Wednesday, 19 March 2014

"Tall and sexless" - On Beth 'Baby' Warren and the perils of being the Eldest Child.

Of all F. Scott Fitzgerald's women - any of his characters, in fact, regardless of gender - very few are naturally blessed with the dying art of Common Sense. America in the 20s was not a time or place for studying life too closely. One cannot party hard when one is sitting down to three hours of family negotiations to stop everyone killing each other. And party hard they did - I must admit, when being told to study The Great Gatsby at A Level I thought I'd hate it, because it shares this "to-solve-this-we-shall-party" philosophy with another book I found mind-numbingly tedious (coughPride and Partying Prejudicecough).  It must be said, the goings-on in Fitzgerald's soirees are much spicier.
[Note to self ~ Subject for future blog post: Ten novels which could have been improved with Champagne.]

For Dick and Nicole Diver of Fitzgerald's last full novel Tender is the Night, the stakes are much higher in the gamble that is extravagance. Nicole's fragile mental health cannot cope with the additional layer of delusion the wealthy folk of the 20s adorned themselves with. There could be no hope for a schizophrenic living among people who thought it somewhat fashionable to maintain beauty and brokenness.

A good job, then, that Baby Warren is different from the outset. Dick somewhat scathingly labels her the "dutiful sister" but that is what she is, through and through.  Baby's life has not been devoid of hardships - she was engaged to be married to a soldier who was then killed in action, and thrown over by the man she tried to love again. She has not let those things beat her into the arms of drink or delusion, as we see happening with Dick and Abe. Terribly unfashionable of her, terribly boring. Her Father subtly but tellingly mentions her in a throwaway comment as "an older girl... and there was a boy who died. but Nicole..." But Nicole indeed. The sort of child that everyone paled in comparison to - bright and beautiful, with the charm and promise of fun that fit so well with the new era on the horizon.

Baby is in an impossible position. She can see her sister's deterioration, whereas Dick sees only his own. But what sway does anyone have over the lives of their brothers or sisters? In my experience, very little indeed - and it is especially difficult for the Eldest to find their place in the balance once the youngest turns 18 and the family structure is broken.  Any advice or support we might provide will never, ever hold the gravitas our Mothers had, yet our duty to Be There is unquestionable. Our siblings may need us, but they don't always want us, and we in turn just cannot give them what they need. We have something to prove to our siblings in a way that goes far beyond the natural, trivial power struggles that go on between peers at school - The first child needs to earn their status, be it in attitude or their work to avoid being forgotten when something newer and cuter comes along - and any child born thereafter needs to earn the right to their own personality.  My poor sister had a hell of a time, having to follow someone as rigidly well-behaved, studious and boring as me.  I will never, ever forgive the teachers at our secondary school for doggedly referring to her as 'Paula's sister' for the first couple of years.

This sense of status is not an expectation, but a necessity, and totally natural behaviour as human beings. There is a sense of pecking order within us whether we like it or not. And as was the case with my sister's school days, when stupid people get put in positions of power assumptions are made and egos are bruised, which makes us fight harder.

Baby is accused of meddling when the Diver's marriage and Nicole's health both begin to disintegrate.  I would call it intervening. That is our primary function, as Older Siblings. To observe. We have had the advantage - and, at times, disadvantage - of watching you grow up, little ones. We have begun to not understand the reasons for your tantrums. We have played along when our parents lied about Santa, and felt guilty about it.  We have watched you swig a beer and found it a little frightening. Most of all, we have been deeply and inexplicably hurt when you sought advice from someone who isn't Us. We may grumble and get annoyed, younger siblings, but we have watched over you in the most agonizing way possible - seeing the inevitable break ups, break downs, and general upsets in between, seeing them all coming from a mile off but we were not able to do anything because, ultimately, it is none of our business. If we choose to, we can do what Baby did and jump in if and when the situation gets out of hand. We will fix it for you and then you will tell us to bugger off and leave you alone, as Nicole does.  You can swan off to anywhere in the world, lose contact and drink your inheritance, and you can come to our door bedraggled and hungry and, because we are helpless to really help you, we will let you in and give you tea and cake. We Eldest can do absolutely nothing, except, perhaps, know you better than you know yourself.

Tender is the Night runs from March 20th - April 13th at the Lord Stanley in Camden. Wednesday - Saturday at 7.30pm with a 5pm show on Sundays. Tickets can be bought from

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