The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, 2019, 453 p.

All religions are conspiracies against women. Theocracies even more so. Atwood’s conception of her repressive society of Gilead (in The Handmaid’s Tale and here) was not, I suspect, designed to illustrate that point in particular – rather than to suggest that advances in social arrangements can be reversed, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance – but nevertheless does so. The source book/“sacred” text of the relevant conspiracy may not even contain the words used to justify women’s subjection by those of that bent. They instead tend to pick out the bits that suit them or else distort its contents. That point is made here when one of the narrators is warned about the Bible that, “It doesn’t say what they say it does.”

I can’t actually remember much about the text of The Handmaid’s Tale (to which this is a companion rather than a sequel) beyond the theocratic authoritarianism and the sexual exploitation, except that the book didn’t have a firm resolution – it just ended.

The Testaments is different in that it is not just one recollection of life in Gilead but three, and we see the seeds of Gilead’s downfall being sown. One of the narrators is Agnes Jemima (in a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369A supposedly collected by the Mayday Resistance movement,) a daughter of Gilead, for which read the daughter of a handmaiden but legally of her Commander “father,” Kyle, and his wife Tabitha. Tabitha looked after Agnes’s interests but died and Commander Kyle took a new wife, Paula, who most emphatically did not. The first account we read, though, is from “The Ardua Hall Holograph” a manuscript found hidden in a book of Cardinal Newman’s writings. It was from the library of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the Aunts who oversaw the lives of the women of Gilead. One of their functions was to keep track of the genetic heritage of Gilead’s children as so many’s may not have been what was generally thought. Uniquely among the women of Gilead, Aunts were allowed books. The Holograph was written by Aunt Lydia – whom we are to assume is the same Lydia described by Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. Lydia knew where the regime’s secrets were buried and had a tacit agreement with Commander Judd, one of the prime movers of Gilead, that she should have a free hand in organising women’s lives in return for useful information. But pre-Gilead she had been a judge; in the Holograph she remembers her earlier life and the humiliations borne when that was blown apart and is only biding her time to expose all Gilead’s hypocrisies. The third strand (a transcript of the testimony of Witness 369B) is the story of a girl brought up in Toronto by a couple who ran a second-hand clothes business but were active in the Underground Femaleroad which spirited refugees away from Gilead and whom she felt were overly protective of her. (Minor spoiler next.) Frequent early mentions of Baby Nicole, a cause célèbre both in Gilead and Canada, a poster-child who was taken from her “parents” in Gilead and for whose return its government actively campaigned and whose Pearl Girls, sent out to convert Canadians to the Gilead way of life, were constantly on the lookout for, provide heavy hints as to her identity. Atwood intersperses the three testimonies expertly, though the connection between Agnes and Jade/Nicole feels a bit too pat. That though is justified by the book’s coda which, like the similar addendum to The Handmaid’s Tale, is formed of notes from a symposium on Gilead Studies, here the Thirteenth, held at Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor,) Maine, in 2197.

In the Holograph Aunt Lydia tells us of her secret cache of proscribed books, which includes Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Paradise Lost and Lives of Girls and Women, but also that “Knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it.” The Holograph incidentally illustrates the jealousies and rivalries of a closed order and the intricacies of power relationships while Lydia’s acidity is shown by her inclusion in a list of “hoary chetsnuts” the aphorism that “Time wounds all heels.” In a neat touch by Atwood the meeting/eating place at Ardua Hall (whose slippery motto is Per Ardua Cum Estrus) is called the Schlafly Café.

Moments of horror in The Testaments are rare. There are mentions of Particicution, where convicts are torn to pieces by handmaids (a seemingly eagerly grabbed outlet for their justifiable anger,) but the descriptions tend to avoid detail. The experiences of Agnes and her friend Becca herself at the hands of Becca’s dentist father (with Becca it was more than hands) exemplify that an obsession with controlling sex, far from making it go away, (though those in control of course make sure they get more than their share,) only serves to emphasise its centrality to human experience, perhaps even accentuate sexuality’s unsavoury extremities.

As to the prohibition on women (except the Aunts) reading, Agnes in her spell at Ardua Hall gets to the heart of the matter, “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to questions, and then to others.” In a theocracy, in any dictatorship, questions are to be avoided

Perhaps it was familiarity with the recent TV adaptation of the earlier book or the wider world demonstration that such a society is a likely goal for those who somehow feel the presence of women in the public sphere in some way disadvantages them The Testaments seemed a better structured, more rounded book than my memory of The Handmaid’s Tale. The three narrators are convincing, though Jade/Nicole doesn’t quite seem to realise the seriousness of the perils inside Gilead and Atwwod’s insights into human behaviour under stress are acute.

Pedant’s corner:- tête-a-têtes (strictly têtes-a-têtes, or even têtes-a-tête,) a missing comma at the end of a piece iof dialogue where the sentence continued after it.

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