Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Child's Child.
Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell spins a tale within a tale, comparing the dilemma of a brother and sister in modern times with actual events that occurred in 1929 as described in an unpublished novel, The Child’s Child. The situation of brother and sister Andrew and Grace, who share their deceased grandmother’s spacious London home, is eerily similar to the siblings in the novel, the manuscript given to Grace to read while she works on her doctorate. Grace is fascinated by the treatment of unwed mothers of illegitimate children in literature.
That Andrew is gay and brings a partner into the home also parallels the novel. The Child’s Child features factual events involving John and Maud Godwin and John’s lover, Bertie Webber, in 1929. Both couples are caught up in unfolding dramas of brother, sister, and the brother’s lover. Even the unlikely Grace joins the ranks of the unwed mothers she is researching so diligently, adding another element of tension to her story. The circumstances, while different, reflect the mores of each era; each situation is accompanied by violence.
Grace and Andrew, always close, find their relationship suddenly strained by the continued presence of Andrew’s writer-lover, James Derain. Because of James, an unexpected situation develops, creating a rift between Andrew and Grace that has painful repercussions. Andrew is under the additional strain of awaiting a trial in which he is an important witness. Both Andrew and James were nearby during a deadly incident, anti-gay hostility rearing its ugly head in a brutal scene.
While Grace learns to spend days alone for the first time, she picks up her copy of The Child’s Child and begins to read of the plight of fifteen-year-old Maud Godwin, whose brother, John, saves her from the disgrace of unmarried pregnancy by moving his sister into his country cottage to have her baby far from the family home in London. John’s scheme is perhaps not the best, but the situation demands an immediate solution. No one in the country will know about Maud, and John will have a cover for his ongoing relationship with a London lover, Bertie Webber.
Though the individuals and situations are different, not to mention society’s attitudes about illegitimacy and homosexuality, their dynamics are similar, much of the novel focusing on the story Grace is reading. Mores are certainly more defined in the late 1920s, London a rigid, class conscious society that harshly judges the unwed mother and considers sexual congress between two men of the same sex despicable and morally corrupt.
The solution John offers Maud is generous and foolish in light of Bertie’s shabby treatment of his unsophisticated lover. The natural gratitude of a younger sister toward her brother fails to materialize as Maud develops the injured mien of one not favored by society, a product of the familial environment she has fled. John is caught in an impossible conundrum, unable to satisfy either sister or lover. It is perhaps the era and the moral vacuity of these characters that brings this particular tale to a tragic end—at least for John—the best intentions of an honorable man trampled by the selfishness of others. Certainly, Grace can breathe a sigh of relief. Painful as her situation is with Andrew, the love that exists between them is worth fighting to resolve.
Instilling her characters with an ephemeral, bygone quality, Vine uses Grace and Andrew in the present and Maud and John
in the past to present the physical and emotional evolution of England and its people. Chance brings to life Grace’s perception of the era's sensibilities as she attempts to craft a unique portrait of Maud and John, who throughout their lives struggle to attain a sense of identity and self-worth.