Madeleine St John: The Essence Of The Thing


A friend recently told me that when he was confronted by a problem or difficult decision he was aware of his feelings first of all. Not in the sentimental sense, but as a sensation that something wasn’t right, didn’t gel. Only after that he worked his way up to the mental level, where he could think through and verbally express his opinion. But there were people at his work who went in the opposite direction, thinking things through and never even aware of a feeling, if there was one. These people, he said, could unintentionally railroad others because they simply couldn’t see the problem if it wasn’t cogently stated. This could be the outline of The Essence Of The Thing.

Jonathan, rather unkindly described by another character as just another lawyer, isn’t he, just another cunning, cautious, conservative, overpaid jackass , announces to his partner Nicola that it would be best for them to part. It’s quite clear to both of them, he says, that their relationship has no future. He’ll buy her out of her share of the flat and all will be settled. But it isn’t clear to Nicola that they have been unhappy, as he says, for some time. She thought they were happy and on the track to marriage. Jonathan resists her efforts to talk through the situation before making such a final, and to her, sudden, decision.

This is useless. I have nothing more to tell you. I’m sorry, I wish I had. I wish I could satisfy your curiosity, but I can’t. There is nothing more to know. I’ll speak as plainly as I can. I’m sorry that you find this so hard to take in, but I don’t want to live with you any more. This relationship is getting us nowhere. I don’t love you. (104)

We, of course, know more about Jonathan than he knows about himself. The progress of the book is Jonathan working his way down from conscious thought to feeling, and Nicola working her way from feeling to hard-won thought.

‘I’m taking over Nicola’s share of the mortgage. She’s moved out. We could have done it the other way around, but she couldn’t afford it.’
The coldness startled even Jonathan himself, now that the words were out, here, now. This was the first conversation he had had on the subject since the situation had arisen. That there would be other people who must be told, that it would be he who must tell them, was an aspect of it which had not initially occurred to him. He had not foreseen how unpleasant it could be: how unpleasant to hear himself saying these words. One almost had an image of Nicola wrapped in a shawl, driven out into the snow. It was quite ridiculous, of course; he banished it from his mind and with it all lesser suggestions of pathos or misfortune.

This book was shortlisted for the Booker in 1997 (the year The God Of Small Things won), though there were conflicting views about it. Not so much deep as banal, said one critic. I suspect this may have been a male critic who thought books of this kind written by women were automatically banal, and it could have been in other hands. But St John’s desolate incisiveness is far from banality, though to my mind this book isn’t as good as A Pure Clear Light, which we reviewed here. There are traces of Anita Brookner and Penelope Fitzgerald, but she reminds me most of all of Alice Thomas Ellis.

5 thoughts on “Madeleine St John: The Essence Of The Thing

  1. Interesting relationship and rather painful if you are the one being bought out by the other. Discarded like an old sock. Who would want to stay with a guy like that?

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