by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)
“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.
Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.
To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.
At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.
The premise is as follows. 15-year-old Elvira is writing an intermittent diary. She lives with her sister Spinny and recently widowed father Luke, an academic at the university, in a late medieval building within sight of the west front of the cathedral. The thoroughfares are laid with heart-shaped stones from Newhaven, East Sussex. Elvira believes she has an especial, if not exclusive, relationship with her father — it comes across almost as sublimated incest — and so is dismayed when Luke announces he hopes to marry a young academic, for whom she naturally forms an instant dislike. In the meantime her sister Despina (who, like Elvira, is named after characters in Mozart operas) is wary of a ghostly cat and fears hearing the voice of a woman believed to have been executed as a witch in the 17th century.
“There is death in that remark, the sound of death,” is Elvira’s translation of a line from Antigone, a play she is going through with Luke. This seems to be the lines (933-4) Antigone says to Creon of Thebes, translated by Edward Hayes Plumptre as “Ah me! this word of thine | Tells of death drawing nigh.” The king has ordered Antigone walled up, condemned to death for burying her slain brother in violation of Creon’s express order that the body be denied final rites, and Elvira’s translation, “there is death in that remark,” suggests that Antigone knows that the king’s last words portend her imminent death. In actual fact Creon’s stubbornness is merely the prelude to more tragic deaths.
Now the situations in Antigone and in Medea are not in any way exact parallels with those in Heartstones, but the fact attention is thus drawn to them indicates deliberate intent, because the main protagonists in Rendell’s tale, and the portents that are continuously but subtly alluded to, are the very stuff of Greek tragedy. Elvira emerges as a daddy’s girl, addicted to Gothick tales by Ann Radcliffe and Edgar Allan Poe, seemingly precocious but actually deluded in this regard. She also has a tendency towards anorexia, in contrast to her younger sister who enjoys her food, perhaps too much. Luke, meanwhile, is cold and aloof, if not distant, but his infatuation with Dr Mary Leonard will lead inexorably to her dramatic descent from scaffolding erected on the front of the cathedral. Did she fall or was she pushed? If that latter, who arranged it? And what has happened to the poison that Elvira in an earlier melodramatic moment had laid aside?
There is an additional thread about a witch’s cat which had allegedly been sacrificed by being, like Antigone, walled up alive. Why is Spinny so affected by the apparitions that her sleep is constantly disturbed, and whence come the mysterious holes which later start manifesting around the house?
I mustn’t say more of the plot, because that would severely hamper the enjoyment of those who haven’t read this novella yet. But I must say something about Elvira’s characterisation, which I think the author has got spot on. She captures the girl’s literary obsessions perfectly, her use of words like ‘perforce’ and ‘specious’, her pedantry with ‘anorectic’ being more correct than ‘anorexic’, her inflated feelings of being exceptionally gifted, and above all her lack of self-awareness.
That there is an apparent upturn in Elvira’s fortune and wellbeing towards the end of the narrative is of course a typical step in tragedy’s ultimate trajectory. Rendell’s psychological skills even in a miniature such as this are astounding.
“None of those poets has discoveredFrom ‘Medea’ by Euripides, as translated by Elvira.
How to put an end with their singing
To grief, bitter grief . . .”
No 11 of my 15 Books of Summer