Sin by Josephine Hart

Alfred A. Knopf 1992 164 pp. 19.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


With titles as spare as her prose, Josephine Hart continues her neo-Calvinist chronicling of upper-crust English depravity. In Sin, her follow-up to last year's successful Damage, Hart tells us that using lust as a weapon exacts a hellish price.

Since childhood, Ruth Ashridge has felt that her family was stolen from her by her older, adopted sister Elizabeth. Now a voluptuous woman, Ruth schemes to punish the blameless Elizabeth by stealing Elizabeth's husband. We know from the outset that Ruth has accomplished her aim, but from her regretful tone we sense her victory was hard won, since her opponent was not Elizabeth, but the power of goodness: "Like Satan before the Fall, I came to hate the very nature of goodness, to fear its power."

Ruth sets her sights on Hubert Baathus, Elizabeth's first husband, a charming Frenchman. Along the way, Ruth acquires an adoring, faithful husband, the American mathematician Domnick Garton, whose devotion serves only as a smokescreen as Ruth plots her ruinous revenge. Unlike the ambitious Domnick, Ruth rests content in subtly destroying others' lives.

"Few people are [ambitious]. Perhaps there is in us some inherited, ancient knowledge. The majority do not desire the world-knowing on some primitive level that it disappoints. They are quite content to let the blind few pursue their path to wderailed by forces beyond her, and a few years pass before she is again plotting against Elizabeth, this time with Elizabeth's second husband, Sir Charles Harding. Here Ruth finds success, as they both enter into their passion with full knowledge and full consent, this novel's definition of sin.

For Ruth, "our times together, easily arranged ... were compulsive, fierce, and never satisfying. They became a spiral staircase into rooms the doors of which we should have never opened. And I led the way."

In those rooms they found regret, death, and a grief-sodden survival. Like Satan's, the tortures Ruth's soul endures teach her, far too late, the power of goodness.

"We are here to add to the sum of human goodness. ... And however futileisdom. And to watch those trapped by genius forced to sacrifice themselves, and those trapped by talent to emulate them. Much better to be in the audience, watching the actors find the surprise ending."

Ruth's plan is each individual act of courage or generosity, self-sacrifice or grace-it still proves the thing exists. Each act adds to the fund. It needs replenishment. Not only because evil flourishes, and is, most indefensibly, defended. But because goodness is no longer a respectable aim in life. The hound of hell, envy, has driven it from the house."

Hart's Damage, soontobeamajormotionpicture, worked as a parable of the price of infidelity. Sin functions as Lesson Two, and one can already feel the rumble of agents wrestling to secure for their client the role of the celluloid Ruth. However, for Sin to work, one must assume that our moral universe is governed by a wrathful God prepared to punish the wicked, and reward the good with the quiet pleasure of a clear conscience. If only our lives, like Josephine Hart's fictional worlds, were so simple.