So what if Jacqueline wasn't a nun?
We want a martyr; and martyrs aren't bitter, don't behave badly, and they don't have sex
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 22 January 1999
The cause of this spectacular division is a film about the late cellist's life, Hilary and Jackie, and the memoir it is based on, A Genius in the Family.
What has really raised the ire is the claim in the book that Jacqueline, after succumbing to multiple sclerosis, slept with "Kiffer" with Hilary's connivance. The family describe it as a sensitive, caring, honest portrait of their sister's behaviour under the appalling strain of an incurable disease. Her former colleagues say that they don't recognise the portrait, and are trying to discredit the authors of the book as embittered failures.
Distasteful as the whole spectacle is, it has produced a few richly comic moments. I loved the music critic the other day who was caught complaining that the music in the film was merely "background wallpaper for a bonk story"; I mean, what did he want - a movie about voice-leading in fugue and the technique of spiccato bowing? Of course it is a human-interest story and concentrates on sex, because that's what film does.
The music critic of The Daily Telegraph wrote a characteristically excitable piece which came perilously close to saying that the film was simply not true, and even if it was true, it wasn't "objective", and even if it was objective, it ought not to have been made because from this day forwards no one will ever think of Jacqueline du Pre as a cellist but just a woman who slept with her sister's husband.
The truth is that all these assertions rest on the common but incorrect belief that audiences are stupid. And I don't see it. On the whole, audiences are more intelligent than the general run of music critics, and are perfectly capable of holding two beliefs about Jacqueline du Pre in their heads; the first is that she was a wonderful cellist; the second is that she was not a nun. They don't seem to me to be obviously incompatible beliefs.
And if she did sleep with her brother-in-law after her life had broken down, with the full knowledge and agreement of all concerned, it may have been reckless, but I can't think it is as disgraceful as all that. Naturally, when someone is crippled by multiple sclerosis, their world narrows a great deal; we may like to think that, in the same circumstances, we would selflessly turn away a comforting offer of sexual gratification. But I don't think we have any right to complain about it, or even to throw our hands up in horror.
Not that the motives of the family are entirely noble. The really dislikeable thing about the account is not the sex, but the suggestion that Hilary was a much more talented musician whose career was crushed by her pushier sister. There's not much more unattractive than someone muttering "I could have been a contender", and the claim that Jacqueline du Pre was selfish and ambitious strikes me as simply uninteresting. I expect she was; most people are, who get as far as that and devote so much energy to perfecting their own talent.
The only reason, really, this has aroused so much horror is that it clashes with a much more pervasive and deplorable fiction. The banal myth goes something like this. First, there was the beautiful, glamorous soloist, married to the greatest pianist of the age. Then the tragedy of multiple sclerosis; then the glorious Wagnerian redemption of suffering by the devotion to teaching. That, in broad outline, is the officially approved story.
We want a martyr; and martyrs aren't bitter, don't behave badly, don't have sex. They are saints, blank spaces for our contemplation, and to warm our wicked hearts. She was certainly a very good cellist indeed, and would now be at the top of her profession. Multiple sclerosis and an early death turned her into something much more than that, thanks to PR, sentimentality, and wish-fulfilment. Should we really admire those who die young beyond those who die old?
This really isn't a difficult one. Great musicians are awkward people; their private lives do not necessarily bear much closer inspection than yours or mine; and none of it bears the slightest relation to what we think of their playing. There's no reason at all why one can't believe the broad outline of the story of Hilary and Jackie, and afterwards, go home, put on the familiar recording of the Elgar cello concerto, and find it exactly the same, just as wonderful as ever before.
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