The Second Phase : A Travelling Woman

So far we have examined the three novels of John Wain, HURRY ON DOWN, LIVING IN THE PRESENT and THE CONTENDERS, one thing that may safely be pointed out as a common feature is the fact that they do not seem to have anything very remarkable as far as technique is concerned. In this A TRAVELING WOMAN, Wain's fourth novel on the list is a definite advance. It is a step forward in technique though he seems clearly "able to stay with the convention he sets up."1 This, however, is not to underestimate the theme which is, in its own right, interesting enough though William Van O' Connor feels,

In theme, nothing much is achieved , and the Reason for this seems to be that at a crucial point he seems to forget the period of his convention.2

Perhaps Wain fails to "reveal the greatness of man"3 and it appears as if the writer's job were merely to "manifest the love".4 Just the novelist must see his characters as real and important, so, too, must living human beings see one another. This love in itself affirms the value of human beings.

The protagonist of A TRAVELING WOMAN is a young lawyer, Janet is his wife. Though she is pretty enough, she no longer "excites"5him. With a view of instilling "a little, fire"6 in him, he plans to take psychiatric treatments. Though reluctant to be analysed, George accepts the opportunity of visiting London twice a week for seemingly legitimate reasons. He gets success in getting quarters in the house of the Cowleys, and soon he is having a passionate affair with Ruth Cowley. Janet comes to know about it. In turn, she, too has an affair with Captax, the friend of George who had got him a room at the Cowleys. Thus George gives us the picture of the "man falling"7. He looks very much like Henry Scobie (The Heart of the Matter) believing, perhaps, that "We are not gods, not beasts, but savages of a somewhat damaged but not extinguished nobility."8 There is also another couple, Evan and Barbara Bone, friends of Captax. Barbara is attracted by George but he does not reciprocate her feelings. Eventually, after Ruth has broken off with him, George wants to patch things up with Janet, but she, even though she has left Captax, refuses.

The moral lies in the fact that poor George did not have enough imagination to realize that his marital infidelities could lead him and others into situations he had not bargained for. About this William Van O' Connor has to say :

This is meager enough moral, and hardly a new one. But in reading the novel one is not at all sure that the moral was that Wain had in the forefront of his mind when he began A TRAVELING WOMAN. 9

In this connection, one thing that strikes and even disturbs us is the title of the novel. The title A TRAVELING WOMAN seems to be a misnomer. It suggests that the novel is centred on Janet, but infact it is centred on George. Had it been round the woman, John Wain would have an opportunity to describe the feelings of a wronged man. And this would have been, in all probability, a more interesting subject than working on "poor George's infidelities"10 would amount to. It is not very clear whether Wain maintains the convention. He tell the story for two reasons : firstly, he does not maintain it to the end, and secondly, he does not develop the theme that the convention seems to promise. The action as a whole is foreshortened. The characters are seen in isolation or in small groups as they might be on a sparsely furnished stage. There is no complicated life of the town or the city. An attempt is made to make the writing witty and clever and sometimes (surely not always), it succeeds in being both.

About the convention William Van O' Connor remarks very aptly :

The convention perhaps, borrowed in part from Restoration drama and in part from Wilde or Beardsley, asks that the sex game be seen in all its comic absurdity.11

Frederick R. Karl's contention is very near to William Van O' Connor's when he points out that this novel

is full of the 'Look pa - I'm sleeping with a woman 'type of humour that often passes for pseudo Restoration comedy.12

To my mind Wain seems to suggest in this novel an important theme beneath "the surface of his trivial characterization."13 Ruth Cowley does not like George but she goes to bed with him. When George thinks about her he has no more control over himself than he would if he were falling down a long well in Alice in Wonderland. Janet is right for George but he does not understand that she is. Barbara Bone is attracted to George because of a little game he played with her shoe, and Evan Bone "crackles with jealousy"14 as soon as George turns his eyes towards Barbara. All these and many more incidents that fill in the pages of this apparently slight, though gay book boil down to one significant question : is Wain aiming at a serious commentary on what is already happening to or may happen to (in the impending, menacing future) human relationship? A similar note is struck in the following observation made by Karl :

Is he indicating that in a world of hypocritical values even sexual intercourse, the one realistic and stabilising factor in a relationship, is futile? Is he indicating further that all human relationships, no matter what their basis, inevitably prove fruitless when mass values are petty?15

Obviously, the validity of the questions cannot be challenged. But Wain fails to fulfill the promise of the theme because of this thin characters, his lack of imagination in the love scenes, his failure to define where his characters leave off.16 If Wain had a theory about the comic element in sex - the convention would work. But towards the end he, perhaps, forgets "how witty and brittle and clever he was being, and the action suddenly is resolved in a moralistic way."17 In other words, once again the moralist triumphs over the satirist and the novelist taken together.

Still, A TRAVELING WOMAN, bears a sharp contrast with the first three novels of Wain. In HURRY ON DOWN, LIVING IN THE PRESENT and THE CONTENDERS, Wain has made use of the hero's romance at the end to indicate "his awareness of human value".18 A TRAVELING WOMAN on the contrary, has been done as it has already been above, "entirely within terms of sexual and romantic relationship."19 As the plot of the novel is one of "multiple deception and multiple fidelity,"20 each character appears to be after "some image of romantic fulfillment.:21 Each character of the novel considers his own longings and difficulties as being extraordinary but each is seen making an attempt to avoid "the boredom of fidelity."22 Captax lives in the fool's paradise when he has unique romance with George's wife. George ultimately feels that in his life his wife has left behind her the gap of her gentleness. Now he realizes that a single and lasting relationship has more value than "transitory tangles in a world of infidelity."23 What is surprising to note is the fact that all the persons it is Cowley, the husband of George's mistress, who first gives George the message as follows :

I've only just recovered from something like the same state of disorganization that you're still in Mine took the form of an intellectual quandary, and to some extent it had intellectual causes, but the differences aren't as important as the resemblances. I wasn't fit to keep my end up in normal human life, any more than you are. My particular kind or disorganization didn't lead me into petty disputability, as yours has led you, but that's just a difference of temperament it led me to something worse. After all, it's a peculiar kind of hell to have a wife, like Ruth and know that you're not providing her with the kind of love and happiness that she must have..........24

A little later Cowley again tells George something interesting about the importance of live and happiness :

.........It's something you wouldn't understand, because you don't know, yet, what it is to give your whole allegiance to one person. When you do, you'll be able to imagine what real love is.......25

And then against the consequences of not giving allegiance to one person, Cowley warns George :

......and you'll also have an inkling of what genuine failure can be.26

What is surprising here is that both George and his wife are aware of the fact that they must give allegiance to one person. A man stick to his commitment, Gindin very well enumerates the reasons why a man should do so :

The human being is too limited, both personally and intellectually, to handle the freedom that his powers of logical analysis suggest. He must stick to his commitments, not because they represent some exterior value or truth in themselves but because man is too feeble to do without them. Man's nature, not some abstract law, requires marital fidelity.27

Wain takes resort to "mock allegorical terms for his moral fables."28 For example, George considers the carpet he is on as the "Slough of Despond" when his wife refuses to accept him the first time. Herein lies the demarcating line between Christian morality and traditional morality and a "far more secular kind of morality"29 Wain has to present.

Wain sometimes seems engrossed in a conflict between "wanting to be a wit and needing to be a moralist."30 Whether he should have tried to be an adept in wit or morality, is a question of quite some consequences. And the only deciding factor is the issue whether he is any good as a wit. To quote O' Connor :

He (John Wain) ought to make up his mind. And since he is not really a great wit, his choice should not be difficult.31

William Van O' Connor's view looks sound to a considerable extent as Wain's search for a subject seems to be centred round "old fashioned moral truth."32 As in THE CONTENDERS, so here in A TRAVELING WOMAN too, Wain raises the moral issue unabashedly. It is "simple and unsophisticated",33 though clearly rendered in "an obtrusive and really unearthed way".34 One can see the point of analysis that for making a mark as a moralist of a good order Wain will have to and treat more complicated situations and problems.

A TRAVELING WOMANhas some "attendant flaws".35 In it sometimes Wain exaggerates or repeats a crucial point. In the novel to "define and categorize"36 every feature of the woman he is after. Of course, this trait is not peculiarly true of A TRAVELING WOMANalone; it could be traced in his others novels as well. It is the much repetition of the folly of complacency that breaks the relationship between Tom and Catherine in LIVING IN THE PRESENT. In the first novel of John Wain HURRY ON DOWN, the prose itself can be drowned by repetition of elaborately apt stage direction, as would be clear from the following passage of HURRY ON DOWN :

'Is' pose you've heard all about George's success, said Mr. Hutchins; his voice was bright and confident, but with a curious undertone of bewilderment and pathos. 'He's got a Fellowship', he added , using the strange word in inverted commas, grafting it like some strange twig on to the stunted trunk of his artisan's vocabulary.37

A few pages later the same repetition may be seen in the following passage :

"I suppose you wanted to speak to father" ('than Heaven at least she did nor refer to the yellowed scarecrow as Daddy'), "now that you've taken your degree you will be wanting to put everything into a bit better order, I suppose (An oblique , but not too oblique, reference to his haphazard approach to life)". He's been wondering when you'd show up. (Implying that he had been skulking out of the way of his responsibilities).38

All these flaws, whether they appear in A TRAVELING WOMAN", or in HURRY ON DOWN, definitely damage the cause of the name. Here one must pause and examine why Wain's novels have got damaged like this. Perhaps the most convincing reason is that in most cases he surrendered the meticulous artist's impulse to the urgent need to rush into print with a sketchy and slight novel like A TRAVELING WOMAN or THE CONTENDERS. There is no surprise in the fact that critics have been harsh on Wain for this. To take one example we may turn to Frederick R. Karl :

Has the novel for them (with Wain he includes some of his contemporaries as well) replaced the hastily written political pamphlet which the eighteenth century writer composed in his spare moments? Their 'protest' - such as it is - perhaps at first forced them into hurried statements, but even their subsequent books show no development in craft or content, and as well as desire to slow down and see what the novel really entails. Whatever anger or feeling they may have had was released by them before it became art.39

In other words, in case of these novels (this is perhaps particularly true of A TRAVELING WOMAN - a tragically spoilt novel), Wain appears to be guilty of being in too much hurry for no good reasons. He is up with a protest, thematically, and this could have served as a positive challenge to the artist in him, and could have led to the birth of great art in the process. But no such thing happens as the writer has no time to fuse the social or political purpose with the artistic purpose. The protest is not raised to the heights of art. The novelist's failure to translate his anger into art into "an ineffectual protest against a counterfeit society".40 Yet perhaps there is one thing that saves the novel from ending as a miserable flop. Wain succeeded in shaping the novel into a nicely - judged analysis of the "problems and values of human experience".41 The world of the novel is a counterfeit one, so that the analysis takes place within an artificial - imposed pattern. But, as the arrogant conclusion of A TRAVELING WOMAN demonstrates, Wain seems to be moving towards the view that the necessarily artificial form of a novel (as of all sort) should be used deliberately, rather than the unsatisfactorily obscured one. As a novel A TRAVELING WOMAN is the projection of a counterfeit world. It begins with a young married man George Links, bored with his young wife, arranging for a weekly consultation with a London psychiatrist and ends with the moral of "allegiance to one person". This pattern demonstrates that morality (howsoever profound it may or may not be) has had its way so that George Links and his wife can give final adherence to some principle. But the question of this final area ("what is better?") breaks out of the pattern : art and life continue to exist in a suggestive, if uneasy, relationship. The novel is powerfully charges one, but one wishes it had been rendered as a beautifully organised one as well. This is not possible because the questions relating to the theme, have not been posed imaginatively and what is worse, the artist seems to be curiously lacking in the seriousness of purpose.

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1. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, U. S. A., 1963, p. 50
2. Ibid., p. 50.
3. Saul Bellow : Distractions of Fiction Writer, The Living Novel, ed. Granville Hicks (New Yark, 1957), p. 14.
4. Ibid., p. 20.
5. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, U. S. A., 1963, p. 50
6. Ibid., p. 50.
7. Saul Bellow : Dora, Harpers Bazaar, LXXXIII, (Nov. 1949) p.199.
8. Quoted from : Arias, The Noble Savage, IV, (Chicago : Meridian, 1960). p. 5. Keith Botsford, Second editor.
9. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits......., p. 51
10. Ibid., p. 51.
11. Ibid., p. 51.
12. Frederick R. Karl : A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel, p. 233 (Brackets mine).
13. Ibid., p. 233.
14. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 51
15. Frederick R. Karl : A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel, p. 233
16. Ibid., p. 233.
17. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 51-2
18. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 134.
19. Ibid., p. 134
20. Ibid., p. 134-5
21. Ibid., p. 135
22. Ibid., p. 135
23. Ibid., p. 135
24. John Wain : A Travelling Woman, Macmillan, London, 1959, pp. 154-5.
25. Ibid., p. 155
26. Ibid., p. 155
27. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 134-5.
28. Ibid., p. 135.
29. Ibid., p. 135.
30. William Van O' Connor : The New University Wits and the End of Modernism, p. 52-
31. Ibid., p. 52.
32. Ibid., p. 52.
33. Ibid., p. 52.
34. Ibid., p. 52.
35. James Gindin : Postwar British Fiction, p. 142.
36. Ibid., p. 143.
37. John Wain : Hurry on Down, p. 13.
38. Ibid., p. 17.
39. Fredrick R. Karl : A Reader's Guide to a Contemporary English Novel, p. 233 (Brackets mine).
40. Ibid., p. 233.
41. Critical Quarterly, Vol. 19No.2, Summer, Manchester University Press, 1977, p. 76.