Patrick McGrath | 'I get more and more interested in ghosts'

Patrick McGrath | 'I get more and more interested in ghosts'

"The foremost writer of modern, psychological gothic" declared the Sunday Times in a review of Patrick McGrath's last novel Constance. His latest novel, his ninth, has plenty of gothic elements; a half-ruined city, a dark and oppressive atmosphere, possibly a ghost. But alongside the ethereal threat is a very tangible one: the revival of fascism in England immediately after the Second World War.

The Wardrobe Mistress (Hutchinson, September) opens with a funeral. It is January 1947, and London is suffering the coldest winter in living memory. The city is half-destroyed and everyone is still struggling under the ration. Joan Grice, the wardrobe mistress of the title, is mourning the unexpected death of her husband, Charlie Grice, one of the great stage actors of the day. The scene is narrated by a chorus who seem to be intimately familiar, and rather critical, of all the characters they observe. First-person plural is an unusual narrative voice, and it came about by chance, as McGrath explains when we meet in London (he is mostly based in New York, where he teaches creative writing at The New School in Manhattan as well as at Princeton): "I just thought of a lot of old actresses, probably in heaven or somewhere, who have died but are still watching over the doings of their old friends in the theatre and being as gossipy as ever, keeping up a steady commentary on what is going on with poor Joan Grice."

Joan is described by the chorus as a "striking-looking woman" whose beauty is only marred by her terrible teeth. Her hair is black and without a thread of silver: "She wore it pulled back with some severity from her face, the better, it was said, to come at the world like a scythe." "I think how you see her at the funeral at the very beginning is how she came to me," says McGrath. "I didn't want to make her necessarily particularly amiable. I liked the notion that she was quite chilly and formidable."

Grief-stricken Joan is persuaded to attend a benefit performance of her husband's last play, "Twelfth Night", with an understudy playing Gricey's role of Malvolio. To her surprise she is riveted, for surely the man on stage is, somehow, her dead husband?
"Understudies have always been quite interesting to me," says McGrath, who has been married to the actress and director Maria Aitken since 1991 and always knew he would set a novel in the world of the theatre. "They don't think about the character, and how the character is to be played. They think about the actor who they will be covering, and how he or she plays it. So what you learn as an understudy is every gesture, every intonation, every posture; you learn to imitate the other actor.

"Joan would look at this young actor, doing exactly the same as her husband had. It wouldn't be that great a leap, if you are deep in grief, and not thinking straight, to say, 'He's still here, he's in the world. His spirit is in the body of this young man.'"

On stage is, perhaps, a dybbuk: a figure in Jewish folklore, "a living body into which has entered the spirit of a dead person", says McGrath. "It's not a zombie, it's not a vampire, it's something different. It's one of these very spooky, transgressive sorts of figures - the body with somebody else's spirit in it."

Joan begins a friendship with the impoverished young understudy, which deepens into a love affair. Then, quite by chance, she uncovers her dead husband's awful secret. While sorting through his clothes, she finds a badge pinned to the underside of his coat lapel. It has a flash of white lightning on a blue background, and it reveals her beloved Gricey was a fascist. The discovery is all the more shocking as Joan herself is Jewish - and so is their actress daughter Vera.

After the conflict

When he began the novel, McGrath believed he would be exploring what he refers to as "the secret history" of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. "The period 1946 to 1950, which nobody knows very much about, was grim. There was rationing still very much in force, cities were bombed, there were shortages of staples like coal and flour and whisky, and the worst winters in living memory. So the British were a very unhappy people at the moment of their greatest glory."

While researching the period, he discovered what he calls "the secret history within the secret history"; the post-war fascist revival. One might assume that, having just fought and won a war against fascism, the far-right ideology would be dead in England. Not so, says McGrath, who came across the little-known 43 Group, which was comprised of Jewish ex-servicemen who came back from the war to discover swastikas scrawled on the sides of their houses in the East End. The British Union of Fascists, which had been very quiet during the war as its leader Oswald Mosley was in jail, was blooming again.

In the novel Joan joins others who are intent on infiltrating the fascist movement by attending private meetings of fascists in people's homes. Their aim is to find out when and where the open-air rallies are happening, and disrupt them. Extraordinarily, the police would turn up to the rallies to police them, not shut them down. "The government didn’t want to be seen to be suppressing free speech on the grounds that we'd just fought a war for free speech. The police wouldn't come in unless there was a real disturbance. So it became the business of the 43 Group to create as much disturbance as possible to get the coppers to come in and basically the meeting was over at that point. Disrupting was as good as getting them off the streets."

Writing the fascists convincingly was tricky, says McGrath. "I wanted not to caricature them. I wanted them to be believable people, believable English people who, in 1946, thought that the right thing to do was to sustain their fascist beliefs despite all that had happened." He began writing The Wardrobe Mistress in 2012 and couldn't have predicted then just how topical it would seem now with, as he notes, "the authoritarian leader and the fascistic temper" on the rise in Western societies.

In the past McGrath has disagreed with his "gothic novelist" label, so I wonder how he feels about it now? "As a genre it really starts in the late 18th century and the golden age is the 19th century, with the Brontës and Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker. The gothic tends to have dark themes and dark atmospheres and you associate it with decay of one sort or another. Decaying buildings, decaying psyches. There is a stress on breakdown, on darkness, on transgression, on the possibilities of hauntings and ghosts. I get more and more interested in ghosts - this is sort of a ghost story. Gricey may be around, it's hard to know. I tried to keep it a bit ambiguous.

"But I can't deny I'm terribly attracted to those aspects of fiction and I keep reproducing them, so for me to deny it, as I did at a conference of gothic scholars once - I said, 'I don't know why you've got me here!', ha ha! - But I accept it now."