Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Tessa Hadley’s “One Saturday Morning” was originally published in the August 25, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
Tessa Hadley’s “One Saturday Morning” tells its story through the consciousness of a ten-year-old English girl. Set in the sixties, the story deftly, quietly, explores the ways Carrie feels uneasy about being ten.
For one thing, she feels as if there should be an “answer she’d hoped for, to what was unsolved in herself.” This particular Saturday morning, she feels incompetent — not very good at ballet, not very good at the piano, and what’s worse, she may have lost a letter at her piano teacher’s house, a raucous, rude letter to her best friend, a letter in which she makes fun of a fat boy in their class.
In contrast, Carrie’s mother seems to her (and us) quite competent: she manages efficiently on her husband’s teacher salary, she entertains, and she has a side job as a dressmaker. And we know she is quite attractive; Carrie is aware that men are drawn to her, and that she is deft at drawing the line, at “pushing away” their attentions.
Hadley emphasizes the way Carrie is waiting for something. The family house, for instance, is “braced in anticipation” for a dinner party that will happen later that night. The story allows Carrie several realizations, and it is through these realizations that the story really works. In this way, life deals Carrie her “answer” — although this answer is not something as simple as discovering an activity that you’re good at, something to counter the failures at ballet and piano.
I hear in this story echoes of Alice Munro: the way the ten year old girls, in their discomfort, are wildly rude with each other about sexual things, and also the way Carrie is caught up in a hyper-awareness of her mother. In her more English way, Carrie’s mother enjoys the power of her attractiveness, but it’s somewhat asexual, while Munro’s women often engage. Two remarks made by the narrator remind me of Munro as well. For one, the narrator comments on how Carrie’s house looks different to us now than it appeared then, echoing the way Munro conflates different time periods into one story. In another remark, Hadley mentions how once an event is done, “it might have only happened in her imagination.” These echoes of Munro seem purposeful to me, but awkward, tacked on.
There are also echoes of Virginia Woolf, not only in the way the story is told in a day’s time in anticipation of a party, but also in the way the way the story emphasizes the central role of a mother in children’s consciousness, and what the loss of a mother might be. This echo of Virginia Woolf seems also purposeful, but fully explored. Hadley seems to be in conversation with Woolf, but effectively different and original.
The little brother is a relief, playing cricket, catching bugs, keeping a weather journal. He has a what-the-heck approach to life. In the morning, when the story begins, he’s outside, while Carrie’s inside, feeling blue. He makes clear Carrie’s pre-occupation. Of course, it’s Carrie who is on the brink of pubescence, an appropriate time for withdrawal. Later, Carrie studies the things on her mother’s dresser: “some meaning was hidden in these mute things.”
Much is made of the word “consolation,” how it might be something between men and women, how it might be “headlong and reckless and sweet, unavailable to children.” Thus the pre-pubescent girl sensed the sexual nature of womanhood. This, too, reminds me of Munro, in particular, the word “headlong,” as in Munro’s story “Thanks for the Ride.” But Carrie is different: quieter, far more interior, far more typically feminine, far more doubting than Alice Munro’s androgynous, adventurous, all over the lot girls. But “consolation” is, in this story, associated with a child’s dim perception of the sexual nature to come, associated with death, associated with “meaning.” The sixties were the last minute before the feminist explosion; somehow this story reminds me of the sense of being caged that time represented for girls, and the way consolation would have been a necessity. But of course, we all need consolation.
I quibble with the title. The story encompasses an entire Saturday, and without the afternoon and evening, there is no completed story. Perhaps the story originates in and is only possible because of the central event of the morning, but in fact, what should be memorable is what happens in the evening. Perhaps it’s only the morning of the girl’s life; perhaps it’s in the morning we see more sharply the girl so unprepared to rely on herself. But I find the title more confusing than illuminating.
But the story is rich. There is a motion between the way male and female experience life, and a motion between adult and child. The story does not depend upon extraordinary horror for its power. Its power lies in an ordinary child’s experience of life — much the way Mrs. Dalloway depends upon an ordinary woman’s experience of life.
I liked very much the way the story respects Carrie, the ten-year-old girl. And I like the way it allows Carrie to be alone, on her own with her thoughts. If Hadley had on her mind how things are different now than they were in the sixties, I would note that these days we crowd children with plans and purposes. Hadley trusts that Carrie needs to have the experience of thinking her own thoughts. Given both her own space and enough time, Carrie is able to achieve the story’s goal — that she has several realizations.