The Furies—a thinly disguised memoir—by Janet Hobhouse is one of the most complex, most powerfully written, and most affective stories I’ve ever read. And it’s made richer by the truths behind it.
As it begins, there’s the impression that it’s a novel of women—a saga—a family of women: “four generations of almost mystical Machinaean symmetry and Mendelian simplicity, an unassailable oval, an egg shape of female solitude.” But this introduction to the family Helen grows up in—or the family passed down to her in stories—that family is simply the foundations for the center of the novel: Helen’s love for her mother Bett. From this family of too-vivid women, Helen and Bett learn their roles: that of “the good child and the bad, the survivor and the victim,” which, Helen notes, “twice divided the family and set up torrents of destruction and remorse in my life with my mother.”
And so, at its heart, The Furies is the story of a love between a mother and daughter. Bett’s casual dependency, and, thus, her possession of Helen—“She owned me because I was her great love”—borne and fostered by her daughter’s worship, the great passion for her mother:
When I was little . . . all I knew was Bett and my rapacious desire for her. It was a state of longing so fierce, because we were so often separated, that I can only compare it to being in love. Not just compare it. Let me state from the beginning that when I was a child I was absolutely and ferociously in love with my mother. My existence, so much of it apart from her, was haunted by her absence, my present soaked through and colored by knowledge of where I was not. I knew two worlds when I was a child, discrete and simultaneous, a world of things that was immediate and sensuous, and alongside that the world of which I was always conscious: this desired other which was she. Only when these two worlds came together, only when she became my concrete, sensuous present, was I ever whole.
But as with all love stories, The Furies is also a tale of splintering. Bett is not—and simply cannot be—the goddess Helen paints her as:
Signs of her weakness, indications of something other than imnipotence, gradually pierced the waves of devotion that surrounded and protected me into thinking about her . . . But what began now to be clear and no less terrifying was my growing understanding that she was as helpless as I.
. . .
As I grow older, there were wishes she could not grant, humiliations she could not prevent, losses she could not make up, but what we told each other over and over became true for us: what mattered was we had one another.
Love and obstacles! This goes deeper than the disillusion and sense of betrayal that comes with realizing one’s parent is actually human. Helen’s love for Bett is a consuming one, and once the cracks have formed, she struggles to move away. The first in too many avoidances.
I’m scared of a lot of things. Scared of not growing up and getting lost in the traffic like Bett. Scared of going their way and getting buried. Scared of going my way like Gogi and getting punished (she had been punished with cancer, hadn’t she, the bad mother?). The good mother fumbles through her life and I fumble along behind her, only without her magic. My mother is still and always a beautiful woman, I’m just a nice little girl, not so little anymore, not so adorable, beginning to be less amenable, but no less helpless.
But the love is constant. Ultimately, this is Helen’s great love story. Something very primal connects these two, and from the initial naïve purity of their love to this struggle to break away, that love can never be extinguished. Oh, they tried.
It was hard. You wanted to save her, you wanted to return her to the air she used to breathe that made her well and beautiful. And you were furious that she was doing this, you were so angry with her. You thought she was wantonly, willfully destroying your mother, removing her, removing herself, letting her fall apart in front of your eyes. She was leaving you, You were so angry with her, she was leaving you.
* * *
For a narrator so telling and direct and detailed, you’d expect Helen to associate her love affairs with her experiences with her family, particularly the tempestuousness of her relationship with her mother. Helen loves with a brilliance for the sake of love, it seems, near indifferent to the actual person. The idea of love!
The pressure to fall in love, to let go and move on, was the pressure to exist, and you denied the one at the cost of breathing itself, it seemed; you lay low and let the love and tears in the hallways storm around you; you read your poetry and novels about love; you took your tea alone in your room absolutely aware that there was ill-health in this, and the danger of dying. It was breath-holding to resist, a kind of submersion in the water of noble intentions. You believed in love and eternity, but you watched the feelings slip and alter poem to poem and friend to friend. It was a Herclitean world and there was fire everywhere. If you didn’t let yourself burn, you’d die of the cold.
Her early relationships characterized by fast sparks and sudden conflagrations. Then a sudden dying out. Then a moving away, a staying away, and a coming back—not to the person, not exactly, but back to the “security” the belonging brings. High passions all around.
We lived a life of suspension of return, with the momentum of an orchard swing. It was a regulated manic depression, in which burning up, growing cool, numb, was how you love. To be happy alone was simply against the chemical law of such dependency. Alone, you endured, lay low, buried the spirit so that daily life became once again only a wait, a cold, insensible hibernation. Where once the future did not exist, or the past, now they were all that was. The present was a gray dormancy. Soon even the reunions began to lose any quality other than the relief of pain. So love became a torturer’s cycle: the simple current of pain and the relief of pain.
This kind of loving is Bett’s legacy to Helen. How to love, how to let it engulf you just right that you may say afterward you were strong enough to walk away.
* * *
The Furies becomes more poignant with the knowledge that its last parts—the parts where Helen has found out that she is dying—were written when Hobhouse herself was on her deathbed: notes, incomplete chapters, ellipses in place of scenes and thoughts now forever kept within Hobhouse.
“Sometimes,” Helen/Janet writes, “I was afraid because I did not know how to die.” It is at this part in a memoir that the writer is given the liberty to descend into due-schmaltz. But Hobhouse continues in the same tones as most of the novel: the directness, the glorious prose, the sharp humor, the occasional glibness. Bewildered at dying, she likens the process to a sort of end-of-term exam for which she has not studied.
Ah, isn’t The Furies enough of a testament to how rich her life was, how, ultimately, with this story told, she need not regret anything?
What made me saddest about dying was that I’d never get to meet and love or be loved, by anyone else again. That was what “all over” meant. Not the books unwritten or the places not seen, but the people I was never going to love. I’d wasted a lot, and I had certain regrets. I’d been dealt a good hand and I’d thrown too many good cards away. But I’d loved a lot and I’d been loved, and in the end, which this seemed to be, that was all that mattered.
Yes, Miss Hobhouse, from where I am standing, it certainly matters. This wonderful book, this life you led—the people you loved, the people who loved you, and how you loved? Yes. It matters, it all matters a great deal.