Monday, March 31, 2008

Anatomy of a Marriage (1920s Georgetown)

A newspaper columnist in British Guiana writing a Sunday column (February 1922) makes the following statement: “Georgetonians are of two kinds: those who live in Queenstown and their unfortunate neighbours who inhabit the remaining part of our garden city.” That newspaper columnist is a fictional character and the statement sets the stage for Roy Heath’s first novel From the Heat of the Day (1979).

The Queenstown part of the city was apparently not fully developed at the time. From a home on Anira Street you could hear the “incessant roaring of the waves at floodtide” coming all the way from the seawall. Heath describes the area as “the unblemished district with its tall houses and blossoms on year end, and painted palings like flattened spears embracing yards darkened by thick branches of fruit trees.”

Residents hired gardeners to tend all those blossoms. New Garden Street was remarkable for its fine houses with large gardens in front of them, “in which flourished roses and dahlias, their stalks maintained by a staff to which they were tied.” A pipeline sewage system was set up in the early twenties foreseeing dignity and plumbing for the fortunate (and the end to posies under the bed). Who could resist the dream of moving to Queenstown upon hearing of this?

The aesthetic order of the city has crumbled over decades; parcels of dilapidation and vacant grassy lots remain. New fire-proof structures tower over old eyesores, and new residents moving in have established a kind of equal opportunity ethos. On Peter Rose Street jostling with once elegant homes there’s an Auto business, cars or vans packed tightly in a paved yard, with streamers flapping in the wind across the road. Of interest, too, is a mosque and a house turned into an office for taxi service; and a fruit vendor’s shack set up at the entrance of an Oronoque Street home.

You could argue these are buoyant signs of post-Independence development in the city; a messy kind of free for all residential zoning that disdains old vestiges of colonial respectability, even as a new moneyed and political class finds greener pastures elsewhere, with finer prospects of manicured grass on which to build.

Today minivans take short cuts through Queenstown’s narrow, quiet streets, honking in anticipation at evening strollers. And Bastiani (“the undertaker” in Heath’s novel) has long gone, as is the smell of horse manure from the shed housing his funeral carriages; his Forshaw Street business has been replaced by a more upbeat entrepreneur selling bridal accessories.

But colonial Queenstown was where Roy Heath moved his 1920s characters, Armstrong & his wife Gladys, in From the Heat of the Day; the old Queenstown with alleyways well-maintained by “men spraying the gutter-water with cisterns of oil”. Heath examines what happens when their marriage falls apart in the Forshaw Street property they occupy.

The flush of romance in the marriage wears off after two years and two children. As early as page 20, an inexplicable “rift” develops. Gladys Armstrong, a woman of healthy appetite, faithful and pledged “to breed and obey”, cannot understand what she’s doing wrong. Suddenly she must cope with “a wave of irritability that seemed to have no cause” sweeping over her husband.

Armstrong is doing very well; he gains promotion to Post Master at a Georgetown post office; but he wraps himself in uncompromising “silences” and her attempts at conversation are cut short by reminders, for instance, that he is “reading”. A third child on the way brings some respite, but the child doesn’t survive and the marriage continues to falter.

Beneath the first emotional awkwardness that blossomed into love, Heath suggests their marital union was seasoned in sexual desire. Gladys Armstrong recalls “the sweetness of copulation which became for her the heart of their marriage”. What she finds unbearable is the coldness of her bed at night.

Heath offers her no religious faith as solace; she doesn’t consider returning to her father’s home; she chooses the long-suffering wait for her husband’s isolation to end, absorbing his “outbursts” and deflecting his irritability.

Armstrong is himself somewhat mystified at the downturn of his marriage. He considers procuring a mistress, but Heath gives him a “conscience” that reproaches him for contemplating this move. He blames his wife’s “passivity”; he notices “her thighs becoming thick, and her breasts flabby”. He is sufficiently intelligent to reflect on what’s taking place, but libidinal priorities overwhelm his thinking. Most nights he stumbles home sullen and inebriated, sometimes slipping into the servant’s room; the barely literate girl is too powerless to fend him off.

He turns to houses of prostitution, pouring out his soul to a young woman (being careful to gloss over details); her response is so “insensitive” he leaves the room. A good friend with similar marriage woes offers sympathy and conversation. Key to his stimulus plan for his faltering Georgetown marriage is a younger woman “kept” miles away in the village of Plaisance. (He visits her every Sunday, defying social conventions, always fearful he might lose his job if the arrangement is found out.).

Armstrong’s conversations with himself stir a hive of self-pity and class anxiety. He had plucked Gladys from a well-to-do, genteel household respected for its piano playing, embroidery and sketching. He could have done a lot worse; he could have settled for a woman from his village in Agricola, “one of them big-batty women with powerful build who kian’ tell a piano from a violin.”

A dramatic layer is added to the novel through inquisitive visits paid by Armstrong’s sister in law. Armstrong’s own sister distracts him with argument over family inheritance after their father dies. These developments deepen Armstrong’s introspection. He begins to think he might have married above his station; he suspects he’s being constantly “judged” by his wife’s family, viewed as “an intruder”, a man lacking in adequate “background”.

To compound his dilemma, the colony is plunged into economic turmoil. The collapse of the sugar market starts the spread of fear among workers. There’s talk of “retrenchment” (a word as frightening then as “recession” today) among Civil Service employees, and though Armstrong hangs on his job security eventually falls victim to budget cuts.

Gladys responds with determined, belt-tightening courage; the servant girl is let go. Gladys holds fast to her vows of love and till-death, cutting back on personal nutrition, hoping her sacrifices would jolt Armstrong out of self-absorption.

Just when you wonder how much longer she can sustain her struggle with the inexplicable, she fades away. Heath’s prose seizes the moment to go maudlin & manipulative; paragraphs depict scenes of the husband’s grieving disbelief: “Armstrong drew up a chair and sat by the door of the room in which his wife lay.” Suddenly, thinking she might still be alive, he rushes off to find a doctor to confirm again her death. Images of remorse pile up: “the tears trickled through his fingers, down his chin to fall on to his shirt.” And after the funeral, “desolation in his heart”.

Heath is not a stern moralist, but the school-teacher side of him sometimes nudges the storyteller to dispense “lessons”, like first steps to mature thinking; or set up characters for reader sympathy or reproach. Some hearts will ache with Gladys’; Armstrong’s behavior might repulse or dismay.

Still, with subtle tracking and shading of his characters’ emotional shifts, Heath hints at encouraging news inside this extraordinary marriage. Stoically coping but privately wailing, Gladys’ commitment to her vows strikes the reader as fierce but not entirely thoughtless. And Armstrong comes across as a selfish though not callously uncaring individual, a notch or two above other men in the colony who cease quickly to care.

Heath suggests that marital relations in those constricted days were often no more than self-serving arrangements that followed a pattern of fated & faithless expectations. As Gladys mused: “Things were just so. There was a sky and an earth; there was the wind and the sun; and there was marriage.”

A comforting context could be found in the old assertion that the marriage vow in 20s Guiana – a fragile thing celebrated in logies and villages in an expense of ritual & spirits – did not always sublimate the pain & rage (and sense of fleeting mortality) left over from harsh colonial regimens. In the circumstances women dared to dream of happiness; men bared swords and plundered; the libido ruled. Children like molasses from sweet cane were often the byproducts of unbridled passion – and lucky souls if cherished in extended-family folk ways.

The modern reader might wish for deeper psychological insights. Heath prefers simply to present (what we can take as) the conventional 1920s understanding of how marriages unravelled: irritability, silence, drinking, outbursts; starved goodness, the cold bed; long-suffering female bewilderment, the male impulse to roam outside the roost.

From the Heat of the Day is the first in a trilogy of novels. Old Georgetown neighborhoods are fully realized in Heath’s not electrifying but affectionately accurate prose. Readers can follow the tribulations of the Armstrong children and their guilt-troubled father in One Generation and Genetha. (The last paragraph sees Armstrong – “overcome by great calm” – all set to make a remarkable recovery from family misery, and promising the reader some family continuity.)

Heath’s 1920s Guiana is in essence an imagined world but, like the still standing structures from the old Queenstown, many of the issues explored in From the Heat of the Day resonate today if you pay attention to distress signals that sometimes breach marriage walls; or listen to male talk about copulation.

Book Reviewed: From the Heat of the Day (“The Armstrong Trilogy”): Persea Books, New York, 1994, 150 pgs.

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