My second contribution to the #1965Club is the novella Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster. I must have read it in my teens, and I probably saw the film as well at some point, but I had no idea that the song by The Seekers was written specially for that film.
It is the book that was most mentioned in the obituaries of Margaret Forster in 2016, the book by which she will be most remembered, although she wrote more than 25 novels, as well as well-regarded memoirs and biographies. Georgy Girl was one of her first novels and became an instant bestseller, perhaps because it captured the mood of London’s Swinging Sixties so well.
George is a young working class girl who has had the privilege of a middle-class upbringing. Her parents work for a wealthy childless gentleman who has brought her up as his own daughter, sent her to a posh boarding school and even to a finishing school in Switzerland. Yet, despite her background (or perhaps because of it, because she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere), she lacks self-confidence. She is playful and fun, but quite naive and doesn’t know how to conform. Furthermore, she feels gauche and ugly, and is inclined to bouts of self-pity.
She didn’t see how she could ever stop looking like a caricature. It was something to do with her face being too long and big and her damned hair being the way it was.
Yet her small acts of rebellion, such as a dramatic haircut, do not end well. She earns her living giving dance lessons to children and shares a flat with the pretty but selfish Meredith, who takes advantage of George’s motherly instincts. Described as a ‘warm-hearted ugly duckling’ by reviewers of the book at the time, it is clear that, despite her lack of self-esteem, George has a special charm of her own, since both Meredith’s boyfriend Jos and her ‘uncle’ James fall for her. There might be some wish fulfilment at work here, but one with a very unusual twist: Cinderella looks more like an ugly stepsister, yet she gets her prince… or at least a mutually beneficial but essentially loveless contract.
It was just the dawn of the sexual revolution and Women’s Lib, so George’s pragmatic approach to life and love, her refusal to give up on her principles for the sake of a man and her frank admission of her carnal desires, must have been quite revolutionary at the time. Certainly the ménage à trois that George, Jos and Meredith engage in must have ruffled feathers at the time, as would the cynical calculations about George’s future. I have no doubt there were plenty of others marrying older men for money and security rather than love, but it wasn’t necessarily as explicit.
Although the book could be interpreted as a bit of fun, it did leave me with a slightly nasty aftertaste. George is presented to us as a survivor, we are encouraged to root for her throughout the book, yet at the end she is still in bondage, although in bonds of her own choosing. Yet, to what extent were her choices limited because of her sex, her class and the age she lived in?
I did not have internet access at my B&B while I was in Hay, and the Wifi access on the Festival site was patchy at times, so I only tweeted occasionally but was unable to give a day by day account of the three days I spent at the Hay Festival. So I will have to write several posts to discuss the panels, discussions, personal thoughts and book buying binges that all took place during those amazingly rich days.
After an adventurous trip led by the GPS across cattle grids, narrow one-lane roads, Brecon nature reserve with sheep and horses following my car curiously and a pallour of fog hanging over me, I finally made it to my B&B just outside Hay on Wye. The weather was atrocious. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day accompanied by power failures, but by the afternoon it was merely raining heavily, and it kept it up for most of the weekend. Luckily, the organisers are prepared for the Welsh climate and there are plenty of tent-like structures everywhere, plus covered walkways between them, so this is not Glastonbury levels of mud (although one year it was apparently more like Hay IN Wye). And of course, as soon as any ray of sun came out, everyone was milling about on the wet grass and deckchairs. You have to admire British resilience!
I was sensible on Friday afternoon and allowed myself plenty of time between the two events I attended. There is a downside to that, however: too much time to browse both in the Festival bookshop and the second-hand bookshop run by Oxfam. My total book tally by the end of the weekend was 27 (many second-hand, and all the new ones signed by the authors), although I feel very virtuous that two of those are for my boys. I suppose I’ll have to write a separate post about the book haul.
The first day was all about debate rather than literature. The first panel featured researchers from the University of Cambridge Helena Sanson (Italian studies), Prof Bill Byrne and Marcus Tomalin talking about machine translation. I was amused to hear how algorithms transform words into numbers (with all the lack of subtlety one might expect), and that the BLEU score for establishing the accuracy of a translated text can lead to garbage results. It felt a little bit like the conversations between me and WB – with me as the human translator and him as the machine translation. The key message was that machine translation can increase a professional translator’s productivity or help in the case of basic, technical and repetitive texts, but human translators are unlikely to be supplanted by it anytime soon. What unnerved me slightly was the more sinister message about the fate of the so-called minority languages, the ones spoken by few people. Of the approximately 6000 languages in the world, Google Translate covers only 130, so less than 2%. This is unlikely to change, as it’s costly to train machines to learn the equivalences between languages, so the money for research will flow into the languages where there is a lot of potential for application (and where there are already lots of examples in place). The preservation of smaller languages will have to rely on charities, research councils, public initiatives… so many will die. Plus, does this artificial preservation of a dead language in a showcase really help? As an anthropologist who has listened to recordings of natives speaking now defunct languages, I can confidently say that these are meaningless without knowledge of the cultural context surrounding it.
The second panel (attended by fewer people and most of them women) was organised by the University of Worcester, and included academics Maggie Andrews (consultant on the BBC programme Home Front), Sarah Greer, Krista Cowman (consultant on the Sufragettes film), Anna Muggeridge (Ph.D. student researching women’s work in the Black Country) and Dana Denis-Smith (founder of Obelisk Support for women lawyers, who started an initiative about telling stories from the first 100 years since women entered the professions in 1919). The title of the session was: Is 2018 going to go down in history as the year of lasting change in women’s rights?
And the answers of the panel matched my own not very optimistic one (although I’d be happily proved wrong). Although it has become much more acceptable to define yourself as a feminist than it was 5-10 years ago, the panel felt that it was almost like clicking Like on a Facebook page, that #MeToo is still very much a privileged white middle-class movement and that 2018 happened to coincide with a lot of anniversaries but by 2019 it might feel already like ‘it’s been done, it’s over now and we can move back to life as usual’.
There was also a warning that progress for women’s rights always seem to take a step backwards when bigger events overshadow them (world wars, Vietnam war and oil crisis, austerity government and economic crash and Brexit), yet women are the ones that get disproportionately hit by these.
One important point that the panel made was that a lesson contemporary feminists might learn from suffragettes is that we should focus on a single issue and really fight hard for that. However, it all unravelled a little when it came to defining what that single issue might be even amongst the panel (let alone across the world). Opinions were split between equal pay, social care and precarious work, extending Me Too to all women everywhere, valuing women’s work more. I really liked Dana Denis-Smith’s comment that we devalue women’s work so much that as soon as women enter a particular bastion of men’s work, that also becomes devalued and starts paying less (women in accountancy or solicitors for example).
One final thought on today’s post about Hay, before we move on to literature, was that although some care was taken in programming a diversity of writers, the audience was still predominantly white middle-class (with a tendency to upper). This is perhaps not surprising considering how expensive it is to attend. I don’t even want to calculate the total amount spent, for fear it will give me a panic attack, but add up: petrol costs, B&B, overpriced food at the festival (£9 for a burger – without any extras, £3.50 for a coffee), parking, £7 entrance fee on average for every panel…
So I was not surprised to find lots of yummy mummies sipping Prosecco and gentlemen with straw hats, pink trousers and kerchiefs, children dressed in muddy designer clothes and wellies called Freya, Sebastian, Benedict and Isla. However, I also started chatting to lots of wonderful people in the queues: sheep farmers from the local area, translators, Americans, Irish, Sri Lankans. And of course I do wonder how much of the earnings of the festival gets ploughed back into the local community – or do the organisers just pack up their tents at the end of it all and take all the money and leave? As my B&B host said: ‘At least for 10 days a year most people in Hay can make a little money from renting out their rooms or fields.’
Watching the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is proving to be a very traumatic experience for me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it to the end. Let me share a little bit of the reason why, although it is far bigger than the examples I mention below.
It’s not surprising that when the book was published in 1985, it was banned in Romania. This, despite the fact that it was set in America (we liked showing the corruption and failure of capitalist society) and showed the pitfalls of a society heavily influenced by religion (religion is the opium of the people and us Communists were proudly atheist).
It’s obvious, however, that the Republic of Gilead symbolises any totalitarian state which imposes a single way of thinking, is harsh with anyone who dares to be different and brutally suppresses any form of dissent. Above all, it provided a striking parallel to Romania itself, that ‘paradise’ where everybody knew their place and worked for the greater good, and enjoyed the illusory safety of law and order (never mind how it was achieved). It was also one of the few countries of the world at the time where the state controlled women’s reproduction. The reason behind it was to produce enough citizens to lead the socialist revolution and build our glorious communist future.
I was a product of the law, one of the so-called ‘decreței’ (children born following Decree 770 introduced in 1967), banning any form of contraception and abortion. My mother suffered from heart disease and the doctors were not sure it was wise for her to have a child. She had me, but her health deteriorated sufficiently after that, that she was allowed to get away without having any more children. Other women were not so fortunate. There were only a few cases where you might be exempt from the rule:
if you were over the age of 45
if you already had 4 children (later raised to five)
if you had a life-threatening disease and would be unable to bear to term
if your pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (but see below about pregnancy tests for 14 year olds)
Contraceptives were not available at all and any doctors or nurses found giving them out (let alone performing abortions) were imprisoned.
Families continued to attempt to obtain black market contraceptives from abroad (there would be day trips to special markets for these in Yugoslavia), but many of them had expired or had potential side-effects, since they were given without any medical supervision. Plus you were always in danger of getting caught smuggling them in. Many women died or were permanently damaged having illegal abortions.
It was worse, of course, for those who could not afford children or smuggled contraceptives, since your extra bonus from the state for being a ‘heroine mother’ (additional benefits) only kicked in once you had eight or more children. Many women tried to disguise the pregnancies for as long as possible, wearing tight corsets or drinking strange concoctions to provoke a miscarriage. As a result, there was a high proportion of children born with malformations, health problems, general failure to thrive. Most of them ended up in orphanages, as did the children of women who had illicit affairs with foreign students (any physical contact with foreigners was punishable with imprisonment), especially when it was obvious that the child was mixed race.
From the age of 14 until 45, all women were required to go twice a year to have a gynaecological test. In fact, if you went to the doctor with any other ailment, you were sent to have a check for pregnancy anyway. Of course, if you were pregnant, you were then strictly monitored to make sure that you carried to term. If you suffered a natural miscarriage, you could be taken to court and had to prove your innocence.
So that is the general picture. We all knew someone who had suffered from this law. A family friend who was a nurse was constantly persecuted and questioned, although she had only once referred a woman who fitted the legal criteria for an abortion. The wife of another friend, who was a talented professional singer, died following an infection after an illegal abortion and left behind two young children. (The reason I mention her profession is because there was the mistaken belief that only the poor were subjected to these harsh conditions, but it affected everyone.) Two of my classmates were forced to marry in the final year of high school when she could no longer disguise her pregnancy, but their child was born with severe birth defects and died less than a year later. Their marriage only lasted two years.
So there was suffering by proxy and also the direct experience. I was 14 when I returned to Romania and had barely ever kissed a boy, let alone had sex. Yet there I was, obliged to go through the rough handling by (always male, as far as I can remember) doctors. I will never forget my first time there, which marked the end of any trusting relationship with my mother.
I had scoliosis, but before I could get a referral for physiotherapy, I had to undergo the obligatory gyno-examination. A whole generation of doctors had not used contraceptives for 20 years, so they were very ignorant about anything to do with birth control or even developments in female sanitary products. Sanitary pads and tampons were not available in Romania until after the fall of the Wall, so the brash middle-aged gynaecologist had no idea that I was using Tampax or what effect it might have on the female anatomy. Of course, he didn’t bother to ask any questions, although I was so young.
So, after much prodding and shaking of the head, he turned and said to my mother: ‘So… she’s been a bit of a naughty girl, hasn’t she? No longer a virgin, I can see…’
The most painful part about this is that, despite all my protests, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my mother (who has an almost grovelling belief in the infallible god-like nature of doctors) believed him and lost faith in me that very day. Everything that followed, all the policing and monitoring, shaming and punishing, reading of diaries and interference in my private life even after I left home has come about as a direct consequence of that day.
It’s very difficult for me to talk about these things, even though I believe we should never forget the mistakes of the past if we want to build a more humane future. Alas, I don’t think I have many illusions left that personal stories give us an insight or change people’s minds. Even celebrity stories are just there for titillation and tut-tutting.
But fiction can. Especially when it is well-written. If the book and the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale can alert those who have not lived through this trauma to fight against such extremism, they will have done their job. Even if I cannot watch it to the end.
I’ve just been made aware there is a documentary about abortion policy in Romania, directed by Florin Iepan.
There is no mystery to what book blogger and literature student Elena likes. Her Books and Reviews blog states quite clearly that it’s ‘crime fiction, women’s representation and feminism’ which rock her boat. I love the fact that she reads and reviews so-called serious literary fiction but finds crime fiction equally riveting and worthy of recognition. It’s thanks to Twitter once again that I got to know Elena – where she is better known as Ms. Adler (see the Sherlock reference below to understand why). I’m delighted to welcome Ms. Adler to my blog to answer some questions about her reading passions.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
When I was 12, I was at that awkward reading stage where children’s books were not enough and adult books were too grown-up for my taste. I was given three anthologies of classical novels adapted as comics and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle quickly became my favorite. After reading it a few times, I asked my parents to buy the novel for me and I have been a crime fiction fan ever since.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I love reading contemporary crime fiction because the authors are still alive. It thrills me to know that such works of art are being written right now, while I am writing my own academic articles or watching TV. I find it very inspiring! Also, I get to talk to them about their writing, their inspiration and their characters… I think that is a luxury.
I also have a more than a soft spot for women investigators. Actually, I am pursuing a PhD on women investigators. It is very easy to see them working long hours and suffering from everyday sexism, which is something that, as a young woman, one can very easily relate to.
What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?
I loved Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. I think crime fiction is about much more than merely solving crimes and Hilary nailed the social criticism part. I am a huge Kate Atkinson fan as well, because even though Life After Life is not typical crime fiction, it overlaps with the social criticism. Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly has a delightful psychopath as a main character.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
I think the Jackson Brodie series by Kate Atkinson would be in competition with the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. Two very different styles, but equally good. Atkinson is much more philosophical and explores psychology, while Cornwell has been exploring forensic science since 1990. I grew up with CSI on TV, so reading about how DNA and mobile phones were once not part of crime-solving amazes me.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I have been hearing about a new novel, Girl on the Train published by Transworld that I can’t wait to read. Mind you, I usually spend two hours a day commuting by train, so I think it could very interesting to see how someone like me would fit on a crime novel. Of course, my To-Be-Read pile is huge. My lovely boyfriend is in charge of buying me all the Scarpetta books in the series as I read them, so I have two Scarpetta there. Mason Cross’s The Killing Season is there as well; he created a kick-ass FBI female detective! (Could you name another FBI female agent? I could not). [Clarice Starling is the only one I can think of.]
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I am a die-hard fan of Kate Atkinson and Margaret Atwood. Anything they will ever write will be a favorite of mine. Alias Grace and Life After Life might be the best books that I have ever read; I never get tired of recommending them to others.
I am an English literature graduate, so I love postcolonial literature (produced in territories that were once part of the British empire), because it deals with very complex constructions of identity, especially for women. My latest discovery, and one I had the pleasure to meet in person, is Australian author Simone Lazaroo. She writes about moving to Australia from South Asia and how her looks did not fit into “Australianess”. These works usually remind you that racism and prejudices are still part of people’s lives.
Philosophy comes high on my list for everything: personal interest, reading, classes that I dream of attending… So I try to incorporate as much philosophy as I can to my reading. My latest was Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the construction of gender in our society (and how to defy it).
Finally, I’m all for empowering contemporary women writers, so I try to read as much works written by women as I can. I think there is still a gap in the industry even though I mostly talk to female publicists, publishers and authors. I think the stories women have to tell are still considered “by women, for women” and it is not fair at all. I am so excited for the initiative #ReadWomen2014! It really tries to fight bookish sexism by creating an online community that reads, reviews and recommends women writers. We have the power to change things and initiatives like this one gives us back the power to do so.
Thank you very much, Ms. Adler, for your very interesting self-portrait as a reader. Incidentally, for those of you who share a passion for women writers and feminist literature, Elena has created a weekly meme, Feminist Sundays, a place of tolerance and mutual respect in which to discuss feminist issues (and sometimes just downright funny things in advertising!).
For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. As usual, if you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions! I will be taking a break with the series during August, because of holidays and other commitments, but that just means you have a longer time to ponder these questions.
I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement. I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities. Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.
So my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment. How much anger and frustration these women had! How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation! Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity. Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.
Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart. And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories). Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home. But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity? I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless. And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!
So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas. We are all far more aware of our options now, but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality. The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.
The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book. For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system. It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.
What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer. Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures. I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate. There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings. She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.
So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’? No longer anger and pity. No easy target to blame. Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!