Clever Girl, Tessa Hadley’s fifth novel, is the enthralling story of Stella that begins in the 1960s when she is ten years old and living with her single mother in a flat in Bristol, a city in the west of England, and follows her life through the next five decades. Stella is an unusual female protagonist in fiction; her intelligence can be destructive and she questions and critiques to a maddening point. Hadley herself was born in Bristol in 1956 but she stresses that she is very different from Stella; she’s not as “brave,” as she puts it.
The experiences that hone Stella’s attitude mount up: a first love to an unsuitable boy, an unexpected pregnancy, work as a servant in a middle-class household, brushes with the aftermath of violent crime. Yet, for all these incidents, some critics have commented on Hadley’s decision to devote a whole book to this one woman as though this daughter, mother, student, housewife is somehow not remarkable enough. Hadley wonders whether, when men write about families, there is a greater readiness to see their work as profound. However, she says this doesn’t bother her too much. She describes herself as a "writer of domestic fiction.” There are flip sides anyway to such prejudices. “Women can get away with cruel portraits of women,” she says. “It’s harder for men.”
There is little cruelty in Hadley’s portrayals of either gender: this is a book, as she says herself, “full of good men.” The stepfather Stella despises and fights is clearly only trying to do his best. Even the father who abandoned her “gives her a gift” in the form of his driving lessons. Here lies part of Stella’s problem. She may resent men but she loves them, too. As Hadley says, “She likes men who are sure of themselves but doesn’t want to be swallowed up in their certainty. She is a restless kind of a woman of my generation.” Mac, one of Stella’s leading men, embodies that male imperturbability as evidenced in this quote: “I used to say, later, that he looked like a caricature of a plutocrat—he wasn’t insulted, he enjoyed the good health and strength of his body without vanity (or, his vanity was in his confidence that his looks didn’t matter).”
Clever Girl began as a short story for The New Yorker and evolved from there (the magazine later published two chapters from the novel). It was Hadley’s first time writing a novel in the first person and she says that in a first draft she overwrote Stella’s voice, making her too insistent, but she hopes she corrected this in later versions. The voice of Stella, she says, needed to be “congenial, I needed to live with her and inside her for a long time.” Stella is also someone who “attracts drama… Some people do.” The book, she says, was conceived partly as a record of the times—she calls making a record “part of novel writing” and knew from the start that she wanted to “take Stella through a substantial span of time”.
Hadley has always written, except for a time in college when she studied English and felt that there was “no point in trying to compete with the great writers who had come before.” But in the end, she wanted to make stories. The first “three to four” novels she tried weren’t published—she says they simply weren’t good enough. Hadley thinks A.S. Byatt is right when she says that men often become better writers earlier because they have more “certainty” sooner. Women seem to grow more slowly into feeling “this is what I know for sure.”
These days Hadley has more faith in her writing instincts; recently she knew she had to make radical changes to her work in progress, and has no doubt that she made the right decision. “But you’re never absolutely sure, you work your way so deep inside the work, and you can’t see it clearly any more. You need someone else—editor, critic, reader—to see it for you.” She is deeply attracted to the idea of transforming experience into art and thinks she would have to have found her way in another form if she hadn’t written.
Half her year now is spent teaching literature and creative writing at Bath Spa University where she has recently been appointed Professor of Creative Writing. She describes teaching as “an intense experience,” and believes that all her students “must break through some inhibition” before they can progress. Part of the value of writing for a course is the very immediate experience of audience that it gives, writing for teachers and for fellow students. “Fundamentally, writing is an act of communication,” she says.