Caroline Blackwood Blackwood, Caroline (Vol. 9) - Essay

Blackwood, Caroline (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blackwood, Caroline 1931–

An Irish essayist, novelist, and short story writer, Blackwood depicts, in journalistic fashion, middle-class Irish characters trapped in tawdry lives. Blackwood's stories are often highly ironic autobiographical sketches which focus on the Ulster of the author's childhood. Her first novel, The Stepdaughter, is a departure from Blackwood's usual concerns, taking its place in the body of New York City feminist fiction lately in vogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 6.)

[Caroline Blackwood, in The Stepdaughter,] writes about anguish and despair and a painful love. The narrator … has been abandoned by her husband…. The book illustrates, most ingeniously, how a woman's emotional state can distort to the point of complete reversal her view of, and attitude towards, other people. While the narrator believes that 13-year-old Renata is her husband's child, she sees the girl as ugly, fat and graceless…. After discovering that Renata is, in fact, not her stepdaughter, she sees the girl quite differently….

Caroline Blackwood has an unblinking, observant eye, and a penetrating, acid wit…. The Stepdaughter is like an etching, sharp, precise and sensitive. (p. 654)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), May 20, 1976.

Anxiously assuming an interested audience, the writer of letters is free to practise unburdening and evasiveness in equally large quantities. Much of Caroline Blackwood's success in her good first novel comes from the witty recognition of this. The undispatched letters which make up the narrative of The Stepdaughter are, bleakly, addressed to an infinitely patient and cherishable nobody and tell a story which could only have been less self-aware presented as straight dramatic monologue, and more cumbersome as full dialogue. (p. 751)

Susannah Clapp, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 4, 1976.

[The Stepdaughter] is short, intense, arrestingly individual. A woman, K, writes imaginary confessional letters. Her husband has left her, in her high Manhattan apartment, for a younger woman. He has left her with Renata, the 13-year-old child of a previous marriage, whom she fears and detests. She also has a 4-year-old child of her own, Sally Ann, and a French au pair, Monique. Renata is fat, silent, unhappy. (p. 80)

In her imaginary letters K rails against her husband and against Renata, and also against Monique. She describes her hatred, the reasons for it, and the ways in which she gives expression to it. She compares herself to the evil stepmother in Snow White…. The Stepdaughter fixes an unwavering stare at feelings. But feelings, it seems to say, are governed by understanding. The novel proceeds, in a ratiocinative manner, through stages of understanding and through a progression of feeling. K's realisation that Arnold has dumped Renata upon her is qualified, as the narrative proceeds, by further stations of awareness…. (pp. 80-1)

All these sequential perceptions modify K's feelings, which work themselves away from hatred towards a concern and acceptance which the novel is careful not to label love….

With its unblinking view of man's selfishness and woman's dependence The Stepdaughter is a notable contribution to the women's movement, though it contains a scene with a woman friend which serves to protect it from too facile a categorisation. It is also, I should hazard, a philosophical and religious novel. It begins with a cry of pain, which can be seen to be a philosophical position. It ends with a sense of loss, which can be seen to be a religious one. It is an unusual and affecting experience. (p. 81)

James Price, in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1976.

Women who crack up precisely because they are women have become a commonplace in today's fiction….

Caroline Blackwood's first novel ["The Stepdaughter"], in the same spirit of icy hauteur that characterizes her essays, seems as much as anything else a venomously controlled attack on that mad Manhattan housewife of whose travail we have heard so much in the fiction of the past 10 years. Stranded by her former husband in an elegant New York apartment, the unnamed heroine, consumed by a free-floating discontent, turns the fullness of her rage and malice on her ungainly and woeful teen-age stepdaughter, Renata….

However much one might relish a clear-eyed view of those "victimized" matrons with too much time and money on their hands, there is about "The Stepdaughter" a facile, monochromatic nastiness that robs it of resonance. True, the novel does a handy stiletto job on its few characters, but what, finally, is the point? One is not asked to care over much about Renata's plight or encouraged to attach any moral significance to her wicked stepmother's dereliction. Rather, one is invited to look down from a great height and remark how unappetizing is the life the author surveys, and with what thoroughgoing wit she dismisses it. The book manifests a disdain for the way we live now that seems too easily won, and that defuses its rather brilliant bitchiness. (p. 15)

Jane Larkin Crain, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1977.