I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)?
Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions.
This is a work of fiction. But mostly fact. [epigraph]
Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career.
She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.
Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.
‘Young women, young futures.’ ‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’ ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’
I don’t want to be anyone.
On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)
She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.
Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these.
The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction.
Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp
About 100 years ago Lloyd George, the wartime UK prime minister, was accused of selling peerages. Sound familiar? In this novel, one was awarded to Mr Potter, the founder of a chain of publications that had done exceptionally loyal work during the war. Another current concern that has its roots in those days was the attitude, in the press as much as in wider society, of British exceptionalism, ‘we hate all foreigners’ (47). Potterism, published in 1920, was Rose Macaulay’s 10th novel and her first best seller. Rose Macaulay had something to say about this attitude, especially when expressed as anti-Semitism. She was an advocate of values, truth and integrity.
I am grateful to Kate Macdonald for the advance copy from Handheld Press. Potterism is published on 24thAugust 2020 as is a collection of Rose Macaulay’s anti-war writings, including her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, written in 1916.
Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract
Potterism was a kind of attitude which Rose Macaulay tries to define and subvert in this novel. It was named for the publisher of a paper which appeals to low tastes, nationalism and a dislike of others. The Potter publishing empire is complacent, smug, conservative and without concern for the truth. One might have thought it was modelled on Lord Rothermere, a bit like the Daily Mail, only Lord Rothermere himself appears in the novel.
The Anti-Potterism League consists of a few Oxford intellectuals, including the twin children of Mr and Mrs Potter. Jane and Johnny both dislike what their father’s papers stand for, and their mother’s romantic fiction. Other members of the League include Arthur Gideon, son of a Jewish émigré, Jukes, a clergyman and Katherine Varick, a scientist.
Gideon is the leader of this group, and has the clearest idea of what feeds Potterism.
… Potterism has, for one of its surest bases, fear. The other bases are ignorance, vulgarity, mental laziness, sentimentality, and greed. The ignorance that does not know facts; the vulgarity that cannot appreciate values; the laziness which will not try to learn either of these things; the sentimentality which, knowing neither, is stirred by the valueless and the untrue; the greed which grabs and exploits. But fear is worst; the fear of public opinion, the fear of scandal, the fear of independent thought, of loss of position, of discomfort, of consequences, of truth. (72)
The start of the novel lays out the relationships between these people and then the war with Germany arrives. Gender divides them as the men volunteer and go off to war, Gideon is wounded, losing a foot. Johnny escapes with no injuries. Mr Potter’s newspapers adopt the most nationalistic and propogandist attitudes they can. Truth becomes less of a consideration still.
No one could say that the Potter press did not rise to the great opportunity. The press seldom fails to do this. The Potter press surpassed itself, it nearly surpassed its great rival presses. With energy and whole-heartedness it cheered, comforted, and stimulated the people. It never failed to say how well the Allies were getting on, how much ammunition they had, how many men, what indomitable tenacity and cheerful spirits enlivened the trenches. The correspondents it employed wrote home rejoicing; its leading articles were notable hymns of praise. In times of darkness and travail one cannot but be glad of such a press as this. So glad were the Government of it that Mr Potter became, at the end of the 1916, Lord Pinkerton, and his press the Pinkerton press. (31-2)
After the war Jane tries to get a job and goes to the Paris peace conference as her father’s secretary where she meets the Adonis that is Oliver Hobart. He did not fight in the war, strings being pulled by Potter to ensure his exemption. He is very beautiful and the editor of the flagship Potter newspaper: the Haste. He begins by courting Claire, Jane’s older sister, but soon transfers his affections and marries Jane. Arthur Gideon gets a job on the rival paper to the Potterist publication called Fact but it never achieves a wide circulation.
There is then a murder as Oliver Hobart falls downstairs and is killed. Who killed him? Gideon and Jane are in love and each thinks the other responsible. But in the time before the murderer is revealed several people get to put their opinions, including Mrs Potter who assumes it was Gideon because he is a Jew.
All is resolved and Jane is free to marry Gideon.
Gender in Potterism
Rose Macaulay was a lifelong feminist and through the device of the twins, Jane and Johnny, she captures the different experiences resulting from their different genders. Jane is the cleverer, but it is Johnny who can go and fight and find a job after the war. And he doesn’t have to have babies, an idea which disgusts Jane. Jane is not a very sympathetic character, despite being a member of the Anti-Potterism League. She is greedy and selfish and not much concerned about anyone but herself.
The scientist, Katherine Varik, appears calmer than Jane, and less greedy and selfish. Her voice is one of reason. At home she continues her scientific experiments in her laboratory, despite the uncertainty in her circle. There are not many female scientists in literature of that time I think.
Structure in Potterism
The first and last sections of this novel are narrated by RM (Rose Macaulay?). The central chapters are narrated in turn in the first person by Gideon, Leila Yorke (which is the pen name of Mrs Potter), Katherine Varik and Laurence Juke, who has become a deacon in the Anglican church despite being a bit of a radical. By using these voices the writer is able to emphasise different aspects of her concerns. For example, the section narrated by Leila Yorke is so full of conceitedness, so smug, so anti-Semitic that one cringes on reading it. We know, then, that Mrs Potter’s conclusion that the murder was committed by Gideon is not founded on anything more than prejudice. Both Juke and Katherine offer less histrionic versions of the events.
This use of multiple inner voices was somewhat new at the time. Virginia Woolf uses it in Mrs Dalloway, published 5 years after Potterism. In that novel the shifts between voices are made without the signposts that are given to the reader by Rose Macaulay.
Here is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Potterism (her 10th novel) was one of the first to sell well, but perhaps her best known is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And she has things to say to us today, as I have tried to indicate. And Handheld books are beautifully produced and designed.
Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1920and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020 with an introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. 247pp
Other relevant on-line commentaries
Stuck in a Book reviewed Potterism as part of the #1920Club in April. And the publisher of the new edition wrote about it on her blog katemacdonald in January 2015 and has suggestions for further reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
Does Queenie deserve its reputation? A recommendation by Bernardine Evaristo is a reliable endorsement. This lively first novel has also been doing well in those literary prizes: Fiction Book of the Year 2020 in the British Book Awards, longlisted in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, shortlisted for the First Novel Award by Costa, Blackwell’s Book of the Year 2019.
Stig Abell, former editor of the TLS, and a judge of the British Book Awards described its merits in this way:
This is a novel of our time, filled with wit, wisdom and urgency, and unafraid to tackle life as it is being experienced by a young, single black woman in the city. This shouldn’t be filed away as simply a funny debut by a brilliant writer (though it is that); this is an important meditation on friendship, love and race.
It is funny and brilliant and accessible and powerful.
Queenie, 26, is a journalist living and working in London and the narrator of this story. It begins as she and her white boyfriend separate. She believes it will be temporary. The reader knows that it is likely to be permanent, but we understand hope. While she waits for him to decide she embarks on a series of short-lived relationships with men, mostly white, mostly found on-line and including a colleague.
She is usually somewhat reluctant to get into bed with them, but is persuaded by drink and because they are insistent and she likes to please. Life gets harder for her as the weeks turn into months and she is worried that Tom has not been in touch; that her sexual health may be in danger so she visits a clinic; her work is being neglected and her boss is noticing; and she slips further and further into debt with a friend.
Queenie’s life comes to a terrible halt when it emerges that one of sex partners is actually the boyfriend of one of her best friends. All at once she loses her friend, her job, her accommodation. Not all of this is directly her fault, as some of the men treat her very badly indeed.
She gradually restores herself and her life with the help of her Jamaican origin grandparents, her friends and a counsellor. Her experience of abuse and neglect in her past is revealed and much of her response to her situation is explained by this. She emerges wiser and bruised.
This is a fast-paced book, and one which is easy to read, to keep turning the pages. I liked the way that emails and text messages were included. The Corgis who provide a chorus of comment and advice on her actions are an excellent device. And the interactions of the Jamaican grandparents are very funny: I loved the way they shout out at night if Queenie gets out of bed, and how they are won over to supporting her receiving counselling.
The most endearing quality of this novel is Queenie herself: spirited, doubting, reflective and both revealing and guarded at the same time. Her character is well drawn and develops through the novel. Reading it, I certainly felt that Queenie deserved much better from the men that cross her path and has a valuable, loving resource in her friends.
The story of Queenie is suffused with inescapable racism. Her counsellor, Janet, reminds her that she can’t carry the pain of the whole race.
‘It’s not a burden I’m taking on, it’s one that’s just here.’ I could feel anger building in my chest. ‘I can’t pick it up drop it.’ ‘Is that how you see it?’ asked Janet as calmly as she could in an attempt to counter my distress. ‘That’s how it is.’ I started to get louder. ‘I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the tube, at work, in the canteen. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.’ I listed off all my usual descriptions on my fingers. ‘There are ones people think are nice, though: well spoken, surprisingly intelligent, exotic. My favourite is ‘sexy’, I think. I guess I should be grateful for any attention at all. […] Do you know how that feels, Janet?’ ‘No. Queenie, I don’t.’ (325)
All the black characters are subjected to racism, in subtle or overt ways. I responded to this passage by remembering how outspoken women are treated. Queenie is responding with the multiplier of ethnicity. And her experience is that she is frequently seen as sexually available for all men, much more frequently than white women are. So like Janet, I don’t know how that feels. Which is one reason why novels such as this one are important for white readers.
Like a mantra, throughout the text the message is repeated: We are enough. Each of us is enough. Each person is enough.
I look forward to Candice Carty-Williams’s next novel.
Women of ClourQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams (2019) published by Trapeze. 392pp
It was more than a little shocking in the 1960s that this novel began with a 15 year old’s awakening sexuality, and a girl’s at that. Angela Carter was excellent at shocking people into questioning their assumptions, and she certainly did this in The Magic Toyshop.
It was her second novel, first published 1967, and reissued by Virago in 1981. This is my choice for the 1960s in the Decades Project 2020 (see below). Feminism is being openly canvassed from this decade which can be seen in the emergence of new writing by women.
The Magic Toyshop
Melanie (15) has lived a comfortable life with well-off parents, a younger brother (Jonathon 12 who is mad on model shops) and Victoria (5 but still babied). At the start of the novel their parents are absent in America. Melanie discovers her mother’s wedding dress and tries it on one evening and exults in its sensuality. The dress is ruined when she is locked out and has to climb back in up a pear tree. When her parents are killed in the Grand Canyon she sees herself as responsible.
The children are sent to live in London with their Uncle Philip who carves toys in wood and who runs the toyshop. They soon find that the household is larger than they knew: he has married Margaret, who became mute at her marriage. That is such a powerful image. Her two brothers also live in the house above the toyshop, and Finn is apprenticed to the toymaker. Francie is a fiddler.
Phillip is a patriarchal bully. He believes girls should not wear trousers or speak unless spoken to. His word is law, and he browbeats all the household. His passion is to make nearly life-size puppets and to enact playlets with these. The only audience is the household.
The Freudian undercurrents are many. One of the enactments is the swan’s rape of Leda, played by Melanie. To look smart Margaret wears an unflattering grey dress and a silver choker made by her husband.
The dress fell straight from her shoulders to a hem mid-way down her shins in a long, vertical line. It fitted her badly, barely skimming her body and catching on her bony hips. It was difficult to imagine she bought the dress on purpose, had one fine day long past go into a shop and tried on dress after dress and, finally, taking this grey and unbecoming tube of cloth from a rack laden with many-coloured garments, slipped it over her head, examined herself fore and aft in the changing room mirror, smiled with pleasure, clapped her hands in approval and said to herself: ‘This is lovely, this is the very thing,’ while a curled, perfumed salesgirl hovered, saying: ‘But it’s perfectly you madam.’ (111-112)
The choker is designed to fulfil its function if she moves too much. ‘It was heavy, crippling and precious …’ (112).
The story follows the developing relationship between Finn and Melanie, as they observe how Philip treats each of them: physical abuse for Finn and neglect and then sexual abuse for Melanie. The two take tentative steps towards their own relationship, and find strength with each other to finally rebel.
At night, in the garden, they faced each other in a wild surmise. (200)
This fantastic tale, which ends in incest and a conflagration and the possible death of the two younger children, is not a simple contrast between goodness and wickedness, youth and age, or even wicked masculinity vs the goodness of femininity. It has complexity in its themes of love and abuse, adult and adolescent sexuality, play and life, reality and magic. Even the title has an ambiguity or two: a commercial venture that is magical, simultaneously of the adult and the juvenile worlds. The title also indicates that this is not a story of social realism. It’s powerful, rich and very imaginative.
I loved its magic, its sensuality and the creative way in which abusive behaviour is revealed and gets its comeuppance.
Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) was born in Eastbourne, UK. She spent some of her childhood with her grandmother in Yorkshire as an evacuee. After school she followed her father into journalism, and then, having married and moved to Bristol, went to Bristol University.
She left her husband and began travelling, spending two years in Tokyo, and visiting other parts of the world. She returned to write professionally, novels, short stories, articles, as an editor and translator and in TV, film and radio.
Her biographer Edmund Gordon refers to her ‘subversive intelligence’ which contrasted with the sober social realists who dominated fiction in the ‘60s in the UK. She continued to write, combining her taste for playful, gothic, humorous, science fiction, fairy tales, and fantastical surrealism.
She was not a joiner, but energetically pursued her individual values and beliefs in her writing. Edmund Gordon suggests that she has been subjected to mythmaking since her early death, and I think I have been afraid of reading her work because of the myths. The Magic Toyshop has changed my mind. She has so much to say still today.
The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (2017)
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, first published in 1967. Virago Modern Classic edition released in 1981, which is the edition I used. 200 pp
The Decades Project 2020
This year 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.
Are there any readers who have failed to notice this book? It won the Booker Prize 2019; it is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020. It sparkles. It’s about 12 people – girls, women and one other. I am highly recommending it.
Girl, Woman, Other
This is a long book, divided into five chapters and including an epilogue. The first four chapters each feature the stories of three people. Each story is connected to others in this collection, and the connections help it to zip along with energy.
Its epicentre is London, a London with which I became very familiar and where I lived and worked for 35 years. Most of that time I lived in Hackney, and worked either in the city’s secondary schools or at the Institute of Education, which was part of the University of London at that time, teaching teachers on masters and doctoral courses.
During that time the so-called Second Wave of feminism died down, although those of us struggling in a discriminatory world did not feel that we were in any way in post-feminist times. During that time, girls were still experiencing growing up on terms decided by men. There remained a great deal of discrimination, on the grounds of class, ethnicity and gender identity. It was hard for the young people in the schools, and hard for young women in the poorer areas.
Bernardine Evaristo covers this ground, and more. Her imaginative ability to conjure up these lives interacted with my memory of these times, and added the important ingredient of experiences of minority ethnicities.
Her characters engage with discrimination, migration, heredity, gender identity, marriage, parenthood, abusive relationships, struggles with education, employment, and so on. So much of life is here, with a female and black emphasis.
She has written beautifully about this kind of territory before, not least in Mr Loverman, set in the Hackney I knew, it could almost have been in my street!
What the judges saw
Passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour, a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … Dazzling. [Booker Judges quoted on the cover, quoted on the back cover of the Penguin edition]
There is so much to enjoy in this book, not least the way in which it is written. I do not recall another book that has so many main characters, and which links their lives in ways which illuminate their own and other stories. The multiple stories are told vividly, and not restricted to London or to suffering although every person featured, like every person on the planet, has to engage with the difficulties and beauties of life.
And she has adopted a somewhat restless style of writing: the text appears to be divided in traditional ways. There are chapters, with subdivision within them. On the page the text appears to be in paragraphs, but they are constructed of a main sentence or starter and then continue with a series of subclauses. Here’s an example from the start of the novel:
Chapter One Amma 1 Amma is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons to her right is the bend in the river as it heads east past Waterloo Bridge towards the dome of St Paul’s she feels the sun begin to rise, the air still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes a violinist plays something suitably uplifting further along the promenade Amma’s play, The Last Amazon of Dahomey, opens at the National tonight (1)
I love the way this innovative form allows for multiple experiences, unfinished ideas, variation, and, in this opening statement, tells us a everything we need to know about who is featured, where and when and it alerts us to a significant event later that same day.
As I say, I highly recommend it and I am sorry our book group decided to read eleven other books this year, I would have liked to have discussed it with them. Maybe next year. But my enthusiasm has confirmed my daughter’s interest, especially as I told her she will find her school and college friends here, and our neighbours from when she was growing up.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019). I read the Penguin paperback edition. 453pp
A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).
In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.
The reversibility test
In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.
For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus.
From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women?
So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples:
The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)
It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life.
In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:
A career woman
The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called
And I might even have been described as a working mother.
Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …
So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist.
And there’s more
I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.
So what can we do?
Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …
Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist.
Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.
And another thing …
And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here
And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point.
In 2016 I had been looking at discrimination against female writers for three years on this blog and trying to make older women in particular more visible in fiction. At the time it also made sense to look at the barriers, if there were any, to older women authors. And anyway, Martin Amis, in his provocative way, made the following comment about older female writers:
You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70.
So back then I enlisted the support of another female writer, Anne Goodwin, and asked her to think about possible discrimination against older women writers. Her answers provided the material for a post which I posted on my blog. The comments that followed it are also interesting. You can see all that here: Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?
Since then …
Some evidence would suggest that some older women are being supported more to get their writing published. Here is some of the evidence together with some questions and answers that I put to Anne:
Anne Goodwin herself has published and self-published more books. She now has four to her name.
Sugar and Snails
Do you think the major publishing groups are still looking mostly for youth in the writers they support? What about the independents?
They’re looking for what will sell, which might be about the book or it might be about the person who wrote it. Naïvely, until I was published I didn’t appreciate just how commercial the whole enterprise is! Independent publishers, more motivated by the love of books than the money, are able to be more flexible, but they still need to put food on the table.
I think if the publisher can build an interesting story about the author it doesn’t matter how old she is: extreme age can be as fascinating as youth, especially if there’s a rags to riches element.
Another factor is that, if they’re thinking long term and investing in the author’s entire career, a younger author might have more years – and perhaps more books – ahead of her. On the other hand, since very few can earn their living through writing, an older author, especially if she has a pension, might be able to commit more time to publicity – and writing the next book.
2019 saw the inauguration of the Paul Torday Prize for writers of fiction who publish their first novel over the age of 60. It was won by Anne Youngson for Meet Me at the Museum. All the semi-finalists in the first year were women. I wrote about the prize and the winner here. Do you have any reactions to this prize?
I think it’s great, although 60 is starting to feel rather youthful!
Gransnet commissioned some research into older women readers and their preferences in reading. You can find a summary here. https://www.gransnet.com/online-surveys-product-tests/ageism-in-fiction The readers wanted to see characters of all ages and less stereotyping of older women. They were furious that so many older women were portrayed as fumbling with new technology and digital devices. Any thoughts about the evidence that readers want to see characters of all ages? And less stereotyping.
I had seen this and wondered what to make of a survey that lumps together all women over 40! And Gransnet as an umbrella term feeds into another stereotype. Otherwise, all I can say is “of course”.
The so-called grey pound might be a factor here too. More women have reached 60+, many of them have income to spend on their leisure, including on their reading. They expect to see more older women characters and writers. Do you think this will have an impact on publishing older women writers?
I hope so, although I meet a lot of older women in bookshops who don’t like the sound of my fiction. They either want something cosier or much darker – I can never get my head around the popularity of violent crime. On the other hand, U3A groups have been very supportive.
Here’s what Joanne Harris said recently (reported in Bookseller) about publishers promoting debuts:
Regardless of what it is that they write, as men get older they become veteran writers. As women get older, they get invisible and I think part of this is to do with the fact that women’s writing has always been seen as lesser in one way or another. If a man writes about relationships, he is writing about the universal condition and needs to be praised. If women write about relationships they are writing chick lit and everything they do is slightly diminished because of that. The idea is that women are there to please women, whereas men are there to enlighten posterity.
1 Sadly, because it’s ubiquitous in our culture, women can be as dismissive of other women’s contributions as men
2. I was shocked to learn last year that publishers push debuts because an author without a track record can be more attractive – at whatever age – to the book world because they haven’t yet failed to produce a bestseller. It means new authors have to hit the ground running and there’s little interest in learning on the job. Mid-list writers – who might also be older women – get pushed out.
3. Rubbish books do get published; some by men, some by women.
Bluemoose publishers are dedicating their efforts in 2020 to publishing women authors over 45. Is this kind of action useful?
I think so. Publishers can get so swamped with submissions it’s helpful to have some way of narrowing down their options, especially if that means supporting marginalised groups. Others are trying to prioritise submissions from people of colour.
Vanessa Gebbie ran a retreat to encourage writers, Never too late to do it, in February 2019. Are these kinds of courses likely to help?
Anything that challenges the notion that we stop growing, learning and developing as we get older seems good to me.
So the answer is …
Any thoughts about any of this?
Overall, I think how the individual writer feels about this is a function of internal and external factors. Since we exist in a patriarchal culture, where women’s power is feared and denigrated, there’s bound to be some prejudice in some quarters against female writers. And, as we don’t like reminders that we’ll all die eventually, youth is going to be celebrated and age ignored as much as possible. So, although I don’t think I’ve experienced age and gender discrimination, if an older woman writer tells me she has, I’m likely to believe her.
But how we feel about this personally must also depend on our own psychology and circumstances. When ageing is accompanied by multiple losses – bereavement, poverty, physical health – as it often is for women, discrimination is going to be harder to fight and/or to bear. I’m lucky that isn’t my situation – yet – and, although I have my share of grumbles like anyone else, I’m loving this stage of my life.
A final point: my writing depends on voice recognition software, which continually thwarts me with multiple errors. But I know it’s on my side as it persists in writing the word women as winning!
I must thank Anne Goodwin, the winning woman writer, for taking the time to think about my questions. You can find more about her books at her website Annethology: here
Here is another book about a spirited young woman who rejects what her parents intend for her: a life of submission and sacrifice. Just like the heroine and writer of the first in this series of the Decades Project, My Brilliant Career, May Sinclair describes how her protagonist, Mary Olivier, broke through to her own freedom. She also rejected marriage. This novel was first published in 1919.
This is the second book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1910-1919 republished by Virago.
Mary Olivier: A Life
We follow the life of Mary Olivier from her early years until her maturity, 1865 – 1910, in five books, written from Mary’s point of view but in the third person (or from time to time in the second person). We follow her through her struggles as the youngest child and only daughter in a middle class Victorian family. Here she is as she reached puberty.
Mamma whispered to Mrs. Draper, and Aunt Bella whispered to Mamma: “Fourteen.” They always made a mystery about being fourteen. They ought to have told her.
Her thoughts about her mother went up and down. Mamma was not helpless. She was not gentle. She was not really like a wounded bird. She was powerful and rather cruel. You could only appease her with piles of hemmed sheets and darned stockings. If you didn’t take care she would get hold of you and never let you rest till she had broken you, or turned and twisted you to her own will. She would say it was God’s will. She would think it was God’s will.
They might at least have told you about the pain. The knives of pain. You had to clench your fists till the fingers bit into the palms. Over the ear of the sofa cushions she could feel her hot eyes looking at her mother with resentment.
She thought: “You had no business to have me. You had no business to have me.” (124)
In many ways this is a book about the struggle between a mother, who is staunchly Christian and believes in a duty of sacrifice and submission for women and her daughter who is more independently spirited. Her mother is also very controlling using her meekness and dependence to manipulate her brothers and Mary into taking care of her, especially after the death of their father. In the book the love of ‘little mamma’ for Mary is always conditional and always comes after her devotion to her three sons.
In the chapter entitled Maturity, Mary is rejected by a man because she is no longer compliant. She herself would have rejected him, but for a while it makes her miserable, being jilted.
Mamma had left her alone with her [maiden] Aunt Lavvy.
“I suppose you think that nobody was ever so unhappy as you are,” Aunt Lavvy said.
‘I hope nobody is. I hope nobody ever will be.”
“Should you say I was unhappy?”
“You don’t look it. I hope you are not.”
“Thirty-three years ago I was miserable, because I couldn’t have my own way. I couldn’t marry the man I cared for.”
“Oh – that. Why didn’t you?”
“My mother and your father and your Uncle Victor wouldn’t let me.”
“”I suppose he was a Unitarian?”
“Yes. He was a Unitarian. But whatever he’d been I couldn’t have married him. I couldn’t do anything I liked. I couldn’t go where I liked or stay where I liked. I wanted to be a teacher but I had to give it up.”
“Because your Uncle Victor and I had to look after your Aunt Charlotte.” (221)
The novel is also about how, against the wishes of her mother, she teaches herself languages and philosophy and turns away all suitors. Sometimes this is because she is too independent, but when she finds a man she can love deeply and who is free to marry her, she still cannot bring herself to sacrifice her inner life.
Reflection on Mary Olivier
Much of the novel is Mary’s discussion of competing religious or philosophical positions. It’s a long book – too long – and some of her dilemmas about men’s affections or philosophy are repetitive. But it must have been something of a shock at the end of the WW1 to see a woman’s intellectual life so favoured. Nevertheless she was a much-read and popular writer.
The protest against a life of sacrifice for women has a long history. Here we see the pressures from social convention, religious beliefs, and lack of role models for young women to pursue education at that time. In this novel the restrictions are policed by the mother. I was reminded of Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton (1953).
Another view of this novel, looking at May Sinclair’s neglected status, can be found on Heavenali’s blog last January.
May Sinclair 1863-1946
In some ways this novel is autobiographical, although it might be more accurate to say that it drew on the author’s experiences. She knew what it was to have a father who suffered from alcoholism, and to have brothers who died young. She also cared for her mother, earning their living by writing. And she too educated herself.
There are some experimental aspects of this novel. For example her use of language to reflect the age of the protagonist: simple vocabulary and short sentences in infancy. She moved freely between using the 3rd person (he/she) and the 2nd person (you) and this seems to signal a moment of reflection about her inner life. In the last two pages she uses the first person: If it never came again I should remember. (380)
She had written her first novel in 1897, Audrey Craven, and Mary Olivier: a life was her 13th published novel. She wrote 23 in all. She was a poet, critic and essayist. She moved in literary circles in London, unlike Mary Olivier, and was an active suffragette. With such achievements she deserves to be rescued from obscurity.
Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair was first published in 1919. It was reissued by Virago in 1980. 380pp
The Decades Project 2020
This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury 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. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries.