The Lost Child
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
Most students of literature know Emily Brontë, or at least we think we do: brilliant, passionate, undisciplined, even feral, yet at the same time wan, reclusive, depressive, diminished. Her sister Charlotte wrote that Emily’s sole novel Wuthering Heights “was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials.” Though she credits Emily with a greater mastery, Virginia Woolf’s praise for the novel infers a similarly alien energy: “It is as if she could tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these unrecognizable transparences with such a gust of life that they transcend reality.” Elizabeth Hardwick confidently conjures a familiar portrait of all three Brontë sisters in the single sentence, “They are very serious, wounded, longing women, conscious of all the romance of literature and of their own fragility and suffering.”
Or perhaps we simply accept how little of substance we can hope to know of her. In the same essay Hardwick backpedals, “No one and no amount of fact can give flesh to Emily Brontë's character. She is almost impossible to come to terms with, to visualize.” She is one of literature’s great unknowables. How incredible, then, that when she appears midway through Caryl Phillips’s new novel The Lost Child, she is at once bracingly unfamiliar—that is to say, human—and unquestionably alive. Sickly and introspective, yes, but also alternately stolid, independent, tender, ambivalent. Like all of Phillips’s characters, she is in and of the world: “Again she lifted her head to the skies. Let those who need shelter seek it out. She whispered, Go, seek it out.”
Though the book jacket frames his novel as a reworking of Wuthering Heights “written in the tradition of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Phillips has undertaken no neat retelling. The overt engagements with Brontë and her masterpiece are brief interludes, though they do much to establish the themes and tone of the novel as a whole. The bulk of The Lost Child takes place over a century later—Brontë died in 1848; Phillips’s protagonist Monica is born in 1937—and the resonances between Monica’s story and Brontë’s are more oblique and rewarding than a simple transposition might have been.
As with Brontë, the singular inaccessibility of Monica Johnson only makes those who think they know her more confident in their characterizations. We approach her edgewise, from the outside in. Our first glimpse comes through the eyes of her father, Ronald, a highly traditional schoolmaster in Wakefield, in the north of England. He sees himself, as I imagine many mid-century fathers did, as temperamentally reserved but even-handed, and ultimately underappreciated by his wayward daughter; Monica sees him as a tyrant. After coming to understand that he’d bullied her mother into “near-mute submission,” Monica maintains an emotional distance throughout her teenage years made physical when she leaves for Oxford. Her father is proud, of course, and believes himself to have been self-sacrificing in support of her achievements. Monica’s supposed ingratitude culminates in a scandalizing relationship with Julius Wilson, an older graduate student and budding activist from an unspecified British colony. When Ronald presents Monica with an ultimatum and she chooses Julius over her parents, he is heartbroken but too befuddled to show it.
Their confrontation itself is anticlimactic—“It had all happened too quickly,” Ronald admits—and we learn its context and backstory through piecemeal recollections. Phillips’s narrative is propelled by memory, or rather by regret: again and again characters fail to speak, to act, to follow through on impulses and obligations. In Ronald this restraint is so deeply ingrained that it registers as propriety rather than failure.
So Monica is one of the novel’s many lost children. Her husband Julius is another, a lost child of empire who ultimately abandons his academic career to more fully commit himself to his home country’s independence struggle. Halting her own studies to accompany Julius to a new appointment in the south of England, Monica is simultaneously listless and obliging, willing to “anticipate his desires and protect him from the world” while remaining inscrutable to this man who can never be sure he knows her: “what alarmed him the most was her ability to withdraw completely from him yet continue to function as though nothing were happening.”
When they move to London so that Julius can become Britain’s chief organizer for a newly formed opposition party on his native island, Monica’s descent accelerates. Julius becomes preoccupied with his work; their apartment is cramped, and London is indifferent to her presence; Monica gives up her voracious reading; one son is born, then another, and there’s never enough money to raise them comfortably; Julius thinks of his wife as “increasingly mutinous.” More goes unsaid: Monica wants to return to school, but she does not know how to broach the issue with her husband. As the reader is allowed greater access to Monica’s own perspective, we begin to suspect that she is not fundamentally unknowable, but rather that the men in her life are simply unwilling to know her on her own terms. Either way, Monica “now realized that they both were navigating a long, hopelessly unforgiving bend, and she was tired."
When Julius decides to return home, Monica lets him know that he’ll be going alone—“Did he truly imagine she was going to just sit around for the rest of her life waiting for him to make all the decisions?” Ever her father’s daughter, their confrontation happens largely inside her own head. “I’ve lost myself, you buffoon, which is pathetic, given how much effort I put into looking out for myself before I met you,” she imagines but does not say out loud.
After Julius’s departure Monica moves back north with her children, refusing the help of her parents and settling in a bleak public housing unit in Leeds, and the novel’s remaining cast sinks solidly into delusion, disappointment, and heartbreak. Her two children are each, in their own way, lost to her, though thankfully not to us or to Phillips. When we finally hear from Monica herself in a painful and masterfully navigated first-person chapter, she has unraveled too far to know herself any better than our previous authorities did. “When I was a girl at school, I was always the one asking questions,” she reflects; “Then, when the two boys came along, I was the one always answering questions. Now I don’t ask questions, or answer them, which is probably why everybody’s fed up with me.”
Wuthering Heights is less prequel than palimpsest to Monica’s narrative, in which Brontë’s moors are largely written over by drab council estates, factories, and gravel, though the wild aura of her landscapes persists beneath them. At the same time, Phillips brings into view the imperial foundations obscured in but enabling of Wuthering Heights. In addition to the single chapter tending directly to the Brontë family, the contemporary narrative is framed by short chapters in which Mr. Earnshaw, the original patriarch of Wuthering Heights, appears as a wealthy trader torn between his business in cosmopolitan Liverpool and the romanticized purity of his rural home. The Lost Child opens with a bold and breathtaking portrait of Heathcliff’s mother, never mentioned in Wuthering Heights but imagined by Phillips as a formerly enslaved woman dying in the Liverpool slums to which the harsh caprices of the slave trade have consigned her. Monica’s narrative, too, is shaped by colonialism’s legacy, most directly in the figure of Julius but also in the class aspirations and regional tensions embodied by her father, as well as in the subtle racism faced by her children.
Hardwick wrote of Wuthering Heights that “the characters are struggling with an inner tyranny, a psychic trap more terrible than the cruelty of society.” For Phillips no such distinction is tenable. Monica’s inner tyranny of mental illness is inextricably tied to the poverty, sexism, and racism that catalyze her descent. In addition to her father’s class-consciousness, Monica inherits her mother’s self-preserving privacy: “that was pretty much how she had managed to maintain what she assumed was a tolerable marriage, by not arguing and locking away all her talk inside of herself.” Monica’s inertia isn’t a purely psychological obstacle, given that as a single mother on a librarian’s salary she couldn’t possibly save enough money to resume her studies or move out of Leeds.
These are familiar themes for Phillips, both in his life and his writing. Born in St. Kitts and raised in England, he is the author of ten previous, widely lauded novels. In the Brontë sections of The Lost Child he exhibits his proven talent for revivifying familiar historical periods, loosening them from the calcified tropes of so much historical fiction. His prose can have an idiosyncratic but lovely formality that seems to bridge the two time-worlds of the novel, as when he writes of Mr. Earnshaw, “As he strolled away from his residence, he looked up and imagined the sky to be a black velvet glove that might, at any moment, reach down and lift him into the starlit heavens and propel him on an altogether different journey.”
Such yearnings for escape are shared by all of the novel’s lost children, though few are realized. Alongside the material tragedies that befall Monica and her sons is the more mundane and persistent failure of parent and child to see each other clearly, to know what the other yearns for and how to help them on their journey toward it. Mr. Earnshaw, too, fears the scorn of his children and scripts their ultimate rejection of him; alienation is in this way self-perpetuating, and becomes its own motor.
But if children cannot redeem their parents’ failures, they might at least offer an alternative propulsive energy to Ronald and Monica’s persistent regret. Surprisingly, Phillips writes his most compelling portrait of parental optimism in the figure of Heathcliff’s mother, who detects “that a strong and tenacious heart beats in [Heathcliff’s] tiny body. That being the case, all is not lost.” This hope is made more rather than less poignant by our knowledge of the fate Brontë has already written for him.
Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. He regularly reviews books for Feministing.com and irregularly tweets at @hubersamj.