Cynthia Propper Seton Susannah Clapp - Essay

Susannah Clapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"One has to have a love affair", protests an acerbic lady novelist in A Fine Romance: "They're the only credible climax left." Her view is contested in Cynthia Propper Seton's own novel: first, by the lady novelist's languidly sardonic niece …, and, at the end, by the events of the novel itself. There is, of course, a love affair in A Fine Romance, but its consummation, though satisfactorily climactic for the participants, is not the novel's last word. The "inherent plotlessness" which Virginia Hume sees as dogging the lives of "civilized people" is allowed to continue: it is one of the acutenesses of this observant novel that being unsettled is represented neither as a condition which is necessarily superior (in lack of complacency) to being settled, nor as one which leads automatically to the solution of large questions about people's lives.

The flirtatious irony of its title (Fred Astaire's was "a fine romance, with no kisses") is present throughout, and serves the novel well. More than one romance (and more than one kind of romantic attitude) is featured, and for some time it is uncertain that any of them will come to anything. In fact, the expectations excited by the novel's cast and setting are both deflected and fulfilled….

A Fine Romance is more argumentative than most novels, both in the amount of articulate discursiveness it allows its characters and in the degree of detachment with which these discourses are treated. Inevitably, there are moments in which opinions are produced with a completeness which suggests that a dialogue between tracts is about to take place. More interesting attitudes are suggested when a lot hangs in the air but little is deduced. The novel is good at supplying the things which couples won't or don't say to each other (Gerard "thought Kitty flattered herself she was a realist mainly by disliking Wordsworth"); it is unusually toughminded in refusing to succumb to the idea that people's thoughts are necessarily more truthful or accurate than their speeches; it is generous in its humour, and in its suggestion that people's accommodations are not quite the same as compromise.

Susannah Clapp, "Unsettling Accounts," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3928, June 24, 1977, p. 751.