When I became a father, a number of people made some half-joking reference to me about the â€œpram in the hallâ€. By that stage I had published two novels, and the point of the joke was to ask me, sympathetically, if I was worried that having kids would get in the way of writing more. Itâ€™s amazing how the line has stuck, how â€“ with the garret and the Olivetti â€“ it has become a part of the myth of the writer in the public imagination. So that even people who donâ€™t know the rest of the quote, or who wrote it, or havenâ€™t read the book he wrote it in, remember that phrase and what it stands for, or seems to stand for.
Recently, I read Cyril Connollyâ€™s 1938 Enemies of Promise (it seems to be out of print), from which the infamous phrase comes, in an old Penguin edition from 1961. Itâ€™s a very smart, entertaining, deeply weird and often offensive book that Connolly wrote partly to explain why he himself had not yet produced his masterpiece â€¦ but itâ€™s also true that by that point in his life (he was 35), he had not produced any kids, either. The artist heâ€™s talking about isnâ€™t someone who works while the baby is napping, or changes nappies, or prepares formula in steam-sterilised bottles several times a day. Or, for that matter, breastfeeds. The writers heâ€™s talking about are probably men, and the danger of the pram in the hall isnâ€™t that they have to look after the child sleeping in it, but that theyâ€™ll find some boring job to pay for the middle-class life the pram symbolises and which theyâ€™ve signed up to:
â€œThe harried author who sits in a garret surrounded by screaming children, with duns at the door and a sick wife nagging from the bed, is a thing of the past. But there remains some substance in the vision. The initial difficulty is in the sensitive writerâ€™s inability to live alone. The more he is alone the more he falls in love, if he falls in love he is almost certain to marry, if he marries he is apt to take a house and have children, if he has a house and children he needs more money, must do uncongenial work and so deny himself the freedom which may have inspired him.â€
The most dangerous job, by Connollyâ€™s lights, is journalism â€“ the kind of thing Iâ€™m doing here, now, because it teaches novelists to write only for a first reading and a general public: â€œMarriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking on uncongenial work,â€ Connolly writes, â€œand a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining, and rings at the doorbell should stop, and will recognise that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.â€
There are women novelists he writes about and praises â€“ for example, Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen â€“ though neither of them had children and both belonged to the upper classes. They wrote in the â€œmandarinâ€ style, intellectual, experimental, difficult andÂ exclusionary, as opposed to the â€œvernacularâ€ (natural, pacey, populist), and one of the points of his book is to suggest the opposition to each other and limits of both.
I donâ€™t know how this context changes the way we should think about the pram in the hall â€“ if it means that we should worry about it less. But Connollyâ€™s argument is part of a much older debate, not just about gender roles and sexuality, but social class and literary style. And not just style, but subject matter, too. A hundred-odd years before Enemies of Promise, Walter Scott wrote in his journal about Jane Austen: â€œThat young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life â€¦ The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, isÂ denied to me.â€
In some sense, American novelists who emerged in the decades after Connolly wrote his book, writers such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike, answered the challenge of combining mandarin and vernacular styles. As Martin Amis put it in his essay in The Moronic Inferno about Bellow: â€œTo evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work.â€ Amis contrasts Bellowâ€™s â€œBig Bow-wow strainâ€ with the typical English novel â€“ â€œ225 sanitised pages about the middle-classes â€¦â€ â€“ a line that recalls another Scott comment about Austen: â€œThey do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable.â€
Itâ€™s hard not to hear, in these descriptions of middle-class life, a comment on what male writers think of as womenâ€™s worlds, what Connolly variously described as the world ofÂ â€œlove, tidiness, rents, clothes â€¦ courtship, marriage, childbearing, adulteryâ€. Iâ€™m also aware that my list of mid-century American writers who answered Connollyâ€™s call to reconcile the mandarin and vernacular included only men. Bellow and Roth and Updike have meant a lot to me, and yet one of the ways they have meant less â€“ as literary models, I mean â€“ has to do with their accounts of parenthood.
The artist of Connollyâ€™s warning is not only male but unlikely to have been particularly involved in night feeds or changing nappies, and yet for most modern parents equality in duties is a standard to be strived for. One of the things that having kids teaches you (or reminds you of, if you needed reminding) is the high stakes and intensity of day-to-day domestic life. Which is why the literary tradition I found myself turning to, after they were born, had more to do with Alice Munro and Anne Tyler than Roth or Bellow. (The title of one of Munroâ€™s collections of stories sounds very like the Connolly list: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.)
Itâ€™s tricky to talk about these things (as Connolly proves) because you tend to reveal yourself in ways you canâ€™t control â€“ in the assumptions you make. There are great women writers who, like Roth and Bellow and Updike, took up the challenge of combining the mandarin and vernacular styles. There are women writers who arenâ€™t particularly interested in domestic life, and male writers who care about little else. (Sometimes you find them in the least likely places. Philip Larkinâ€™s A Girl in Winter is about a female librarian who helps an ill colleague.) But just as habits of parenthood change, the tradition that writers see themselves as working in must change, too. And for many writers, of both sexes, the pram in the hall doesnâ€™t mean the death of good art, but the beginning.