadily approaches the rebirth of its hero. But Miss Tindall is right to move slowly, and we follow her attentively every inch of the way. (p. 61)

Max Egremont, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Max Egremont 1975; reprinted with permission), October, 1975.