I for IsobelI for Isobel by Amy Witting

First published by Penguin Books Australia, 1989.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 

Just another unhappy family, but this one has Isobel in it. 

At the beginning of I for Isobel, we are introduced to a mistreated child living with a mostly-passive and nearly-invisible father, a favoured older sister who is usually indifferent to her, and a mother who is an out-of-control wreck of an abuser. That is an accurate character statement, but it doesn’t tell you much about who Isobel is as a person. And what makes this book work is entirely dependent upon the person of Isobel: dreamy outsider, devoted reader, and (eventually) aspiring writer.


There are lots of stories and lots of families like Isobel’s, in fiction and in the real world, and the most immediate (and reasonable) response to such a tale is to feel anger, sorrow, and pity for the child, and to see the child as a victim who must be saved. What makes Isobel captivating, though, is not her family role, as resident scapegoat and whipping girl, but how fully she rejects that role. Isobel embodies a strong sense of “I” as separate from everyone else, from the moment we meet her on page one. She is a full-fledged person in her own right, whose internal world is brimming with lively imagination and the wonder of being alive, but whose external one is shot through with petty malice and woe inflicted upon her by others.


Isobel is a self-possessed little girl, and much more individuated from her family than many adults ever manage to be. She does not see herself as a victim, or someone who will be forever ill-treated. Healthy children rarely do, of course, think of life or themselves in such bleak terms. Children are boundlessly hopeful, when given even the tiniest of things to look forward to.


What Isobel wants, when we first meet her, is a birthday present. She’s never had one. We realise before she will admit to herself that this year will be no different. But we quickly come to understand that her ability to believe in the possibility of the present is more important than the present itself ever could be. Also, with or without a present, it is still her special day, and no one can take that away from her. 

I is for Isobel, and today, she is nine. 

Isobel is optimistic. She knows that one day, she will be grown up. She has a vision of her future opening out wide, a landscape filled with interesting experiences, that in time will leave the country of her hard-scrabble childhood far behind (metaphorically, if not actually). Isobel does not cling loyally to her abuser, as some children do, but neither does she run through the streets of her small Australian town screaming about her mother being a beast. Even if she did, who would care? It’s that kind of time, and that kind of town, where such matters are kept in the family. Also, her mother is not so depraved that she cuts, burns, or mutilates Isobel, so to a lot of people, her behaviour would not even register as abuse.


Isobel does see herself unfairly done by, but she views her mother as the one with the problem, not herself. This is crucial. She learns to be watchful and strategic about how she interacts with her mother, and this watchfulness stays with her, becoming ingrained into her character. She copes with being unloved and maligned — and sometimes physically assaulted — by holding tight to herself, and by seeking relationships with other people. When that goes wrong (as it often does), she turns to her friends in books. Her parents may ignore her birthday, and even forbid her to mention it to others, but that’s okay, because her friends Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are happy to spend the day with her.


Isobel is filled with the unshakeable certainty that she is — or should be — able to control her own world. That what is required from her by Life is only that she learn to assess accurately what it is she needs to do, and then do that thing, not allowing herself to be swayed from her aims. At one point, she believes herself to be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit after a brief but intense religious experience, but keeps this to herself. Her parents may not grant her gifts, but God has, so she clings to it tightly, seeing it as transformative and protective. She talks to the Virgin Mary, and this, too, gives her strength to withstand her mother’s incessant bullying and provocation — at least temporarily — until her anger finally snaps. She blames herself for weakening in her resolve. But religion is pretty much done for her after that.


In Rotter’s social-learning theory of psychology, Isobel would be called an “Internal” on the “Perceived Locus of Control” continuum — the other end of which would be people who believe that their lives are largely the result of chance (good or bad luck) and external circumstances. This type of worldview would never occur to Isobel. She feels that a good life and happy relationships must be a matter of practice and learning to say and do the right things, and that she must surely be capable of mastering this. (After all, that is how things go in books.) She goes on believing this well into her young adulthood.


Her “internalism” is one of the things that makes her a great protagonist. Isobel is plucky, funny, intelligent, and always on the outer edges of every social group. Nothing is easy and smooth for Isobel, and however well-read she may be, she is incapable of being a social chameleon. I is for Isobel and only Isobel, no one else. She does not blend anywhere. She is the consummate outsider, who wonders incessantly why that is the case, and then proceeds to work very hard to figure it out and make it better. Eventually, like many outsiders, she does learn why, and then chooses to remain on the periphery, rather than sell herself out by conforming to others’ expectations of her. This is her moment of empowerment, enlightenment, and salvation, all rolled into one. (I won’t tell you how it comes about, because that would spoil the fun). 

R for Reader 

This book is a reader’s love-fest. There are references, both straight and tongue-in-cheek, to novelists, poets, and playwrights, woven throughout the text. They figure not only in conversations between the characters, but also as more invisible friends in Isobel’s life, who remain truer, wiser, and more predictable than the real people who surround her. By this time, she has become a young woman, living in a boarding house in the city, working as a translator and typist at an Importers, and trying to form friendships. The group to which she most longs to belong is a tight set of university students, devoted to literature, and made up mostly of poets and critics. They take her in for a while, and Isobel learns for the first time that there are other people like her in the world: readers. She learns, too, that not everyone reads only because they love writers and words and characters in books, but because they create a society around the books they read. They wish to discuss the books, and some even want to write critical reviews. Since reading has always been a deeply private experience for Isobel, this strikes her as not only alien but impossible. Unbelievably, she is once again the outsider.


In this part of the book, there are entire scenes devoted to discussions of literature and word play, including one in which people are cast as parts of speech.


If you were a part of speech, what part of speech would you be?’ …


‘I speak as a verb, a transitive verb. And Janet there is a conjunction, a co-ordinating conjunction.’ He turned to Vinnie. ‘And you, my pet, are an adjective, naturally … You adorn. You decorate’.


Isobel laughed too.
He looked at her kindly.
‘And what are you?’
She said in a small racked whisper, ‘I think I’m a preposition’.
‘Oh, do you govern?’
‘Only small common objects.’


Isobel said on a bubble of laughter, ‘My landlady’s a preposition. Against.”


‘You, Nick? You’re and adverb.’ He began to sing. ‘It ain’t what you do … It’s de way dat you do it …” He laughed loudly. ‘And Diana is a past participle.” (From pps. 82-83.)


The book is only 158 pages long, and worth reading for that alone. 

The Idiot in the Attic* vs. Young Adult Isobel 

Amongst her work mates, her boarding house residents, and her social group of university students, Isobel is forever faltering, never sure if she’s doing and saying the right things, and self-admonishing all the way. While this could be tedious or sad — well, it is a bit sad — it is mostly very funny, because of the way she talks to herself. We are not meant to feel sorry for her, and she would resent us if we did. Also, she maintains her watchful stance towards others as well as herself, which keeps her from being destroyed by gullibility. She is no gullible ingénue, and when people try to get close to her to exploit her good will, she figures it out pretty quick. However, she has her vulnerable spots. When she realises that her controlling and bitter landlady has come to favour her over the other boarders, she takes herself to task for it. She recognises how she has invited this favouritism, that there is a child part of her that wants the approval of a mother-figure — however unsuitable — and that Child Isobel has been sneaking around and getting her way, while Adult Isobel has failed to notice.


Any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.
Auden had a general in his head. (‘But they’ve severed all the wires, and I don’t know what the general desires.’)
Isobel had an idiot in the attic …


Idiot wants a mother.
Idiot can’t have one.
Life is very difficult.
(From pps. 104-105.) 

W for Writer 

The pleasure and dramatic tension in the rest of the book is in watching Isobel negotiate her way around the idiot, as well as around her real and unreal friends, in order to find her own meaning and place in the world. I recommend this book to anyone who loves readerly fiction, and also to anyone who loves the writing of Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark, as I do. There are points of style, wit, humour, and theme that bring to mind both of those authors, who are two of my favourites.


Amy Witting is not much read these days, I think. She was an Australian and a teacher, who lived from 1918-2001. I would bet she’d have been an excellent companion for an extended afternoon tea. I like to think she was Australia’s Pym or Spark. She’s that good.


* Note: In one of those strangely-synchronous life moments, the book I opened just after this one also included the term “idiot in the attic”. I’d never heard it before now. Apparently, in horror films, the idiot in the attic is the character who proceeds up the blood-soaked stairs, to corner the psychopath/monster in the attic, usually whilst said idiot is wearing only cut-off shorts and a pair of thongs, and armed with a flash-light with low batteries. (Something like that.)