Tuesday, May 24, 2011
MR. CHARTWELL by Rebecca Hunt (2010) HarperCollins Canada, 217 pages
Winston Churchill is 89 years old and finally retiring from his vocation as a public official in July 1964. MR CHARTWELL chronicles the days leading up to his departure and the weight that that decision bears on him. It is no secret that Churchill struggled with depression and in fact often referred to it as a black dog. Here, in this remarkable debut novel, Rebecca Hunt personifies that dog in Black Pat and through the miracle of magic realism you will come to believe, as I did, in his palpable panting form.
When you first meet Black Pat, he's waiting impatiently for the elder statesman to wake up and when Churchill speaks "in a barely audible whisper....'Bugger off,'" it grins "filthily in the blackness...with unsuppressed relish, 'No.'" Miles away in Battersea, Esther Hammerhans, recently widowed is beginning to question the reason for her husband Michael's death when her thoughts are interrupted by a visitor, a Mr. Chartwell (aka Black Pat), come to rent a room as a lodger. Esther flinches, only barely when she realizes that "Mr. Chartwell was unmistakably a dog, a mammoth muscular dog about six foot seven high....the horror of him mesmerizing." No sooner has Mr. Chartwell offered Esther an extraordinary sum to board, than Esther shows him what will be his room, Esther's husband Michael's former study.
With their distinct forms of depression set against each other for cosmic balance, Churchill's lifelong determination to K.B.O., "keep buggering on," helps to provide a context for the circumstantial depression that Esther will temporarily suffer. And, when they meet when she is sent by the House of Commons to his Kent home to take dictation for his final public speech, he is able to provoke her into believing that she has a choice.
The sweet rapport between Winston and his wife Clementine is obvious throughout. They have pet nicknames for each other, "Mr Pug" and "Mrs. Pussycat," and after 55 years of marriage Clementine knows "when to leave him to the thorns of his solitude."
In the heart of the story, the repartee between Churchill and Black Pat is the stuff of Shakespearean comedy:
"The work you have done is the measure of you as a man..."
"I know what you are scavenging for, vulture."
"And you will be quantified accordingly."
"Are you listening, you rustic ignorant?"
Back at Esther's place Black Pat is performing his daily toilet with a tea towel and a wooden spoon that he has stolen from the kitchen to provoke her and to aspire to have "the smile of Tess of the D'Ubervilles...like roses full of snow." And, at the end of the work day, swigging the fetid water in a vase of wilting flowers, he sings, "with a crooning tilt to his forehead, 'A bone in the fridge may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl's best friend.'"
Hours later he's back in Kent with Churchill and they parody the famous exchange Sir Winston allegedly had with Lady Astor:
"And you're naked," Black Pat shouted through towels trying to remember the quote, 'But in the morning I will be sober.'
"Obnoxious guinea worm. In the morning I will be clothed....But you will always be a bastard."
Isn't this great stuff? Truly.
When Churchill is in fine form, good naturedly responding to questions from the press about his retirement during which he pledges to "delight my wife with my unabated company" and crush champagne grapes at the Pol Rogers' chateau in Epernay, Black Pat behaves like a petulant child, his power over Churchill for the moment waning.
MR. CHARTWELL feels like the genuine article. You will believe in this version of Churchill and admire the strength of his character when facing losses no parent ought to endure. Rebecca Hunt has written about depression from the inside out, scaffolding it through Black Pat's gestures and behaviour and both Churchill's and Esther's responses to him. This is a brilliant book and I am so grateful that it crossed my path.