The Book Page

Helen Finch

Pushing boundaries: book by book


'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ said J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem*.


In this issue of WOJO I’m measuring out my life in books, books that I found helpful in challenging traditional thinking about women.  Each of these books had an impact on how I felt as a woman. Each served to clarify, or to loosen up strictures, or to set down a marker that said ‘Stop! Think! It doesn’t have to be like that anymore!’  - that pushed against the pressures to conform.

I didn’t plan to write an article about books. I set out to write about any triggers that, reflecting back, had helped push my boundaries - relationships, therapy, changing life circumstances – beyond the ‘good girl’.  Surprisingly, a powerful personal influence turned out to be the written word.

The list is personal and time specific.  It makes sense only in the context of the time when I read each book and the age that I was then.



First is a novel, ‘The L-Shaped Room’ by Lynne Reid Banks, which sets the scene.  This looked at attitudes prevalent when I was growing up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties about the role of young women and the prejudice against those who broke the rules.  Expectations were that you would find a husband, get married, have children and nicely get on with life at home. A dreadful alternative was that you might end up “in trouble” - become pregnant “out of wedlock” - which is what happened to the young protagonist of this novel.  Turned out of home by her middle class father she was set adrift in London, finding a room (the L-shaped room) in a seedy boarding house. The novel especially looks at views regarding sex and class at that time. The fear, imparted by my own middle class parents, had been that I could “ruin my life”; sex for young single women was dangerous, the potential outcome too shameful.  There’d be little chance of finding a husband then. This novel represents my baseline.  It holds up a mirror to where I came in.

(Actually, it’s not where I came in.  A truer starting point might be the Janet and John books or the Ladybird series, where girls in frilly dresses sweetly followed action-oriented boys while Mum in her apron smiled from the kitchen.)


'The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer thunderingly challenged this good girl stereotype.  It declared that women didn’t have to do what had always been expected of them; men oppressed women; women were way too polite; and a woman had a right to express her own sexuality without apology.  It wasn’t so much what she said though, as the way that she said it, with outrageous, straight-talking and unflinching anger.  For one thing, she dared to show how damned clever she was, pitting all her academic credentials and scholarly research against men.  I had half-hidden any cleverness that I possessed when growing up because it didn’t sit well with expectations from many people around me.  (‘Why on earth was a girl like me doing Physics A level?’ I’d overheard someone’s mother say about my choice back at school.)  I was about 22 when I read this book, tongue-tied and deferential in my first job in a large company, one of a group of 36 ‘graduate trainees’ of whom just two of us were women.  Greer’s approach was in great contrast. I found her astonishing and to a point persuasive, but also exasperating, as if presenting some sort of intellectual spectacle. How to become more like her?  It was just the beginning.

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She dared to show how damned clever she was, pitting all her academic credentials and scholarly research against men.  I had half-hidden any cleverness that I possessed when growing up because it didn’t sit well with expectations from many people around me.
I read ​Helen Gurley Brown’s book ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ soon after.  This too was a call to arms, if in a more accessible or practical (and narrower) way.  It was written as an advice book that encouraged women to become financially independent for themselves and if unmarried to enjoy sex without shame.  Sex without shame?  The pill had been available in the UK (for married women only) since 1961, and for all women since 1967, but even without fear of pregnancy old attitudes were hard to shift.  A book entitled ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ helped.  The author also edited a new magazine, 'Cosmopolitan', which in contrast to 'Women' or 'Women’s Own' that I’d read as a schoolgirl (thanks to my friend’s mum), covered such topics as menstruation, and orgasm, and your clitoris, as well as work and money.  The book and the magazine sent an upbeat message not just about sex but about independence.  "Don't use men to get what you want in life – get it for yourself," she said.  At that time this was a new idea. For me, it moved things on.


It was written as an advice book that encouraged women to become financially independent for themselves and if unmarried to enjoy sex without shame.  Sex without shame?  The pill had been available in the UK (for married women only) since 1961, and for all women since 1967, but even without fear of pregnancy old attitudes were hard to shift. 

Doris Lessing’s ‘Children of Violence’ series, the Martha Quest novels, which were a set of five semi-autobiographical novels, comes next and is where for me these ideas became serious. Like all the novels that I’m remembering here, I find it harder to recall details or particular features than the emotional impact.  I loved these books and read them, one straight after the other, in my mid-twenties, some years after they were published. They spoke of relationships, politics, the socialization of women, inner experience, personal identity, aftermath of war, in the context of southern Africa and England of that time - and one woman’s struggle and development.  I found them vivid and influential. There was something about her writing, in its truth-seeking style, that made you reflect on the issues and apply them to yourself.  It broadened your own focus within a wider picture, particularly linking the personal with the political.  It made me question the type of work I was doing for example. I also became more politicised. The Golden Notebook continued these ideas but I’d rate the later Martha Quest books as the more influential to me personally.


We’re properly into feminism now and three books that I read in the late-1970s by American writers come to mind.  Of these, I found the impact of Marilyn French’s novel ‘The Women’s Room’ (published 1977) the greatest.  It’s set in 1950s America and follows a conventional young woman in a traditional marriage, and her gradual feminist awakening.  I recall the impact that the book provoked when I put it down. It was explosive. This was reinforced by reading Betty Freidan’s ‘The Feminine Mystique’ around the same time.  The facts supplied here, based on Freidan’s interviews with suburban housewives and research into media images of women, backed up the emotion of French’s novel.  They challenged the widely shared belief (1950s) that fulfilment came exclusively in the role of housewife-mother.  They documented the frustration of women whose lives, despite being materially comfortable and being married with children, gave virtually no independence, creativity, or opportunity.​​

   
Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Flying’  which I read a little later was more fun and I was undecided  whether to include it here. I’m doing so because of the struggles it examines in venturing to explore different kinds of relationships in the protagonist’s attempts to feel more alive and free.  Much of the book is about female sexuality. Her idea of the "zipless fuck” which runs throughout the novel is what I remember most, and can’t resist sharing here:


'The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving". No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.'  

                                                                   Erica Jong, Fear of Flying 



Another small detail that I recall about this novel (or it might have been in her next one) was the joy that the narrator experienced when she managed to fix the central heating - herself, alone - and the sheer wonderful sense of power and achievement she felt in doing this.  


The fear of flying theme in Erica Jong’s novel was not just metaphorical, it was also the narrator’s literal fear about travelling by plane.  She might have found the next book helpful, ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers.  This was no great feminist tract but a self-help book, its subtitle: ‘Dynamic techniques for turning fear, indecision and anger into power, action and love’.  I found the techniques effective. Reading it soon after it came out in the late-1980s, it pushed boundaries in a more action oriented risk-taking way. Twenty years later, when I included some of its exercises in workshops that I ran for students, a new generation of young people found it just as relevant.  Some reported that their mothers had read it or they’d found a dusty old copy in the bookshelves back home.


 ​​​​​​Another small detail that I recall about 'Fear of Flying' (or it might have been in her next one) was the joy that the narrator experienced when she managed to fix the central heating - herself, alone - and the sheer wonderful sense of power and achievement she felt in doing this.    
​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​I end with two novels that I read in the 1970s or ‘80s which were first published almost a century before.  It was astonishing to see in these great books the same frustrations and rebellion by the female protagonists against orthodox views of ‘femininity’ and marriage, and to find that that these older books still resonated so powerfully.  Had so little changed?  The novels were Olive Schreiner’s ‘The Story of an African Farm’, published under a male pseudonym  in 1883 and set during the 1860s, and ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin, first published in 1899.   Both had heroines who set themselves against prevailing attitudes to preserve their independence (at terrible ultimate cost; at least in contemporary fiction the protagonists no longer have to die for their views).  Both were set in worlds far removed in terms of time and place: a lonely farm in the South African veld in the mid-nineteenth century, and the turn-of-the-century American South.

Olive Schreiner’s novel which expressed particularly unorthodox views (for the time) had created a stir among young Victorian ladies who spoke of it ‘with bated breath and great excitement, as a thrilling, liberating, and highly secret experience’ (according to one historian).   Doris Lessing apparently said ‘I had only to hear the title, or 'Olive Schreiner’, and my deepest self was touched’.  

My favourite of all the books here is ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin.  I read it in the 1980s in a reprint made available by The Women’s Press (one of the newly-established publishers highlighting writing by women).  It had needed to be republished.  When originally it came out, in 1899, it scandalised critics, was banned from public libraries and disappeared from view.  “Morbid”, “unwholesome”, “essentially vulgar”, “trite and sordid”, “sad and mad and bad”, they said. One critic described it as a novel about a woman who should have “flirted less and looked after her children more”.  This was in 1899.  

The book is written in a moving, poetic and lyrical way, symbolising many kinds of awakening.  I also like the way it uses the imagery of the sea.   It describes one woman’s quest for greater personal freedom and a more fulfilling life.  'The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies' she writes on the last page.  Though these words come from the mouth of another character, Kate Chopin was surely writing about herself.

*  * *

Like Mr Prufrock I have been looking back.  I’ve been measuring my life not in coffee spoons but in books that I read that influenced my life as a woman.  His coffee spoons seemed to express repetition and regret, perhaps fear of change, but these books for me expressed hope. They pushed in the opposite direction, against an old order, little by little and then cumulatively.  I found them unexpected, astonishing, exasperating, useful.

My list is a mixed bag.  It includes: fiction most of all, especially autobiographical fiction describing women’s lives and relationships, some social/political analysis, even self-help; all of which I read within just a twenty year period as it turns out, in the 1970s and ‘80s.  I think that many women my age (sixty-something), especially if they’d been lucky enough as I was to get an education, would have a similar list.  We felt part of a revolution.

During that time I didn’t feel particularly trapped in my life.  I had no children, I avoided housework as much as possible, I didn’t feel stuck at home in an idealised ‘housewife-mother’ role, I enjoyed my work.  Nevertheless these books inspired a new understanding.  As a young woman I felt my life had been changed.  They were indeed an awakening.


* T.S.Eliot, 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock', 1920