It was my birthday on Friday, and what better way to celebrate than to think about another book, or rather series of books, that deals with growing up as one of their main themes. The Patrick Melrose Novels were recommended to me by a novelist I know, and it was an excellent choice. The series takes the life of its hero, Patrick, from the age of five right up to middle age. Born in the early 1960s, Patrick’s life runs in many ways parallel to those of my parents and their generation. And not just in terms of age, but also in terms of class and wealth. Patrick is, like my father was, a man living in the shadow of inherited wealth. Yet like the rest of his generation, he witnesses a changing of the times, where what we can get from our parents ends up not being quite enough.
What I liked about the series is the way that it speaks to my own experience of the world. I have no wish to defend the upper classes of England, but what these novels show is a seedier side to their lives that moves beyond the traditional targets of vapid cocktail parties, selfishness, and wasted potential. Patrick Melrose is sexually abused by his father and given precious little kindness by his mother or other people around him. In his twenties he is a drug addict, and as an adult he is constantly at war with alcohol. The failures of these people are not just failures to care about those beneath them, but failures to care even about each other. At the heart of Edward St Aubyn’s novels is an engagement with the upper classes on their own terms, with a kind of cautious sympathy.
In looking at these people’s failures, he’s willing to ask where did we go wrong?
Never Mind – Patrick Melrose #1
At the centre of the Patrick Melrose series lie questions of identity. Who are we, and how did we become them? Never Mind, the first novel in the series, takes us to France, where Patrick Melrose is just a boy of five. With the exception of Mother’s Milk, all of these novels take place over a single day, with memories used to fill in details. On the day of Never Mind there is a dinner party at the Melrose residence, at which two couples will be attending besides the organisers. The novel focuses on Patrick’s father, David Melrose, who is a larger-than-life figure. He wears “an inattentive expression, until he spotted another person’s vulnerability”. Though at one point one of the characters describes him as heroic, the word “villainous” is much more apt. David is a tyrant and a sadist. His enjoyment of the world comes through his controlling it.
We can look for the reasons why he is like this in Never Mind, and there are plenty. He doesn’t work and is bored. He hasn’t earned his money, which he has through marriage to his wife, and perhaps is bitter. His own father was an equal tyrant, crushing David’s dreams of becoming a professional musician. All of these are potential explanations, but in the end, we’re left feeling unsatisfied by them. David subjects Patrick to sexual abuse, and Patrick himself is the product of his mother’s rape – these are not things which even a difficult childhood can excuse. The challenge, reading through the series, for us as for Patrick, is to come to terms with the past, to understand David without forgiving him, or at least to accept him.
The character of David is best described by Nicholas Pratt, one of the other guests of the party: “Such people, though perhaps destructive and cruel towards those who are closest to them, often possess a vitality that makes other people seem dull by comparison.” This too, that David is “good fun”, is no excuse. But within the novel it explains his magnetism. David derides morality, he derides everything, and that grants him a kind of power over the world. Nicholas Pratt is a more traditional representative of his class, a man who does nothing and is at this stage on his fourth of fifth wife. An embodiment of the “boys-will-be-boys” attitude, he sees very little wrong in David. After all, a little cruelty goes a long way in hardening kids up. I remember my own character-building showers at prep school, where there was no hot water.
Alongside Nicholas there is his girlfriend, Bridget, who is there only for his sexual gratification and is herself in her late teens. Though she’s from a good family, she’s a fine gradation of class lower than the other characters, and they spend most of the novel ignoring her or mocking her. Then there is a philosopher, Victor Eisen, who seems to enjoy “ironically” the company, and his own girlfriend, Anne, who had worked for the New York Times.
Of these characters it is Anne who stands out. She alone takes an interest in the young Patrick. In a key image at the end of the novel she comes and sits with him on the stairs while the rest of the adults are having their party. She does not stay for long, and we are left with a sense of what could have been. The Patrick Melrose series is in a way the consequence of missing out on kindness when it is needed. Patrick’s own mother stays inside, continuing to eat. When he needed it, there was nobody there for him.
Anne is also unique because among all of the women of the story, she alone appears to work. Part of the prevailing attitude of the characters in these novels is an unpleasant sexism, which leaves the women trapped at home and unable to develop anything except alcoholism. Anne alone has managed to make something of herself, and it means that she is able to see their world from the outside, and understand just how rotten it is.
Bad News – Patrick Melrose #2
The second novel of the series sees Patrick Melrose aged 22 and addicted to heroin and everything else he can put inside him. He is in New York, collecting his father’s ashes. I did not like Bad News that much. Patrick is a mess and so, in a way, is the novel. I wasn’t a huge fan of the American setting. Though we have a few British characters, including Anne and George Watford (a chum of David’s), in general Patrick’s associates are fellow sufferers of addiction. The whole novel is rather unpleasant to read as a result. Edward St Aubyn himself had a heroin addiction, and I do not doubt the veracity of his descriptions. But still, it brings me no pleasure to read about the intricacies of needlework. Unlike Never Mind, which was funny and sad equally, Bad News is rather too sad to be funny, most of the time.
The addiction is significant, of course. I struggle with addiction myself, though thankfully not to heroin, just as my father and his father struggled with addiction. Addiction is often a way of avoiding something not fully worked out. It is a way of forgetting, even when you don’t want to: “His past seemed to turn to water in his cupped hands and to slip irretrievably through his nervous fingers.” St Aubyn writes well about addiction, it’s just not a subject that he can make particularly funny. And with Patrick’s refusal to think seriously about stopping, and his general early-adult angst and assholery, the novel as a whole was rather frustrating.
Some Hope – Patrick Melrose #3
Some Hope is a much better book, and is perhaps my favourite among the five. Patrick is thirty now, and clean. The central event of the book is a dinner with Princess Margaret at the home of Bridget (now married to George Watford’s son) and subsequent drinks evening. This lets St Aubyn let loose with the full force of his satire, and the novel is really rather funny.
“He moved in a world in which the word ‘charity’, like a beautiful woman shadowed by her jealous husband, was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’, or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.”
Here the focus is the selfishness, the insularity, the stupidity, of certain members of the British ruling class. Patrick Melrose is now old enough to look with a certain degree of ambivalence on his own people. At the party he meets Anne again, and she apologises for not staying with him on the stairs when he was a child. There is also a moment where Belinda, Bridget’s own daughter, ends up waiting on the stairs and struggling herself, only to have Patrick come and keep her company. Some Hope is a novel where we see development, rather than decline, as we did in Bad News. At one point a girl admits to Patrick that she’s been sleeping with his best friend, hoping to make him jealous. But instead of trying to win her back, Patrick says he’d rather stay friends with his own friend. Suddenly we’re growing up.
Mother’s Milk – Patrick Melrose #4
Mother’s Milk puts us back into decline. Patrick is in his early forties, with two children, Robert and Thomas, an alcohol problem, and a wife, Mary. Patrick has finally got a job as a barrister, though he doesn’t have any money. The novel takes us to Lacoste, where the family home featured in Never Mind is located. Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, is still alive, but she is in a nursing home, having suffered several strokes. Unfortunately for Patrick, Eleanor enjoys trying to make the world a better place, and she has given up the family home for most of the year to be run by a religious foundation seeking out-of-body experiences. Patrick would rather like the house for himself, since it is all that he has to remember his childhood by and is worth not a little money. And so, the novel is in some way a succession crisis between Patrick and the leader of the spiritualists, Seamus.
Patrick’s children and his failed marriage provide some amusement, but I struggled to enjoy the scenes of alcoholism, since I saw a lot of my own father in Patrick at those times. But all of that is to St Aubyn’s credit – he knows his subject matter really well. And unlike in Bad News, he does not present a purely negative, depressing, world. He gives a sense of hope, of progress:
‘Do you want a drink?’ asked Patrick.
‘Oh, no. I don’t drink,’ said Nancy. ‘Didn’t you know? I watched it destroy Daddy’s life. But do help yourself if you want one.’
Patrick imagined one of his children saying, ‘I watched it destroy Daddy’s life.’ He noticed that he was leaning forward in his chair.
‘I might help myself by not having one,’ he said, sinking back and closing his eyes.
At Last – Patrick Melrose #5
At Last is the end – Eleanor has finally kicked the bucket. If in Some Hope Patrick begins to come to terms with his father’s life, in At Last it is his mother whose life he comes to terms with. In spite of her constant charitable endeavours, Eleanor never managed to care for her own son. Not only that, she knew that David was raping him and stood by without intervening, from her own cowardice, or whatever. Early on in Never Mind Nicholas asks: “Is every woman who chooses to live with a difficult man a victim?” And that is the question we have to answer. Patrick is now not drinking, but there is still some final coming-to-terms-with-everything that he has to do. I’m glad that the series ends on a high note, with a novel that is just as funny as its predecessors, while also tying things together.
It is difficult to talk about a series of books in a short blog post, even though the series fits into a single paperback. Some things in The Patrick Melrose Novels are worth emphasising, just in passing. St Aubyn has a fantastic ear for a certain style of speech, one that you occasionally still hear among grandmothers and grandfathers in country houses and castles all over England. Not only that, he knows how to write a great sentence. Most enjoyable of all, he knows how to write a funny sentence. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much while reading a book as I have here. Yet these are also clever books. At their heart is a serious engagement with serious questions about identity, about money and class, and about families .
I do not think that alone these books would be quite so effective as they are bundled together, though. Their focus on a single day makes development difficult unless you read the books one-after-another. And without development, without its possibility, these novels are simply about Patrick Melrose – an asshole who has perhaps deserves our sympathy, but most of the time not necessarily anything more.
I am now twenty-three years old. One foot in the grave, as I have jokingly remarked to a couple of friends. But a good age to read The Patrick Melrose Novels at. The questions which I ask myself, as a member of the British upper (middle) class, as the son and heir to both a glorious tradition and a difficult and sad one, are reflected here with no small urgency. My own generation is the generation of Patrick’s children. We are another step on from his own. The inherited wealth is drying up, the immorality is becoming harder to stomach, and coasting by on connections is a little harder than it once was. But the problems the series identifies, and some of the solutions, remain just as relevant as the monstrous characters who populate its pages, many of whom it seems I know in real life too.
In the end, I can be grateful for what little progress has been made. And I can be grateful that St Aubyn has so wonderfully written of his own slice of the world and its age. One day I hope I will manage to do the same.