Bernardine Bishop: a novelist in her 20s, and 70s

Bernardine Bishop wrote two novels in her 20s, then became a psychotherapist until her 70s, when – forced by cancer – she abandoned her profession, and wrote three last novels. I look here at the first of her late books (published in 2013) and of her early books (published in 2013), both well received on their arrival. (Footnote 1)

In the first of Bernardine Bishop’s later books, Unexpected Lessons in Love (2013), we meet retired psychotherapist Cecilia, in her late 60s in around 2010. She is one of two colostomy chums. Cecilia has the care, for now, of her war correspondent son Ian’s baby, Cephas, the product of his brief union with a psychotic beauty, Leda. Cecilia’s cancer friend and contemporary, the bouncy novelist Helen, thirty years before had given birth to a child, Clare, whom she kept for two years but then gave up for adoption. A friend of Cecilia, Diana, an old Catholic nun, is the story’s Clapham Junction or Crewe station, making connections between and keeping secrets from Cecilia, Helen  and Clare. Bernardine was a notable Roman Catholic.

There are several other bit-players in this novel, and its distinctive feature is the precision and extent to which we are given access to the interior monologues of all the characters. I think we assume that Cecilia’s reflections are particularly clear-headed, both as to her own motivations and reactions and in her accounts of those of other characters. She certainly prides herself on her insight. Given their shared profession, author and creature ought indeed to have a handle on how people explain their thoughts, or they have wasted long hours listening.

The book has sometimes been described as though it were a cancer diary or memoir. So it is, up to a point. Actually, it is a very good one. Cecilia gradually sees that she may have squandered the best chances of her last few years. Perhaps she should have chosen to be neither investigated nor treated. But to choose that route would not merely be brave, it would be to defy her loved ones and her doctors. She feels she has never been much of a rebel, and isn’t one now. And yet she feels there was wisdom in the civilisation before modernity: back then, people felt they might as well rest in God’s hands. They believed, with the radical anti-professional Ivan Illich, that sick people most need an amicus mortis – a friend in death. In the novel, Cecilia goes on being a passive patient. In real life, so far as I understand her position, Bernardine did indeed fight on obediently but when she received her eventual terminal diagnosis, and could and must give up seeking knowledge or cure, she “turned towards Jerusalem”, as generations before hers had done.

So much for cancer and death. The real clue to this book is in its title. It is indeed about unexpected lessons in love (whatever that is, as King Charles, as prince, once rhetorically asked). The lessons are only slightly lent urgency by Cecilia’s being under the cosh. Bernardine’s novel explores various types of love as different characters are given and denied fulfilment in the opportunities for deep affection and attraction which come their way. As an adult child, Helen finds she wants to honour Meg, the aged mother she has mostly disparaged and avoided. Helen belatedly finds how to give herself to an improbable new modest lover and quite sudden husband. She also learns the hard way that Clare, the baby she abandoned to adoption, does not, thirty years later, feel any need to renew the acquaintance or affection. More randomly and potently, Cephas, the offspring of a mad woman, poses a variety of opportunities and challenges to the multiple, putative and often mutually exclusive parents and grandparents who cluster around him.

These are all excellently individual cases and rich in perennial questions. Is blood thicker than water? Do apples fall far from the tree? Is bad seed bound to show? Is love just an oxytocin? There is nothing clichéd or clunky in Bernardine’s treatment of these matters, nor anything magical or mysterious. Her plot unfolds almost reasonably. Her characters’ inner monologues – their involuntary self-deceptions and deliberate manipulations of others – will surely ring bells with any of us. Considering how blindingly obvious this stuff is – all this feeling and dying – it is wonderful how fresh Bernardine’s account is. The book is an invaluable and beautiful account of the Brownian Motions of our relations and thoughts and emotions. No wonder Bernardine, forced to give up life as a therapist in the 2010s, turned back to the novel-writing she had embarked upin pretty successfully in the 1960s. 

Bernardine’s first novel, Perspectives (1961) was perhaps written in 1960 when she was 21. She was already a nationally famous undergraduate and by publication day was married (“to an American musician”, wrote her publisher) but not yet a mother, still less a psychotherapist. This first outing, though, shows her as highly proficient technically. The plot revolves around a magazine, Perspectives on the Underdeveloped Countries, whose contributors and editors mostly know nothing first-hand about their subject. (The ambience, if not the expertise, are reminiscent of Barbara Pym’s years as an editor of Africa, the journal of the International African Institute, which she mostly fictionalised for comic effect in her novels.)

The leading figures in Perspectives, the novel, are Vivian, a star and would-be writer and English student at Cambridge; her mother, Martha, the journal’s editor and the insecure mistress of its main and very needy nominal founder and initial funder, the has-been novelist Oliver; and various young people who are hoping at least at first that Perspectives journalism will kick-start their careers. Vivian is something of a bitch. She emerges as having a cruel tongue. She coolly runs constant monologues in her head, and imagines the monologues of others, as she shuffles and manoeuvres them into the novel she is writing on the hoof. Perspectives, the novel, published as number 29 in Hutchinson’s New Authors series, helped establish Bernardine’s reputation as a writer already possessed of a glittering past, and now notching up a solid achievement, not least, said a reviewer, in providing insight into modern young people.

It is hardly surprising that Bishop would be accomplished when she eventually returned to novel writing. One might say the late spurt of energy had been building steam for 50 years. As a mature, indeed dying, novelist, the real Bernardine Bishop in Unexpected Lessons… wrote an account of some variety of herself, and some variety of what a novelist can be. The continuity of purpose, style, and skills between early and late Bishop is marvellous. Unexpected Lessons… is uncanniliy presaged in Perspectives. The first outing is eerily grown-up and the later is eerily new-minted. As a novelist, late Bernardine seems to have become either nicer or kinder about herself and others, but she is every bit as sharp as early Bernardine. Vivian and Cecilia have similar brilliances but rather different natures.

  1. Around the time of the Apollo moonwalk in 1969, I was 23, driving a grocery delivery van for Walton, Hassell and Port in Kentish Town, and living in Islington in an attic with Dr Bill Chambers. Bill and I met Bernardine Bishop, then 30, and must have quickly come to know that she was a scion of the Meynell literary tribe of Sussex, had been a star witness in the Lady Chatterley trial, a twice-published novelist, the ex-wife of the American pianist Stephen Bishop (soon to be) Kovacevich, and mother of their two young boys Matthew and Francis (“Foff”). I became quite close to Bernardine and her children for a very few years, but moved away, perhaps in 1970, and lost touch with both them and Bill. I had been the active ingredient in Bill’s buying a terraced house in Kentish Town, deploying his money. In 1981, Bill and Bernardine married and lived in that house, I think until her death in 2013.

    Bernardine was extremely kind to me, but sternly insisted that my pretensions to be a philosopher were mis-placed since I was at best a cosmologist (indeed, I was aping my hero Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose books had been translated to English by Bernardine’s father, Bernard Wall). Notwithstanding her useful warning shot, I persevered with my useless ambition of philosophising, and eventually went to Cambridge as a “Mature Student” in philosophy, aged 25 in 1971. I lasted a year, happily enough but no sort of philosopher, much as Bernardine might have predicted. In 2014, I tried to convey what Bernardine had meant to me in a poem, which I remember writing, and in a review of Lessons in Love…, which I didn’t recall writing until I had written today’s pieces. (Both poem and review are elsewhere on this site.) ↩︎

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Publication date

12 April 2024


Mind & body; On books