Novel affair - New Statesman; March 14, 2005; Andrew Billen
There are men who will not read novels by women and there are women who will not read novels by men. It's depressing and mystifying, if heartening to Martians such as John Gray. Most human experience is surely shared by the sexes, so to judge a book's content by the DNA of its author is as risky a short cut as judging it by its cover.
As for being able to get into the opposite sex's mind and/or knickers, okay, D H Lawrence had his feminist detractors and Dickens could not portray a woman of childbearing years to save his life, but Flaubert and Tolstoy pulled off the trick and, on the opposite side of the fence, one thinks of Jane Austen, say, and George Eliot. Nevertheless, when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard's 1999 novel Falling, I was impressed by how she had managed to tell this story of a middle-aged woman's seduction by a rogue largely from the rogue's point of view. I was even more impressed when I read it was based on something that had actually happened to her.
Andrew Davies's adaptation (6 March) wove in the extra complication of having been written by a man. So, if you believe this sort of thing matters, we got a man's take on a woman's take of a man. I think he coarsened the villain, Henry Kent, a little - I don't remember him reading Asian Babes in the original (women never look that far up the shelves of a newsagents and think we men read Maxim at worst) - but not so much that he became a monster. Well, he was a monster, but a human sort of monster. Here ITV played a blinder by casting its Sunday-night detective Foyle (Michael Kitchen) in the part. It was always going to be hard for audiences to think the very worst of him. That, added to Kitchen's always fascinating face and his skill at portraying and concealing rage, made his villainy all the more creepy.
The red herring in this low-key thriller was class, the Achilles heel of the middle orders. Our heroine, Daisy, played by the brilliant Penelope Wilton, is a novelist who retires hurt to the North Yorkshire countryside after two divorces have led her to renounce men, or at least marriage, for good. She is in a no-nonsense state of mind, but finds herself increasingly prepared to contemplate a little nonsense on the side when it is offered by the charming freelance gardener who turns up on her first day in the village. Soon she suffers two separate falls and, as an invalid, becomes easier prey for her flat-capped Sir Galahad. Her third fall, in love, is inevitable.
This is what her middle-class friends, a gay author and a lesbian agent, fear. Henry bristles at their suspicions, but also knows how to use their class against them. When Anna, Daisy's agent, discovers he has made himself at home in her client's cottage while she has been in hospital, he challenges her that she thinks his place is "outside, like a wild animal" - a simile he repeats in one of those soliloquies that Davies still favours giving his protagonists. Later, established as Daisy's significant other, Henry challenges Anthony, the waspish gay friend, when he airily commands him to open another bottle. It's not that he doesn't resent his imperiousness, but that he knows how to turn it into a class matter. "Get it yourself - I'm not your fucking servant," he says, to the nervous applause of the room.
In fact, Henry is not undermined by the moneyed classes, knowing quite a lot of them from growing up as the son of a groundsman on a minor estate. An early girlfriend tells him in a posh restaurant how to tackle the competing silverware on the table: "Start from the outside and work your way in." In a way, that is what Henry does with Daisy, starting in the garden and working his way into sitting room and then boudoir, but he has, in fact, a much cannier strategy. He burrows up from the inside.
His technique is to read Daisy's novels and then to demonstrate in letters to her that he is as well read as she is. Somewhere early on he has read that a gentleman, when making love, takes time and puts the woman's pleasure above his own. In her novel, Howard even has a passage in which she considers the difficulties of a man arousing himself for a post-menopausal woman. Partly what is sinister about Henry's wooing of Daisy is that we know this psychological foreplay is what turns him on most of all. What Daisy and the audience do not know is that Henry does not only read novels but is a novelist manque himself. His letters, and their accompanying unreliable flashbacks on television, are largely fiction.
This drama had its faults - I wasn't much convinced by Davies's primary debating point, which was whether need plus opportunity equals love - but its secondary theme of fiction as an honest woman's and dishonest man's game was fascinating, and played to what may even be a growing divide between men's and women's reading lists (many reading groups actually ban men). We leave Henry - who by hitting Daisy revealed he was, after all, no Andrew Motion - on a train travelling into exile. He glances over to see what the middle-aged woman opposite is reading. "Ah, Jilly Cooper," he coos...