One of the great accomplishments of Amy Witting’s writing in I for Isobel is the restraint and economy of the language. In a very short space, with very few words, Witting effectively conveys the shame and desolation of poverty, the terror of abuse, and the devastating claustrophobia of physical and emotional violence. Though Witting makes it clear that the atmosphere in the Callaghan house is one of near-constant tyranny, tension, and anger, she uses great restraint in displaying the kind of violence and abuse that characterized Isobel and Margaret’s childhood. Through these selective glimpses into the Callaghan house, Witting conveys mood and horror by leaving much unseen, and through the unseen, she suggests just how frequent the instances of violence and abuse are in the Callaghan home. In doing so, Witting conveys both how trauma and violence often largely center around repression and avoidance, and also how Isobel’s mother uses secrecy and omission to increase her power over her daughter. Witting argues that the things we cannot know or see about the horrors of poverty or depths of the human psyche—and the pain and compulsions often lodged there—are just as telling as the things we can.
Isobel’s mother, May, is portrayed as a volatile, angry, controlling woman. Humiliated by her poor financial standing, jealous of her two sisters’ financial success, and desperate to elicit not just obedience but fear from her own daughters, May is spurred by some unseen and unexplained impulse to create chaos, pain, and suffering in her house that mirrors the turmoil she is clearly experiencing within. Isobel, as a child and even as an adult, cannot make sense of the unseen forces that motivate her mother’s cruelty, though she catches frightening and unsettling glimpses of the “animal” that lives behind her mother’s eyes. In filtering May’s rage through the eyes of a young child, Witting creates a darker, deeper sense of suffering that is all the more frightening for its unknowability—its hidden roots, confusing motivations, and seemingly fruitless endgame.
By the novel’s fourth chapter, May has died of a cause that is never more than hinted at. Mrs. Prendergast at the boarding house attempts to ask Isobel about her mother’s death, asking if May’s death was “sudden” and because of “her heart,” but another proprietor quickly changes the subject to avoid Isobel’s having to ruminate on the subject. Like everything else in May’s life and persona, her death is alluded to only in shadowy terms that prevent the reader from ever really knowing its root cause. The unseen reasoning behind May’s life and death alike speak to the chaos and lack of reason she exhibited throughout her life.
Just as May’s rage is depicted only briefly, so too is the Callaghan family’s poverty only hinted at, its roots and depths both unknown. At the start of the novel, Isobel’s mother tells her there is no money for presents—and yet the family is on holiday at a lake house. Witting hints at the fact that May has been discreetly selling her jewelry, but whether she’s doing so to make ends meet or to rustle up funds for some unknown or nefarious purpose is left unclear. In keeping Isobel—and thus her readers—in the dark about the true machinations behind May’s actions and the actual state of financial affairs in the Callaghan family, Witting leaves the potential for two scenarios open. Claiming poverty and being sneaky about funds might be another one of May’s methods of wrestling for control over her family and squeezing charity from her well-to-do sisters. On the other hand, perhaps the family is in such a state of financial collapse that the threat of ruin is part and parcel of May’s, and thus her daughters’, suffering.
Through her veiled but vivid portrait of Isobel and Margaret’s childhood suffering under the tyranny of their abusive mother, Witting uses the glimpses and isolated incidents of abuse, shaming, and violence to suggest that what readers don’t see is perhaps even worse than what they do. The unseen becomes a presence in and of itself, taking on a huge, foreboding weight. What Witting shows her readers of Isobel and Margaret’s suffering is just the tip of the iceberg, and what she holds back is just as evocative as the episodes she chooses to include.
Poverty, Abuse, and Violence ThemeTracker
Poverty, Abuse, and Violence Quotes in I for Isobel
Mrs. Callaghan, too, kept [Isobel’s] birthday in mind and spoke of it now and then.
“January,” she said, “is too close to Christmas for birthday presents,” and later, serenely, “it is vulgar to celebrate birthdays away from home.”
Whenever she found a new argument against birthday presents for Isobel, a strange look of relief would appear on her face, and Isobel would be forced to accept, for the moment, that there would be no present.”
Isobel was living in two worlds. Miss Halwood’s, where she belonged and things were solid and predictable, and the other one, where she was exulting at making her mother uncomfortable. That was a great pleasure but it was like gobbling sweets—she expected some sickness from it. Meanwhile there was the world of Sherlock Holmes, which was better than both of them. She said, “May I be excused, please?” and hurried back to her chair. She fished out the book from under the seat and went back to Baker Street.
The sound of her mother's quick, foreboding tread made her push the box in a panic under her pillow. Now, she remembered: she had been told not to tell, and she had told. She had told Caroline, who had told Mr. Mansell, and retribution was coming, as her mother advanced with set face and luminous glare and began to slap her, muttering, “Don't you dare to cry. Ungrateful little bitch. Don't you dare to cry. You little swine, thankless little swine, you couldn't say thank you, couldn't even say thank you.” Slap, slap. “Don't open your mouth, don't you dare to cry.” There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she was fighting against a cage of air.
Isobel took the box from under the pillow, took out the brooch and looked at it while she rubbed her stinging legs. Why hadn’t her mother taken the brooch? It would have been so easy. Isobel could even supply the words she had dreaded to hear: “Give me that, you don’t deserve to have it. Come on, give it to me.” Why hadn’t she said them? Could it be that there were things her mother couldn’t do?
That idea was too large to be coped with. She put it away from her, but she took the brooch and pinned it care- fully to the neck of her dress. It was hers now, all right. She went and looked at it in the glass and stood admiring it. In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.
There was a pause, so long that she thought it might be safe to pick up her knife and fork again, but as she stirred her mother said, “I want you to tell me what you are sulking about, Isobel.”
She was really frightened now, wondering how long she would hold out, foreseeing the moment when she would begin to scream and scream. She wasn't going to, not ever. She would think of grace and be still.
“Tell me.” Her mother's voice, which had been rising to a scream, turned calm and gracious again. Like somebody getting dressed. Isobel looked up and saw that her eyes were frantic bright. She doesn't want me to tell her, she wants me to scream. I do something for her when I scream.
Then she saw that her mother's anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.
Isobel was left to witness her mother's sufferings, which were real and ludicrous. She walked about white-faced, repeating, “Who'd be a mother? Who'd be a mother? You do everything for them, you give up everything for them and what do you get for it? Forgotten as soon as it suits them, they're gone without a thought. Heartless ungrateful children.”
She spoke not to Isobel, but in her hearing, wanting her perhaps to repeat the lament to Margaret, or inviting her to a new alliance. Isobel kept her mind averted, but thought it was strange, as she speeded up her polishing of the kitchen floor, that she should be hurrying through the chores in order to desert this misery and go and read about saintliness and brotherly love. She could not help it; grace told her to withdraw and she did what grace demanded, though it was more of a holding position now than an inner joy.
“Take that dress off, Margaret,” said their mother from the doorway. “It belongs to Isobel.”
“But Isobel said I could have it.”
Isobel said, “Aunt Noelene will never know.”
Her mother gave her a look of hate as she walked
towards Margaret, who did not know what was happening and stood like a good little girl having a dress fitted till she heard the dull snap of threads and the tearing noise. She cried out then as if she had been hit.
“Damn you,” screamed Isobel. “Damn you, damn you, it was mine. It wasn't yours to tear. It was mine and I gave it to Margaret. Damn you!”
She saw the look of peace and relief on her mother's face as she walked away and she knew what she had done. The old sick closeness was back and she was the same old Isobel.
Margaret was sitting on her bed dressed in her slip, stroking the torn yoke and sobbing.
“It's only a dress,” said Isobel. She had lost more.
“Oh, you shut up. You didn't want it, anyhow.”
It wasn't only a dress. It was much more, and it was gone, and so was the state of grace.
At that moment, Isobel thought such things were not for either of them.
Dead, thought Isobel, trying the word again. It still meant only silenced. There was no hope of calling up any decent feeling from her evil heart, which was rejoicing in the prospect of freedom and even of new shoes. She picked up Shakespeare, Byron, Keats and Shelley and carried them into the bedroom, where Margaret was sitting on her bed, dazed and weeping, silently and slowly tears dripping like blood from a cut finger.
“Do you mind if I take the Shakespeare? It isn't mine but I’d like to have it.”
Margaret shook her head, sending two tears running quickly down her cheeks. It wouldn't do to tell her to cheer up. Somebody should be giving Isobel the opposite advice. Yet there was in her, deeper than her relief, a paralyzing sorrow, not at her mother's death but at being unable to grieve at it. That one was going to stay with her; she looked for distraction from it in the cheerful business of packing and buying new shoes, but knew that any cheerfulness was, in the situation, shocking. She feared she had shocked Aunt Yvonne already. Perhaps the funeral would touch her feeling and make her a member of the human race.
''Went very funny after the baby was born. Not the first one either, the third. Joe that would have been, got grown-up sons himself now. She was very bad for a while. She came out of it all right in the end.”
“I'm glad to hear that.” Mrs. Bowers' tone admitted that Mrs. Prendergast was not often the bringer of good news.
“It can take you in funny ways. There was the woman lived opposite us in Mudgee. Six weeks old the baby was and they were getting ready to go out. Her husband called out from the door, ‘Are you coming, Dorrie?’ ‘I won't be a minute, dear, I'm just popping the baby in the oven.’ He came running in and there was the baby greased all over and trussed up in the baking dish and the oven hot. He just got to it in time.”
Mrs. Bowers shrieked, 'Oh, my God!'
You left the house thinking of freedom, of being a different person, seeing the world ahead of you, but you didn't go on, you went back. To fight the old fight and this time to win, to have the verdict set aside, to be the favored child.
Any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.
Auden had a general in his head. (“But they've severed all the wires, and I don't know what the general desires.'”
Isobel had an idiot in the attic.
Back in her room, she sat on her bed and reflected. She was in a different position from Auden; she knew what the idiot desired, all right, and had to watch to see it didn't get it.
The idiot played its games with the real world and- and what was worse-it played them behind Isobel's back. Not any more, now that she knew. Could she do this, watch a part of herself and control it, fight against it all her life?
She was not too discouraged, the new knowledge giving her a feeling of strength. At least she knew where she was going wrong-no wonder the others disliked her, watching her suck up to Mrs. Bowers, taking what ought to be Madge's.
Idiot wants a mother.
Idiot can't have one.
Life is very difficult.
“It was an accident, on his bike. I don't know much about it; he was badly hurt and he died this morning in hospital. Helen asked me to come and tell you.”
Absent-mindedly Diana pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, got out a hairbrush and began to brush her hair.
Shock. People do very funny things when they're shocked. But the feeling that was coming over Diana did not seem like shock. It was profound; she was thinking hard and breathing deeply. She dropped the hairbrush and steadied herself with one hand on the pillow.
This must be what they called being in travail. It was a private process; Isobel should go away and let her get on with it, but she did not know how to do that.
The feeling was appearing now: relief. Isobel was the prison governor who had brought her news of her reprieve. She said, “Can I get you something? Make you a cup of tea?'
What falsehood. I am thinking of what she ought to
Diana too thought Isobel had made a social error. “No, thank you. I'm quite all right.” She looked with surprise at the hairbrush and put it back in the drawer.
All right is no word for it. She's glad he's dead. She feels the way I felt when my mother died. He wasn't a human being to her, he was a thorn in her side, a stone in her shoe.
The tears were coming slowly. How could tears come from so deep, as if she was a tree with tears welling up from its roots? Then they came in a roaring flood that drowned thought; she put her cheek against the rock, which was as rough as a cat's tongue and unyielding, but she was too far gone to feel any perverse pleasure in that. Her sobs were so loud that even in this wasteland she had to put her hands over her mouth to muffle them; when her mind sobered up her body went on snuffling and heaving along ten years of roadway.
I am a writer. I am a writer.
Too late. It must be too late. The poor little bugger in the baking dish; nobody came in time.
Suppose I tried? Suppose I went through the motions? The writer might come back.
You've tried that with love. It doesn't work.
But that was other people, too. This is me.
The crying had slackened. There was such a feeling of limbs stretching, of hands unbound, she knew she could choose to be a writer. A pen and an exercise book, that was all it took, to be a rotten writer, anyhow. Good or rotten' that came later.
It meant giving in to the word factory. That frightened her, because the word factory was such a menace. Now she understood why the idea of being press-ganged was so alarming.
Oh, well. If you can't lick 'em join 'em.
Maybe that was what the word factory was all about, the poor little bugger trying to get out of the baking dish.