Catherine Chanter: The Important Role Family Plays in The Well

Catherine Chanter: The Important Role Family Plays in The Well

The odd thing about our parents is that they are present in our lives even when we can’t see them – and this is nowhere more true than in fiction. It is a useful tool for authors to dispose of mothers and fathers, not just because orphans are interesting in themselves, but also the better to focus on the protagonist. Remember Bathsheba Everdene, Jane Eyre, even Harry Potter, to name but three. This works well for plot, but I suspect that Hardy, Brontë and J. K. Rowling thought about their characters’ families even if they didn’t write that much about them. Ruth might have marched into my mind as a strong voice demanding to be written, but she did not come alone. Psychologically, even though the information takes up barely a para­graph, it matters that Ruth was an only child and that her parents devoted more energy to having another than to loving the one they already had; it matters also that Mark felt more at home on his uncle’s farm than with his divorced parents. Wondering to what extent she is to blame for her daughter’s disturbed behaviours, Ruth speculates on what personality traits Angie may have inherited from her anonymous risk-taking father and it is true, the past is alive and well and living in our genes. I was adopted and had no idea until recently that my birth mother is also a writer; nature and nurture, hand in hand, running through our personalities, as true in fiction as in real life.

The derivation of our word ‘family’ is from the Latin ‘familia’, meaning household servants, which surely accounts for the number of times I’ve yelled up the stairs at home, ‘What do you think I am, some sort of slave?’ More seriously, I like the way it encapsulates the idea of service to one another and, as most words themselves belong to families, it takes us to a later cousin, ‘familiar’, with its connotations of friendship. But more than that, the word developed in English to mean a household: the retinue, servants, relations, hangers on, even the lodgers. In contrast, in the 1940s, the tight definition of the ‘nuclear family’ appears. Statistics tell a story about where we may be heading now and it seems to be a bit of both – small households but with loosely defined extended family around us. This is a model I play with in The Well.

In my work, trying to identify alternatives to going into care, I start by asking both adults and children who they think of as family. What would have once been a logical diagram constructed with rulers and straight lines on a small piece of paper is now often a picture, a flowing visual interpretation naming friends, neighbours, partners, people you call aunty, other people’s grannies, your mum’s best friend, your best friend’s mum, and of course the dog. Bru’s death was deliberately portrayed as a death in the family in The Well. As I wrote, I often wondered who Lucien would have drawn on his blank page?

One reader told me that they thought The Well was not so much about what happened when it stopped raining, but about what happened when you have all the rain and others have none. That made sense to me. The Well wonders how we can act as effective custodians of precious things which are entrusted to us, and nowhere is that more sharply played out than in how we look after our chil­dren. If one question is who killed Lucien, a second equally important question inevitably follows: who failed to look after him? That should come as no surprise. These are the questions asked with depressing regularity on the news every time there is another serious case review following the death of a child. The Igbo or Yoruba proverb that it takes a village to raise a child is right; it follows that it takes a village to lose one too.

I sometimes wonder if, as a species, we have an impulse ‘to family’ (forgive me for now inventing verbs as well as psychological theories), and that we will seek out a means of satisfying that impulse in whatever way is possible in any given set of circumstances. As Mark and Ruth’s family begins to falter under the strain of living at The Well, both construct alternatives.

From the moment he fetches her a bacon buttie after a student party until his last look over his shoulder driving away from The Well, for Mark, family begins and ends with Ruth. Mark is a man who was poorly parented himself and then in turn found himself unable to parent biologically. I don’t think he finds it easy to share the woman he loves and this becomes clear in his relationship with his children – plural. He always felt to me as though he has two children. The first is Angie. (It was interesting for me that whenever I redrafted the novel, I could never settle on what Angie called Mark, no epithet fitted.) His second child is his dream. It is hard to share the parenting of either with Ruth, and he has little in the way of resources to support him when his second child turns out to be as unmanageable as the first.

With an equally impoverished experience of mothering and being mothered, Ruth also has an alternative family project and that is to love Lucien in a way that proved so difficult with Angie. Sharing is not her strong point either. In families, we often repeat mistakes through the generations, and witnessing the way in which Lucien splits Mark and Ruth it is possible to hypothesise what might have happened with Angie. It is not an easy role, to be the grandparent with parental responsibility for the little ones. I know this not only because I have worked with amazing people who have risen to this challenge, but I have also supported others, a minority, who have been defeated by the task. Ruth fails to move from mother to grand­mother and in her struggle she discovers that her network of support turns out to be little more than a false clan of friends on Facebook.

The Ardingly family has shallow roots and is planted in poor soil; when the wind blows, it splits.

And what about Angie? Sister Amelia terrified me as I wrote The Well, Ruth turned my mind inside out, Mark reduced me to tears, but Angie, for all her faults, gave me hope. Angie also seeks out a surrogate family, a group of travellers who support each other to stay clean, who are non-judgemental and with whom she is learning to look after herself, her child and the world around her. The reader can judge whether the act of leaving Lucien with Ruth is selfish, neglectful or selfless, but whichever conclusion is drawn, she pays a terrible price. Yet she still finds it within herself to forgive her mother and father and commit to the future, writing at the end with the news that she is expecting a baby.

The travellers are not the only alternative household at The Well. Most world religions use the terminology of family, such as ‘the children of God’ or ‘the church family’, and the medieval mystics to whom I returned in my research for The Well embraced the idea of ‘the Bridegroom Christ’. The Sisters of the Rose of Jericho see themselves as having a place in that universal spiritual home and as family – indeed ‘sisters’ – to each other. It is easy to see why this is so appealing for Ruth, but as she and others discover, this is a greedy and destructive closed family model.

Even the military borrow the language of family – think ‘Band of Brothers’ – and indeed, in another perversion of the ideal, the guards and Ruth form their own dysfunctional unit during the period of her imprisonment under the watchful eye of the head of the household: The Well.

As I was writing the novel, The Well became a character in the story with many faces. One of those personae is that of home, a physical embodiment of family. The Well nourishes her family even as they squabble and destroy their inheritance, she welcomes Ruth like a prodigal daughter, she is there at the end to oversee the begin­nings of a new generation, she is mother to every living thing on her land.

The psychology, history and sociology of the family are all fasci­nating, but in the end I am a storyteller. Family creates story. Shakespeare understood that: Othello murders Desdemona, the Montagues and Capulets destroy the children they love, Lear’s family is itself the poisoned well, and that’s before we even get to Hamlet. Out in our own back gardens, we cannot resist the desire to look over the fence. Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the following sentence: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ No one was going to put that book back on the shelf.