The two novellas—“The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” and “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes”—published together as Smut continue Alan Bennett’s recent probing of sexual frustrations and repressions explored in two of the writer’s most important plays: The History Boys (2004) and The Habit of Art (2009). In 2005 in Untold Stories after a diagnosis of cancer, Bennett began to write openly about his homosexuality, a subject in both of these recent plays and in the second novella in this collection. The awareness of his own mortality opened the floodgates of his own repression, producing some of the finest works of his career.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Donaldson—in the first story—takes up work as a SP (a simulated patient). She’s in her mid-fifties and was married many years. The money from the employment helps her finances, and the work keeps her busy. So you might ask: What is a SP? A person hired by a medical school to act out health problems in front of third-year medical students, to give them a sense of what they will encounter once they are out in the field.
Turns out, Mrs. Donaldson is quite successful emulating the issues that doctors encounter with their patients. Bennett explains, “The job involved some degree of preparation with the SPs…required to familiarize themselves with the circumstances of the person they would be representing and which, apart from the particular symptoms being presented or the predicament to be explored, included social background and medical history.” Mrs. Donaldson reads the case notes the night before the simulation. Dr. Ballantyne, who oversees the operation, regards her as more conscientious than his other SPs. As a result she is “given some demanding situations and the more rarified conditions.” Even better, she enjoys her work.
At the university, Mrs. Donaldson meets two students, Andy and Laura, and decides that she will take them in as renters—also for the money. After that, things move quickly, especially when the two students can’t pay their rent. What to do? Well, Andy suggests, in lieu of the rent, that he and Laura have sex and let Mrs. Donaldson observe. And Mrs. Donaldson—not shocked at all—agrees. All goes well, and the next time the rent is due, Mrs. Donaldson is disappointed when they hand her the money. Then they move out and Mrs. Donaldson takes in two more students, recommended by Andy and Laura.
The surprises in the story after the new renters arrive are unexpected—other than to say that Bennett makes it obvious that, as far as sex goes, Mrs. Donaldson’s husband left something to be desired. And it is this “greening” of Mrs. Donaldson that connects the first story to the second, where a mother (Mrs. Forbes) is shielded from her son’s homosexuality. Bennett observes at the end of the story, “How much better…how much healthier…had all these persons, these family members, been more candid with one another right from the start.”
“The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes” is, in fact, a virtual orgy of sexual interactions, not only involving Mrs. Forbes’ closeted son, but her husband, her daughter-in-law, and a young man whom her son engages for sex but who also specializes in blackmail. All of the encounters verge on a variation of musical chairs, with partners rapidly changing, intermixed with Bennett’s always charming humor. Thus, when Graham, the son, is about to be married, Mr. Forbes tells him, “If you are getting married in church, Graham, the vicar likes you to pretend you believe in God. Everyone knows this is a formality. It’s like the air hostess going through the safety drill. God’s in His heaven and your life jacket’s under the seat.”
Both stories read as if they may be been worked through in dramatic form before they ended up as fiction. There are abrupt changes of setting and character, a rather arbitrary use of transitions. More significantly, I wouldn’t call either of the novellas smutty, given the openness of sexuality today. The title has become a rather archaic term—perhaps fitting for the era when Alan Bennett grew up and the closeted aspect of all sexuality in those days.
By Alan Bennett
Picador, 152 pp., $14.00.
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.