“It’s SOMEONE’S fucking fault”: social responsibility in J K Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’

casual_vacancy_dvd_600I’d planned to publish a post on The Casual Vacancy following the recent screening of the BBC adaptation of Rowling’s novel, but didn’t find the time. It seems appropriate to pick this up again now, following a general election in which many voted out of greed and self-interest, thus securing the re-election of the Tories and another five years of austerity, a financial policy which is only serving to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. And I see the Tories have already swung into action: there is talk of the resurrection of the Snoopers’ Charter, lifting the ban on fox-hunting (for fuck’s sake!) and doing away with long-term leases on council houses. It’s hateful. Never have I been so ashamed to be English. I feel bound to trot out the much-quoted aphorism that a society is judged by how it deals with its weaker and more vulnerable members, and I’d say we’re scoring pretty fucking low at that. The day after the election, a friend posted on Facebook: ‘Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite’ (Joseph de Maistre), to which I replied ‘Ain’t that the truth’. We deserve everything we get now, and unless those of us who are unhappy with the status quo continue to fight and to protest against the cuts which do nothing but benefit the rich, what we will get is the demise of the welfare state and the NHS. The poor, the sick, the disabled, and everyone else who isn’t a rich white healthy able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male is screwed. (Guess what? That’s MOST OF US!)

Rowling herself is an avid and outspoken supporter of the Labour party and The Casual Vacancy is a novel about what happens when the support needed by the most vulnerable members of society is taken away. I’m going to be discussing both the novel and its television adaptation here, so please note there will be spoilers.

The Casual Vacancy (hereafter TCV) was Rowling’s first novel for the adult market, but on reading it I couldn’t help feeling that she hadn’t quite shaken off the mantle of ‘children’s author’. First, it is undoubtedly a heavily moralistic book. A great deal of children’s literature is moralistic or didactic in tone because it’s supposed to be edifying and educational. Second, a non-adult narrative viewpoint is an important feature of YA fiction/children’s literature and TCV features a number of teenage characters with whom we spend a great deal of time. The liberal use of free indirect discourse (FID) gives the reader access to the thought processes of most of the characters, adults and children alike. Third, the novel dishes up for a younger audience the sort of stuff that those readers like best, namely, ‘a bunch of kids teach the stupid adults the error of their ways’. Three of the novel’s teenage characters enter into open battle with the adults, posing online as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother to admonish their parents: first Andrew, then Sukhvinder, then Fats. So far, so Harry Potter.

However, the novel’s Wikipedia page suggests that Rowling would respond unfavourably to the idea of TCV being a YA novel in disguise, noting that at the time of publication, ‘[c]ritics questioned whether younger Harry Potter fans might be drawn into wanting to read the book…Rowling responded saying, “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write”.’ So let us take Rowling at her word and assume that at least as far as authorial intention is concerned, the moral lesson of the book is aimed at adult readers. (Incidentally, you know you’re in the hands of a moralist when one of the characters is called ‘Fairbrother’. George Eliot did the same in Middlemarch with Camden Farebrother.)

Barry Fairbrother

Rowling has in fact made no secret of the fact that this is a book intended to remind its readership of the responsibilities that come with living in a community made up of other people. In an interview for The New Yorker she comments, “[t]his is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery”.’ So how does the moral message of the book manifest itself? I’ve mentioned a couple of things already: the novel’s avenging ‘ghost’ and the use of FID which allows us to see into the minds of the characters. And as well as being able to read their minds, the reader can see into the characters’ histories: the narrator provides the kind of background knowledge that promotes an understanding of why the characters behave the way they do. Terri Weedon (played by Keeley Forsyth in the BBC mini-series) is the one that springs to mind. Terri, a drug addict and neglectful parent, inspires little but revulsion until you learn the details of her past, the most shocking part of her backstory being how as a little girl she was happy to be in hospital being treated for the burns inflicted by the man who was supposed to be caring for her, because at least she wasn’t being raped and beaten at home. No wonder she turned to heroin for comfort.

Terri Weedon

The television audience was spared these details as it was also spared the ending of the novel, the original being considered ‘too grim’ for a Sunday night audience. Adaptations of novels for film and television tend to suffer problems of compression when the screenplay tries to cover everything and obviously a great deal of the novel had to be cut in order to squeeze it all into three hours’ worth of telly, but I do think it rather prissy of Auntie Beeb to skirt around the real tragedy of the book: the death of the innocent, Robbie Weedon, already unadoptable as a toddler. In the TV adaptation, Robbie is spotted wandering unattended by Vikram Jawanda while out on his morning run, this routine of his established early on in the series so as to render Robbie’s rescue credible. In the book, Robbie drowns in the river – and the real tragedy is that there are three people who saw him, and who could have saved him, but who did nothing.

One of these three is Shirley Mollison, wife of Parish Councillor Howard Mollison and mother of Miles, contender for Barry’s seat on the council (the eponymous casual vacancy), played with a beautifully pitched line in hard icy cruelty by Julia McKenzie for the mini-series. Shirley is spiteful and small-minded, desperate to cultivate an air of gentility because her mother had a reputation for promiscuous behaviour and the young Shirley was bullied because of this. In spite of this mitigating factor, we do not like Shirley: she bullies her daughter-in-law, sucks up to the appalling local gentry, scores points off her friends wherever possible and alienates her gay daughter. Shirley learns nothing from the events that play themselves out, and her part in them. The following exchange is very revealing:

‘[T]he boy was right by the river when I saw him. A couple of steps and he’d have been in.’

Something in Maureen’s expression stung her.

‘I was hurrying,’ said Shirley with asperity, ‘because Howard had said he was feeling poorly and I was worried sick. I didn’t want to go out at all…I was absolutely distracted, and all I could think was, I must get back to Howard…’

These excuses will not bring Robbie back from the grave, and Shirley is not telling the truth in any case: in actual fact, the reason she was so distracted at that point was her discovery of Howard and Maureen’s affair. She had intended to murder Howard – but she lies to herself about this, as well. Shirley is punished with public shame and the certain knowledge of her husband’s infidelity.

Howard and Shirley Mollison

Gavin Hughes also sees Robbie wandering alone by the river. Gavin is the boyfriend of social worker Kay, although his character does not appear in the mini-series. In the novel, he is the reason for Kay’s relocation to Pagford (much to the chagrin of Kay’s daughter Gaia), but he doesn’t love Kay and treats her with a disdain that stems from his essential cravenness. He pursues Mary Fairbrother instead, the widow of his best friend Barry. Gavin’s self-absorption is so complete that he cannot even remember seeing Robbie. He is punished with solitude: his best friend is dead, and he is rejected by Mary and eventually Kay.

Samantha Mollison is the third character who sees Robbie that day, and she is the only one to internally acknowledge the part she played in Robbie’s death. She is shaken out of her selfish frustration at the loss of her youth and expresses a wish to take part in local politics alongside her husband. Her renewed interest in her previously failing marriage is her reward. (In the mini-series, Samantha is sympathetically portrayed by Keeley Hawes – an actor always worth watching.)

Samantha Mollison

So, to return to the discussion around the novel’s moral content, we can see here a clear pattern of reward and punishment. This extends beyond the three characters discussed above, with perhaps the worst fate meted out to Fats Wall. Objectionable enough in the mini-series, this character is far worse in the novel: he bullies Sukhvinder so viciously that she is induced to self-harm; he treats his adopted father with heartless disdain; he feeds his nut-allergic best friend a disguised peanut just to see what will happen; he snogs the girl he knows his best friend fancies and he uses Krystal Weedon for sex. Fats is punished severely for his burgeoning career as a sociopath which is embodied in his pursuit for ‘authenticity’. Fats is humbled and forced to realise that you simply cannot bludgeon your way through life pretending that other people don’t exist, and he is brought to terms with this in the hardest way imaginable: he is indirectly responsible for the death of Robbie, and also that of Krystal, who commits suicide soon after her brother’s body is dragged from the river.

Fats and Arf

There is no justice, no reward, no possibility of escape for Krystal – not without Barry Fairbrother. She, perhaps, could have dragged herself out of the mire in which she was forced to live, and to have subsequently made a new start for herself with Robbie, but events conspire against her: she is raped by her mother’s drug dealer, the repulsive Obbo (thank goodness the BBC spared us that scene), and she is terrified a similar fate will befall Robbie. The death of her Nana Cath leaves her nowhere to turn and she concocts a plan that will lead inexorably to the final tragic events. Krystal is not spared in the mini-series either: fearlessly depicted by Abigail Lawrie, she drowns after jumping in the river, believing that Robbie has fallen in. Her legs become entangled in the cables of a stolen television, dumped in the river by Andrew’s brutal, violent father.

Krystal and Robbie

I want to finish with reference to what is, for me, the most resonant line of the mini-series, and it belongs to Sukhvinder. Sukhvinder’s role is very much reduced in the adaptation for television. In effect, she is become a Chorus figure: hers is the voice of the narrator, a heterodiegetic voice-over, which, to be honest, is probably quite the most annoying voice-over ever – it’s a load of teenage gabble which is quite difficult for someone my age to follow. Its function is not only to remind the viewer of what has happened previously, but to comment on the action, just as is the case with the Chorus figure from your bog-standard Greek tragedy. It is another Harry Potter touch that an adolescent character was chosen for this role, but it works really well. Sukhvinder herself is almost entirely silent throughout the series (something of a mercy, given the garbled quality of the voice-over) and she is apparently completely isolated from the action: she wears headphones all the time, so she is kept separate and apart, but at the end, you realise that she has been observing closely in spite of her detached air. She has only one homodiegetic line – that is, only one line that is spoken within the narrative itself – and this comes after Krystal’s body has been retrieved from the river and Vikram Jawanda, Sukhvinder’s father, has rescued Robbie. The little boy has been taken into care as a result and Sukhvinder overhears her mother telling Vikram ‘It’s not your fault…anyone would have done the same.’ ‘Whose fault is it then?’ asks Sukhvinder. ‘Because it’s someone’s fucking fault.’

Krystal Weedon

And this is the point. Things don’t just happen. There is no such thing as fate, or destiny, or any such tripe. It is always SOMEONE’S FUCKING FAULT. You can call it karma if you wish, because what goes around certainly comes around. What happens to Krystal and Robbie in the novel is not only the fault of the characters such as Krystal’s rapist, their drug-dependent mother, the three people who saw Robbie and did nothing – no, it is also the fault of those people who routinely put their own concerns first, who think that caring for and about others is someone else’s responsibility, who put their heads in the sand and pretend that other people’s misery doesn’t exist. Which brings me back to the election result and the shocking number of people who voted to increase the misery of others by supporting the Tories and their policy of austerity for all except the rich. My one small crumb of comfort is that judging by the number of petitions and the scale of the outrage I can see on Facebook today, there are quite a lot of people who are not going to take the forthcoming Tory crap lying down. Vive la Revolution!

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