Ursula Holden Victoria Glendinning

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Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I longed to be dependent always, on somebody dependable," says Eve in the "The Cloud Catchers." This unrealizable longing echoes through the four very English novels of Ursula Holden…—her most recent, "The Cloud Catchers," and a stouter volume, "Fallen Angels," which comprises three short earlier novels, "Endless Race" (1975), "String Horses" (1977) and "Turnstiles" (1979). All have been received with almost unqualified praise by British critics, who have repeatedly compared the author with Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. If Ursula Holden is like anyone, however, it is Jean Rhys. ("I don't write like Jean Rhys," she has said, "but I feel like her.") These are "women's books" in the old-fashioned sense that they are about women and the search for love.

If one reads the novels as novels should be read, at decent intervals, their differences would be more apparent; theme and obsession would recede behind settings and plots. Her domestic interiors and her dialogues are wonderfully textured and realized, thick with the apparently innocent detail on which English class-consciousness feeds. These are, tacitly, very class-conscious novels; ambiguity about social position is part of the displacement of all Ursula Holden's sad heroines. They are all emotional refugees….

We first meet one character, Pearl (in "Turnstiles" a drunken and inadequate aging mother), as a small, homesick refugee from bomb-torn London in the country house of "Endless Race." Even though this is the only concrete link between the books, it is a significant one: Pearl, insecure as a child, is unable to provide security as a mother. All the novels have the black reek of cyclic deprivation and cyclic cruelty. Every character is a sad leech, looking for someone to belong to, while longing to shake off the unwanted ones who doggedly try to hang on….

[Sometimes, on the other hand,] children fool and fail their mothers by being unlovable. This is taken to grim extremes in "The Cloud Catchers," where Eve's brother in the rundown homestead is a human vegetable, to be strapped down and tranquilized, sapping the strength of his parents. And all around, in all four novels, are parasitical minor characters, using each other and the inadequate girl-heroines as their "hosts." The only strong people are the earthy unquestioning mothers of undistinguished broods, Mrs. Copper in "Turnstiles" and Mrs. Carter in "String Horses" ("To have kids is what a woman's for"). They have firm footing in a world which to a Holden heroine is all quicksand. Perhaps it is the dazzling failure of the modern family, and the modern mother, to provide unconditional life-support that is the true theme of these leech-ridden stories.

Yet the mood of the novels is not so intense as these quotations suggest. The horrors and sorrows are embedded in black slapstick. The plots spiral out of control: "The long arm of coincidence...

(The entire section is 727 words.)