Free Love by Tessa Hadley

Review by Walter Cummins

While pages of Tessa Hadley’s latest novel, Free Love, are filled with sexual activity and, more significantly, sexual gratification, satisfactions of the libido are transitory steps in the actual fulfillments of certain characters. A more accurate title would be Free Lives, that is for those capable of severing ties from their conventional origins.

The novel’s opening pages start off with planning for a typical English dinner gathering. Phyllis Fletcher is sitting at her dressing table, spraying perfume, as she readies herself for the arrival of Nicholas Knight, the young son of old friends invited by her husband, Roger, as a seeming obligation to have Nicky visit their home. Their adolescent daughter, Collette, will join them at the table despite her sulking. Their son, Hugh, too young for adult company, is in his room. The sounds and smells entering through the windows reveal standard affluent suburban pleasantness, a setting appropriate for Roger’s position as a senior civil servant, an Arabist.

Phyllis, pretty and fortyish, casually wonders if Nicky will be the boring child she met years before. All in all, she believes she is content with her life: “In fact she was easy, an easy person, easily made happy, glad to make others happy. She was pleased with her life. The year was 1967.”

That date reveals much to readers, nothing to Phyllis, who at that moment has no idea it was the turning point of political upheaval, Vietnam war protests, and sexual revolution, with Swinging London just a train ride away, a reality beyond her imagination. Nicky, half Phyllis’ age, shows up late, a bit drunk from a stop at a pub, and behaves rudely. Yet that very evening, searching for a sandal lost in the dark of a neighbor’s yard, he and Phyllis lock in a passionate kiss that changes her life.

Phyllis, who opened the novel as a woman content with her bourgeois existence because she knew no alternative, finds herself instantly transformed into a new person:

The thud of desire, plummeting through her body like a weight, rearranged everything inside her, changed her beyond recognition; he’s my lover, she thought with finality.

As the novel progresses, Phyliss is not the only person changed beyond recognition; she brings others with her as she abandons her suburban life for one in a rundown bohemian London neighborhood, Ladbroke Grove, someone of her class would never have entered, much less live in what Nicky’s mother calls a pretty ghastly room. But in this world, she finally knows who she is and what she wants. In this world she is truly pleased with her life.

Hadley has named Jane Austen and Henry James as her favorite writers. Like them she places the domestic lives of characters in a broader social context, entering her characters’ minds and relating their interiority in the manner of Austen and James. The narrative voice of Free Love is omniscient, following several characters from their initial confusions and self-deceptions to the liberations of a few like Phyliss, who has moved from ignorance about the society around her to self-knowledge and a personal freedom. Some others she meets were already there, and some can’t break free even though they have reached to point of knowing that they should.

Hadley also brings in a touch of Dickens with the leveling mixing of social classes. Phyliss, born as the privileged daughter of a titled man, Sir John, and wife of an officially important man, happily choosing to work for a living, for a time in an unsanitary fruit pie factory. The novel also has a central Dickensian coincidence with the revelation of who turns out to be the father of whom.

Free Love is full of surprises because so many people do such unexpected things, making choices they would never have believed themselves capable of, choices they had never even known existed. So much was unleased in 1967.