A portrait of Tessa Hadley next to the cover her new novel, Free Love

Tessa Hadley: ‘I am so glad I didn’t publish a debut novel at 25’

For 20 years, Tessa Hadley's novels have interrogated the truth of living. As her latest novel, Free Love, is published, she tells Alice Vincent why returning to the Sixties helped her understand life now. 

Authors can often overlook the smaller bits of life. The Laura Ashley curtains, the brightly coloured Formica kitchens, the piles of clothes littering a bedsit floor. But it is this, the human flotsam and jetsam of being, that Tessa Hadley casts a searing, immaculate light on. Over the past 20 years she has published three short story collections and eight novels; ever since her debut Accidents in the Home, which was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, her books have been consistently, quietly brilliant.

The British author, now 65, is a master of setting a scene. From cramped flats (Everything Will Be All Right) to sprawling, well-loved country houses (The Past), turrets with locked doors (The Master Bedroom) and fetid greenhouses (Married Love), Hadley’s homes appear risen and baked on the page, ready for her equally realistic characters to inhabit.

It’s why I had been intrigued to see Tessa Hadley’s house. Instead, I catch a glimmer of her home office through a computer screen. Hadley, who is 65, sits next to a wall of books on wooden shelving. A finely drawn portrait hangs on the wall behind her head. The dim January light, shrouded by curtains, is nevertheless powerful enough to occasionally cast her animated, open face, into silhouette.

'Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright are among Hadley’s admirers'

To read a Hadley novel is to imagine inhabiting those she has written into existence. When I tell Hadley this, she brings up a review of her most recent novel Free Love, “which was all about how I'm always writing about furniture and places. I was thinking, ‘Do I?’ And then I thought, well, I probably do, because that’s where I’ve lived my life, in rooms full of furniture. The furniture does speak when you’re in somebody’s room; what else are you taking in, but the way their external selves are there around the walls?”

Hadley delves into the unspoken, often devastating truths of human relationships: the marital affairs, the raw struggle of childrearing, the little deaths of lifelong friendships, the impossible distance that grows between siblings. Memory, loss and love are the waters she wades in. Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel and Anne Enright are among Hadley’s admirers; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called Hadley “one of the best fiction writers writing today”.

Free Love upholds this. While Hadley’s other novels sprawl across generations and decades, following the unfolding of family secrets into painstaking consequence, her latest novel documents only a year, starting in 1967, and mostly between two contrasting postcodes: the prim, white suburbia of North London and Ladbroke Grove, the scruffy home of artists, revolutionaries and migrants from former colonies seeking work in the nascent NHS.

Over the course of the novel, Phyllis Fischer, a housewife in her forties, moves from one to the other enabled by an affair with a man half her age – the son of her husband’s friend. It is typical of Hadley that Free Love focuses not on the sex, or even the scandal (Phyllis, she writes, “knew that her betrayal of her husband and children was wrong, but in the same impersonal dulled way that she knew from school about the Treaty of Vienna, or the abolition of the Corn Laws”), but uses the affair to explore – and puncture – the seismic social shifts of the moment.

“There was something historical about it,” Hadley says of the late Sixties. “Here was this hinge on which our modernity pivots. The world did change. Something altered that had been there for a long, long time, that British bourgeois tradition of respectability and hierarchy and knowing your place in the class structure, and it all sort of blew up. What replaced it was not, of course, blissful equality and freedom as we well know.” She says. “But it was something that felt different, right down in the cells, it did feel different. And so that feels like a source of origin for where we are now. Which is why it seemed not just a piece of quaint [backdrop], having fun in different costumes.”

It’s unusual, Hadley admits, for her to “write a completely clean chronological novel that starts at A and goes to Z.” She has visited this moment in time before – the French protests of 1968 crop up in The Past; some of her short stories feature childhoods that took place, like her own, in the Sixties – but not stayed there. Instead, Hadley has conjured the spirit of different eras: the dense, stifling silence of post-War Britain (Everything Will Be All Right); the Britpoppy optimism of the Nineties (Accidents in the Home). 

Hadley came of age in the Seventies, a decade which she says she’s “had lots of fun with” on the page. The daughter of a teacher and an artist mother, she studied English at Cambridge, which sounds as dispiriting an experience of academia as many of her female characters endure. “I wasn't that mad about it really,” she says, wincing. “It was a tense, competitive place and I was a bit provincial, to be honest. I managed fine but I was clumsy. I feel as if it was still a man's place, and women were fitted in around the edges.”

'D.H. Lawrence made me make wild and perhaps questionable decisions'

Instead, Hadley became something of an autodidact, abandoning a PhD at the university to have children and read guided by her own curiosity. She fell hard for the work of D. H. Lawrence, who was “prophet-like” at the time and “made me make wild and perhaps questionable decisions”. It was Lawrentian, she says, to get “married very young, have children very young rather than a career – although you could also put that down to an overlooked reluctance to submit myself to the hard work of school teaching.” She was 27 and a young mother when she started “hideously scribbling novels”, all four or five of which would end up in landfill. “They were hopeless,” she says. “I am so glad I didn't publish a debut novel at 25, because they were dead. I would have loved it at the time, but they were terrible.”

It’s a time that Hadley now calls her “apprenticeship”, something that ended a decade later “when I did finally write a few short stories and I thought, these are it. Tiny, maybe very little, but they are my truth.” She also embarked upon a Creative Writing MA at the newly founded Bath Spa University; a far happier kind of further study. “I just loved being back in the world. Because I had been a housewife with secret scribbling, failure, and having my kids and suddenly I was being a clever girl again,” she says. It was a subsequent PhD in the work of Henry James that allowed Hadley to discover the authoritative voice that thrums through her novels, that stopped her “trying to be other writers.”

She was 46 when her debut was published – Accidents in the Home written with four boys at home, a full-time teaching job and a PhD thesis on the go. I ask if she can recall the call that made her an author, and she pictures her workplace at Bath Spa. “I can remember the office and the phone and [my agent] said ‘Jonathan Cape want to buy your book’. It was lovely.” Hadley’s voice cracks, she wells up – quite surprises herself with it. “That’s embarrassing, I don’t usually do that,” she says, in a very apologetic, English way. “But it was lovely”. Then, Hadley says she phoned her best friend. “And she said, ‘Ah, that changes everything’. And it does.”

She writes, she says, out of “wanting to get down the succession of moments that I’ve lived in.” Ever since childhood, Hadley has experienced “a strong sense of time passing, and change, and how everything plunges into oblivion. It makes me feel that this will all go – all the complexity of it and the interrelatedness, and the way we can read nuance from the pictures. It'll all go but books can catch this and hold it in.” Hadley insists that her books aren’t about her own life, but they have nevertheless emerged from a “hunger to put the life I’ve lived inside on to the page.”

Her characters, like her plots, come from a strange hybrid of dreaming and “the really, wide-awake hard brain work where you’re pushing the story and thinking it’s flabby”. Notebooks, she says, are crucial for getting down the more slippery, evanescent bits, inspired by books (Hadley says she mostly re-reads “the obvious people: George Eliot and Jane Austen and Thomas Mann and DH Lawrence, and Elizabeth Bowen hugely. They never wear out”) and, less often, people. She builds characters from physicality first while waiting for the right name to fit. When it does, she explains, it’s akin to a craftsperson painting the eyes onto an idol: “suddenly the person has a life separate to you and you can’t dictate to them anymore.”

Increasingly, Hadley writes in a vacuum. Her previous novel, Late in the Day (which many considered a masterpiece) and Free Love were only handed over to her agent once she had finished them. “Then there is a genuine doubt,” she says. “I’m holding off for that in a way because I want to be free to invent, but there’s a huge jeopardy in writing a novel because it’s your own judgement. You wait, until at last you hand it over and see what people think.”

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Image: Sophie Davidson for Penguin

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