Monthly Archives: August 2020

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Benefits was written by a woman almost exactly the same age as me. We were young at that time: 31 years old. It was Zoe Fairbairns’ third novel. In Benefits she presents us with a vision of the future, seen from 1979, in which women continued to be controlled by technical, political and chemical means. It’s always attractive to consider what a writer got wrong or right about  the future. The details are different, but we should remember that  today withholding benefits, Universal Credit, is used to punish the poor for any transgressions: failed appointments, mistakes, and unreported changes in circumstances. 

Benefits is my choice for the 1970s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). The Female Eunuch had been published in 1970 and The Feminine Mystique in 1963.  Women were widely involved in feminism and women’s liberation. Consciousness raising groups of women were everywhere. Benefits rises out of the concerns of the late 70s.

Benefits

Set in a dystopian future beginning in the late 1970s, women are threatened by a government that starts off by awarding benefits to mothers and gradually begins to control their lives through the benefits and then through an even more sinister project.

The story follows two women. One is Lynn, a kind of middle of the road feminist, who is not unhappily married, has a daughter with a chronic illness, and who participates in the commune in the abandoned high rise: Collindeane Tower.

Marsha also drifts into the orbit of the commune, and takes up with Polly, a bossy Australian feminist who would like to take charge, but ultimately flees back to Oz, taking Marsha with her.

Another character is David Laing, a former social worker with a coffee habit and a controlling nature who becomes a minister. He is able to see the problems with the welfare system at the start of the novel, but is unable to engage sufficiently with the women who he knows. Peel, his subordinate and later his successor,  has a damning view of Laing, an early expression of the anti-boomers rhetoric we still hear today. 

He was of the soft generation, of the post-war guilt-ridden child-obsessed baby boom. They rode a roller coaster of gratuities: free milk, free cod liver oil, free schools, free medicine, free grants to go to college … it was Peel’s view that the trauma of the seventies, the sudden realisation that the party was over and they couldn’t get what they wanted by slapping on the label rights and howling, had blighted the generation for life, had rendered them incapable of understanding how life works. (168)

The policy shifts and changes, beginning with the benevolence of benefits paid into the purses of mothers, objected to by trades unions which were dominated by men who did not want to pay more taxes for the benefits; subsequently compliance was required to qualify for the benefits and ultimately to control women through narrow qualifications.

Any woman of child-bearing age seen on the streets without children in tow ran the risk of being stoned, spat on or refused admission to public buildings or transport. Some reported attacks by gangs of men who threatened a repetition if the women did not go back to their children. The policemen wrote down the details carefully. Then they said, ‘Are you sure you didn’t ask for it?’ (140)

Ultimately, as part of a shady deal with Europop to control women’s fecundity through chemical means, the whole thing unravels, helped by the violent death of Laing and the inspired children’s strike by women. 

Women’s issues

In the ‘70s women were struggling with question about organisation, living arrangements, leadership and how to improve their lives. Has that changed? Women’s lived experience must be put up against policy to check its value. By interweaving the stories of Lynn and Marsha and others, the author is able to show how distorted were the governments seeking to control women.

Of course Zoe Fairbairns did not know about Mrs Thatcher’s government and where it would take us in terms of cutting back the welfare state, and the industrial economy. She did not see the political division over the closing of the mines or the Falklands War, the Poll Tax and later the Iraqi war and years of austerity, let alone Covid-19. 

But the desire to control people, especially women, by those in political power remains. Today some of it is by the appeal to a past that did not exist, to ideas that are corroded and by denying or ignoring the outcomes of poor decisions and actions.

Zoe Fairbairns

Born in 1948, she began her writing career early, having two books published before she left university. She worked in women’s publications and journalism, including Spare Rib and continued to publish novels and short stories. Her most recent book is on writing short stories. 

Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979) published by Virago. 214 pp 

The Decades Project 2020

In 2020 I am exploring previously published novels by women. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The most recent  choices for the project are

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) 

A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)

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Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Not all jolly hockey sticks then!

During Lockdown many readers have become quite nostalgic. Some even pine for their schooldays. Not me. But it turned my mind to the wealth of adult fiction that involves girls’ schools and more specifically girls’ boarding schools.

The setting provides a number of useful features for an author:

  • Action is confined in space (the school grounds) and time (the school terms)
  • Action is set against a routine of lessons, games and prep
  • Relationships are intensified 
  • Contrasts between girls of the same age are brought into relief
  • Parents are absent
  • Power relationships play out: older-younger pupils; teachers-pupils; boarding-day pupils; established-new girls
  • The outside world is both alluring and a danger
  • The girls are usually in a state of transition into adulthood.

And it is perhaps this last feature that has inspired so many writers to explore those vital school years.

Boarding Schools Books

Here are six including some with links to posts on Bookword:

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil (1926)

Mollie and Joan meet at Allendale School. The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband. Joan can see that she will need to earn a living and Mollie’s father turns out to be a crook so the girls learn to rely upon each other.

The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Loyalty is a key theme.

(Published by Blackie & Sons)

Frost in May by Antonia White (1933)

Somehow I had neglected this book, even though it was frequently quoted in the education literature. It’s nearly a textbook on how not to educate a girl, is liberal education, how to ‘break’ the child’s spirit. 

It’s a beautiful evocation of childhood and that moment when a child is poised to take on the world, but not yet powerful enough to get her own way, and which is actually a good thing. The child, Nanda, in the end falls foul of the convent and her convert father. One cheers. 

Lovely introduction by Elizabeth Bowen (in 1948) who calls it a work of art.

(Published in Virago Modern Classics)

Consequences by EM Delafield (1919)

Consequences is hard to read, kept me awake at night, because the protagonist, Alex, was damaged by her family and her education. In its quiet way this is a tragedy.

Alex Clare is born into an upper-class family, not especially rich, with a catholic father and she is the oldest child of 5. Her parents hold old-fashioned views about what girls should be, do and look like. She is expected to grow up as they require, come out as a debutante, find a husband and repeat the cycle for her own daughters.

But Alex is not able to follow this trajectory. Not especially beautiful, clever, or able to see what her parents want of her she craves affection, and when she causes her younger sister to have an accident she is sent off to a convent in Belgium to be put right. She develops a ‘pash’ for fellow student Queenie Torrance, and later she transfers affection first to Mother Gertrude and then to her sister-in-law.

On her return she still receives no guidance but is introduced to the social scene in London and becomes engaged to a selfish and boring young man. When she realises that engagement to such a vapid young man would not be right she runs off to become a nun under the influence of Mother Superior Gertrude. It does not end well for her.

Alex has had no support or guidance of any worth, including from her school, to achieve this. It’s a searing and feminist account of a damaging upbringing. It is hard to read because one can only imagine all the many young women who were as oppressed as Alex.

(Published by Persephone Books)

E.M. Delafield by Howard Coster. Bromide print 1930s. NPG x 10670. Used under Creative Commons Agreement, with thanks to the National Portrait Gallery.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970)

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix (2020)

A long book but a gripping story. It is 1943 and Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. So a father sends his daughter away to school. How will Georgina survive the separation? How will she fit in as she offends the girls with whom she must live? The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: has personal possessions, for example.

The father, the General, has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if she is found. He heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. It turns out that the children’s guardian angel (Abigail, a statue with a pitcher in which you place your letter of request in the garden)  and the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with his network they manage to save Gina. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.

Gina has to learn to trust others and that danger can be found outside the school she longed to escape from.

(Published by Macelhose Press)

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Who could forget Lucy Snowe who goes to work as a teacher in Belgium and falls for M Paul Emanuel, an esteemed teacher at the school? Lucy is a passive young woman to whom terrible things keep happening, and I have never thought much of this heroine.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

Lowood is a charity school for poor and orphaned children to which Jane Eyre is sent when her aunt tires of her. The headmaster Mr Brocklehurst is cruel and the girls suffer under his rule. Jane befriends Helen, who dies in a typhus outbreak at the school. Jane spends six years as a pupil and two more as a teacher in Lowood before she goes as a governess to Thornfield Hall. 

Lowood is important in Jane’s development, especially because of the example set by her friend Helen and the guidance of one teacher, Miss Temple.

Boarding schools especially religious ones, do not come out of this brief survey very well. Or perhaps it is the parenting that is the focus of the criticism. Unloving parents and guardians who pack their awkward girls off for someone else to put them right.

Other novelists have their heroines teach themselves: Mary Oliver: a life by May Sinclair, for example. 

Can you suggest any more girls’ school novels? What have I missed?

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