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An ironic look at the ‘safe period’

· ​In the novel ‘The British Museum is falling down’ ·

It is 1965. Adam Appleby, a young 25-year-old student grappling with his doctoral thesis, as well as a father of three (Clare, Dominic and Edward) is terrified by the probability that his wife Barbara might once again be pregnant: the family lives in poverty in a squalid apartment at the top of a dilapidated old building in London. Faithful to the dictates of the Church as regards sexual morals and birth control, this Catholic couple live their intimacy as a couple with a furtive obsession, burdened with calendars, thermometers and a sense of guilt. “They had embarked on marriage with fairly vague notions about the ‘safe period’ and with a trusting hope in Providence which Adam was now finding hard to accept”. If Barbara notes daily the temperatures on her two thermometres in a little “Catholic diary”, Adam follows with interest the relationship between the liturgical year and the graphics of his wife’s temperature fluctuations, finding himself “particularly devoted to those saints whose festivities occur in the so-called ‘safe period’, but feeling instead a certain turmoil when he finds among the names some virgin martyrs”.

Marc Chagall “Motherhood and Centaur” (1957)

The novel describes an anxious day for the young researcher who, at the mercy of moral torments and practical setbacks, is incapable of finding a moment of peace for himself in order to do his research in the reading room of the British Museum; in fact, rather than working on his thesis, solemnly entitled The structure of long phrases in three modern English novels, he continues to be distracted by far more prosaic problems such as finding out, through innumerable calls on old payphones, whether his wife is pregnant for the fourth time. Lodge depicts in tragicomic style the image of a couple who torment themselves with complex and muddled natural methods; “Clare was born nine months after their wedding. Barbara had then consulted a Catholic doctor who had taught her a simple mathematical formula to calculate her non-fertile period. It was so simple that one year later Dominic was born”. Adam and Barbara, in spite of striving to live according to Catholic principles on the subject, look with admiration – and with a sort of envy – at the new scientific progress in the field of contraception. Their sex life is exhausting and even when Adam is seated at the desk in the British Museum, his mind is anxiously absorbed not by his doctoral thesis but by the complicated graphics and calculations traced by the variations of Barbara’s basal temperature, as well as by the anxiety of having to support a family on the verge of being enlarged.

In his preface David Lodge, a Catholic writer and university professor who teaches English Literature, openly reveals the motivation and ideas which inspired his novel where moral questions, which most married Catholics found themselves pondering on at the beginning of the 1960s, are tackled in tones that are comic but never scathing or derisive.The principal subject is that of the Church’s teaching on birth control (which in Adam’s and Barbara’s case is a “non-control”, a problem rendered pressing by the arrival of the contraceptive pill in the years before the Second Vatican Council. On going to the British Museum, Adam is pleased to note in a newspaper article that, during the work of the Council, “Cardinal Suenens requested a radical revision of the Church’s dictates on birth control. Cardinal Ottaviani retorted that Catholic couples must trust in Divine Providence.On no other issue”, the newspaper correspondent reports, “are the positions of the liberals and conservatives at the Council described with such clarity”.

The British Museum is Falling Down is a sort of experimental novel which blends different stylistic registers, passing from the epistolary to the diary form, from the colloquial to metaphysical reflection. David Lodge makes ample use of pastiche, incorporating passages in which he imitates both the motivation and styles of writing used by various English authors (William Golding, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway): if in chapter five, for example, Adam dreams of being pope, drawing inspiration from the novel Hadrian the Seventhby Frederick Rolfe, the themes of betrayal, the awareness of guilt and theology are instead described in the style of Graham Greene.

The most touching parody is found in the epilogue where the conjugal problems of Adam Appleby are seen from another viewpoint, from the female perspective of Barbara who, from being the mere object of her husband’s thoughts and perceptions, becomes the subjective conscience of the narrative, expressing at last her own point of view. Her inner monologue is a clear allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses and recalls Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness; she too was a wife at first left in the shadows but destined to recover her voice at the end of the novel. And Barbara’s meditation on the paradoxes of sexuality, on the history of Adam’s courtship and on their marriage seems to resolve the anxiety which has permeated the narrative up to this point, in the name of a wisdom which is entrusted with simplicity to the passing of the days. 

Elena Buia Rutt




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 22, 2020