#100WomenNovelists: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Blog Post 12: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)


The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ often appears in Top 100 lists of must-read literature. It is technically a novella, 128 pages in my 1969 Penguin edition, with Maggie Smith on the cover, Jean Brodie herself in the film of the book, with her unforgettable cut glass Edinburgh accent. But it certainly deserves its place.

Jean Brodie is from the generation of women who lost fiances, husbands, and the possibility of a married life and children. The First World War claimed so many lives and its effects echoed on for decades. Miss Brodie is a victim of that war and in the run-up to the next war, she is hell bent on achieving immortality through her girls, the ‘Brodie set’.

Monica, Sandy, Mary, Eunice, Jenny, and Rose, all ‘famous’ for something, all encouraged to be individuals by Miss Brodie, make up the set, her ‘creme de la creme’.  In reality, they are as one, kept together due to the herd mentality sparked by this increasingly manipulative teacher, who admires Mussolini and has pictures of fascists goose-stepping across her classroom walls.

Miss Brodie is their teacher for two years, when the girls are aged between 11 and 12, still children but with puberty fast-approaching and inquisitive about adult life. The set is separate from the other girls at Marcia Blaine School, even when they move up to the seniors and have different teachers. They only exist as a group because of Miss Brodie; even the art teacher who paints each of the girls sees them as inseparable from each other and from their leader. (In the portraits they all creepily look like Jean Brodie.) She is the only thing they have in common and once she has been ‘betrayed’, the set falls apart.

Miss Brodie, based on one of Spark’s own teachers, is a snob. She is the epitome of hubris. She constantly bigs herself up, telling the girls that she is in her ‘prime’. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age,’ she boasts, ‘and she is mine for life.’ In the run-up to the outbreak of war in Europe, we can see that she is a dictator, like her beloved Mussolini . Her girls are her chosen ones but we see her nasty side in her bullying and scapegoating of Mary (who dies in her early twenties in a hotel fire). It is Miss Brodie’s political leaning, not her love affairs or grooming of the girls, that finally give her nemesis, headmistress Miss Mackay the munition she needs to dismiss her.

Back and forth along the corridors ran Mary Macgregor, through the thickening smoke. She ran one way; then, turning, the other way; and at either end the blast furnace of the fire met her. She heard no screams, for the roar of the fire drowned the screams; she gave no scream, for the smoke was choking her. she ran into somebody on her third turn, stumbled and died. But at the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, when Mary Macgregor was ten, there she was sitting blankly among Miss Brodie’s pupils. ‘Who has spilled ink on the floor- was it you, Mary?’

But we never really know Miss Brodie as a character. We see her through the eyes of the girls, especially Sandy. The narrative is a third person authorial voice, which jumps back and forth in time, sometimes even within the same paragraph – from the 30s, to post-war, to the 50s, and back again. This narrative device is so effective. We know early on that Miss Brodie will die young and that her ‘prime’ is over too soon. But strangely there is no lack of suspense. Knowing what will happen before it happens somehow piles on the tension. Kate Atkinson uses this technique and I think she must thank Muriel Spark for this.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ also has a firm sense of place, and is one of the best stories set in Edinburgh. Miss Brodie might see herself as European, teaching the girls about the classics and art. But when she takes them around the Old Town to observe her city’s history we can see that the Calvinist influence of pre-destination is something she hasn’t managed to escape. She says that her raison d’etre is to inspire her girls but she is unable to avoid the fate that awaits her: a lonely, early retirement and cancer.

This is a cuttingly funny, disturbing book, not a word out of place, and one where the reader must work out what makes Miss Brodie. We never really know and this is its genius.











#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Laurie Graham

Blog Post 11: The Dress Circle (1998)

We was in the Tamarind Bar last night, drinking Ankle Breakers and waiting for Mary and Scouser to get back from the Jolly Roger Cruise. He said, ‘Ba, we’ve not done bad, have we? Twenty-nine years and still going strong?’


Today is another 90s novel, also with a first person narrator, but quite different to the last blog post. Laurie Graham is an extraordinary writer and her novels are so varied in their settings and stories. But ‘The Dress Circle’ is probably my favourite, partly because it was the first of her novels that I read. And why do I love it so much? For Ba’s voice. She could’ve stepped right off the screen/pages of a Victoria Wood or Alan Bennett monologue.

Ba and Bobs are turning fifty. They met at school along with Scouser and Mary. The four of them come from working-class backgrounds, in the Midlands, and both couples have built up businesses from scratch. They are the nouveau riche with all their snobbery towards the middle-classes with their floorboards, faded rugs, and ‘granny’ furniture. They have moved up several notches and their life is now filled with new kitchens, cruises, and race horses.

Ba’s son is already married with two children. The daughter is on the verge of getting wed and Ba and Bobs are looking forward to having an empty nest. But then Bobs lets out his secret: he likes wearing dresses.

The novel deals deftly with this revelation and how family, friends, and the golf club react. But the brilliance of the writing is how Ba comes to terms with a side of her husband she never knew about.

I said, ‘There are men who wear dresses. They’re not poofters and they don’t interfere with kiddies and they don’t do nobody any harm, but when you find out you’re married to one you want to crawl into a blummin’ hole and die.’

The first person narrative makes the reader feel like they are actually in the room with Ba, listening to her confessions, her snobbery, her exasperation, her love for her family and the annoyance and hurt they shower on her. She thinks you should just get on with life, pull your socks up, count your blessings.

Everybody’s got something these days. Everybody’s got syndromes. Messing around with doctors because the dark mornings get them down, or their kiddies won’t sit still and learn anything at school. The blummin’ strap. That was what made us sit still and learn. Everybody’s just got excuses these days. And allergies. I don’t know where they’ve all sprung from. I don’t think they even knew about hay fever when we were kids.

But she fervently hopes there’s some tablets Bobs can take to sort him out and let things get back to normal.

This is a novel you can read in a sitting and it will leave you wanting to devour more of Laurie Graham’s canon of work.




#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Arundhati Roy

Blog Post 10: The God of Small Things (1997)


May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. the rivers shrink and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. 

Re-reading ‘The God of Small Things’ after twenty years was a delight, though a delight tinged with poignancy. The story is still unspeakably sad, maybe more so on a second read. But the sadness is shot through with humour and the most beautiful use of language.

The novel is set in Kerala, in southern India, and moves back and forth between two time frames, 1969 and 1993. The story charts the decline and fall of a wealthy Indian family and is largely narrated by a seven year old girl, Rahel, who is one of the ‘two egg twins’, the other being her brother, Estha.  Their mother, Ammu, a Syrian Christian, divorced from their father, a Bengali Hindu, is forced to return home to Kerala to live with her mother and a collection of comic yet grotesque relatives. The story is set against a unstable, complicated political, racial and religious landscape – the Caste system, Communism, Catholic traditions, a post-colonial mess – and Rahel and Estha are bombarded with all these competing influences.

Ammu and her twins are also in a precarious position at home. The family who strongly disapprove of the divorce, despite them never wanting her to marry the Hindu in the first place, treat them as inferiors. Ammu is depressed and stifled and seeks solace in the arms of an Untouchable, Velutha, the family’s gifted carpenter. This messing with the ‘Love Laws’ has catastrophic consequences.

What is most striking about this book is the language. Roy has such a fresh voice, full of the weight of all these cultural influences. She uses those famous mid-sentence capital letters, quirky rhymes, unexpected tongue twisters, sensuous descriptions, repetition. The prose might be dense but this is a very accessible novel. However, it would be wrong to read it quickly; you have to savour it.

The structure too is surprising. The opening reminds me of ‘Rebecca’ and the narrator’s dream about returning to Mandalay and finding it overgrown and dilapidated. Both novels jump around in time and the reader must piece together the information to work out what exactly has happened. The narrative here starts with a little girl’s funeral, then weaves back and forth until we see more clearly the events that led to her death and its repercussions. Roy shows us, tells us, that things can change in a day, ‘a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house — the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture — must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.”

And this is at the heart of the novel. You must grab the small things as these moments of joy are fleeting. Life in its bigness can be too overwhelming. Rahel says: ‘…only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.’

The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and magic.

‘The God of Small Things’ won the Booker Prize in 1997, remarkable for a debut novel. I am looking forward to Roy’s second novel, finally published twenty years later, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’.


#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Jilly Cooper

Blog Post 9: Octavia (1977)


The moment I set eyes on Jeremy West I knew I had to have him. I was sitting in Arabella’s, watching a crowd of debs and other phonies undulating round the floor and thinking they were dancing, when suddenly the bamboo curtain was pushed aside and a blond man walked in and stood looking around for a waitress.

I first became acquainted with the novels of Jilly Cooper in the first year of secondary school, aged 12, circa 1980. Well-read copies of her stand-alone romantic novels were handed surreptitiously around the class. I remember reading bits of ‘Prudence’ with my friends and snorting with laughter, hiding the copy from our science teacher (which might be why I only got 12% in my physics exam that year). I’d never come across such wit and naughtiness. I went on to read ‘Emily’, ‘Harriet’, ‘Imogen’, ‘Bella’, and ‘Octavia’. And then of course I graduated onto the blockbusters of the mid 80s, ‘Polo’, ‘Rivals’, and ‘Riders’.

Octavia has stayed with me all these years as she is a character who goes on a moral journey, from being a sulky, spoilt heiress, to having to work and put others before herself. ‘Octavia’ would today be classed as Chick Lit. It has a feisty first person narrator who is ultimately saved by the love of a (not so) good man. The hero, Gareth Llewellyn, a swarthy completely un-PC Welshman who would be at home on Dragon’s Den, is the man she eventually falls for.

Octavia lives in a world of jet-setters and nightclubs, rich boyfriends and Sloane Rangers. It is a piece of social history which means that it also now has toe-curling sexism but at its heart is a story of a woman with an awful childhood looking for love in the wrong places and finally finding it in the most unlikely of (hairy) arms.

But what endures in Jilly Cooper’s novels is her wit. The one-liners are cutting and brutal. She holds up a mirror to the the world she inhabits as a journo and social commentator. The writing itself, despite the dated words like ‘bread’ (for money) and ‘birds’ (for women), is still fresh and surprising. Cooper also knows how to pull on the heart strings. She does emotion so well and this is why her books continue to appeal to me. I might cringe at some of the sexism but when I read ‘Octavia’ I remember what it was like to be a teenager giggling in the science labs. And even in these uncertain times, I marvel at how far women have come.





#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Elizabeth Bowen

Blog Post 8: The Heat of the Day (1948)


That Sunday, from six o’clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played. The season was late for an outdoor concert; already leaves were drifting on to the grass stage – here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying, and during the music some more fell.

‘The Heat of the Day’ is perhaps one of the greatest novels of the Second World War. It  has been somewhat neglected of late and I’m wondering why. Bowen’s work has been both favourably and unfavourably compared to Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’ in terms of its noir aspect and also to ‘The End of the Affair’ with its matter of the heart. It is an atmospheric read, full of images of ghosts and haunting, perfectly encapsulating the exhausting terror and monotony of the Blitz. The relentless bleakness, the disheartening rationing, the long dull hours, the always-present possibility and randomness of death, the specific details, all these remind me of Patrick Hamilton’s also-neglected novel ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ (1947). Both novels ask the question: do we really know who anyone is?

Again, as with several other books in this series, ‘The Heat of the Day’ has semi-autobiographical elements: the younger lover, the Anglo-Irish heritage, the government job, the bombed-out flat near Regent’s Park, the sense of displacement and transience. It covers a two year period from September 1942 to 1944, the darkest of times for war-torn London and Britain. The dark is a powerful symbol in this novel. Fear lurks at night; daybreak brings hope.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London.

Bowen’s style is mostly elegant, almost Jamesian. It is certainly not a quick read; it is rich and full and needs much concentration. But there is something off-kilter and awkward about her writing, as if the missing articles and verbs and odd speech patterns somehow reflect the out-of-the-ordinariness of war. The empty streets, the bombed-out buildings, the smoke, the dust, the dirt, the sirens, the fire, the ack-ack noise and the falling of bombs, all these allow people to live in the shadows, to conduct illicit affairs, to take chances, because tomorrow might not be there for them. The stilted language and the odd conversations make the form of this novel reflect its content.

If you enjoyed ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, you should give this much earlier book a go. But give yourself some time and space and you will be rewarded.



#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Meera Syal

Blog Post 7: Anita and Me (1996)


I do not have many memories of my very early childhood, apart from the obvious ones, of course. You know, my windswept, bewildered parents in their dusty Indian village garb standing in the open doorway of a 747, blinking back tears of gratitude and heartbreak as the fog cleared to reveal the sign they had been waiting for, dreaming of, the sign planted in tarmac and emblazoned in triumphant hues of red, blue and white, the sign that said simply, WELCOME TO BRITAIN.

I read ‘Anita and Me’ when it was first published back in the 90s. I loved ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ which is where I first became aware of Meera Syal’s acting and writing. It was the funniest programme on TV at the time, post-Thatcher when alternative comedy had nothing to rail against and went into decline. This was something new and as a mother with a toddler, a baby, and expecting another, it was a wonderful escape from nappies and fear and undiagnosed post-natal depression. In fact when I was in labour with number three, my husband and I were reciting lines from the sketch show and it somehow helped me through the pain, until gas and air were needed. (‘Cheque, please!’)

I was intrigued to read this debut coming-of-age novel by Meera Syal, especially knowing it was semi-autobiographical (like several of the novels in this #100WomenNovelists series). And I loved it, the mix of nostalgia and reality, the issues of identity and belonging and the complex meaning of home, and how Meena goes on a journey from childhood to adolescence, working out who are good role models for her.

I knew I was a freak of some kind, too mouthy, clumsy and scabby to be a real indian girl, too Indian to be a real Tollington wench, but living in the grey area between all categories felt increasingly like home.

Meena is nine year’s old when the story opens. She is an only child (for a while) and prone to lying. She has to tread the balance between her parents’ expectations and those of the neighbourhood children, yearning for fishfingers instead of home made chapatis. She loves her parents very much but is also embarrassed by their difference to the other members of the community where they live, Tollington, a fictionalised post-industrial town somewhere near Wolverhampton. A town where the women are employed by the ball-bearing factory but the men are out of work since the mine shut down. In fact this is a book where women are the strong characters, and the men are peripheral. Though Meena looks up to her papa very much. 

Sometimes I wondered if the very act of shutting our front door transported us onto another planet, where non-related elders were called Aunties and Uncles and talked in rapid Punjabi, which their children understood but answered back in broad Black Country slang, where we ate food with our fingers and discussed family feuds happening five thousand miles away, where manners were so courtly that a raised eyebrow could imply an insult, where sensibilities were so finely tuned that an advert featuring a woman in a bikini could clear a room.

Meena becomes unlikely friends with Anita who is three years older and a toughie. Anita comes from a home of neglect: an unknown, missing father; a hopeless mother, and a pitiful younger sister. Anita offers Meena excitement, disrespect for elders, nicking stuff from Mr Ormerod’s shop, (bad) sex education, swearing, going to the fair, and trespassing in the scary gardens of the Big House which holds an unexpected secret. The only person who can save Meena from Anita’s clutches comes in the unlikely form of her grandmother on a visit from India. Nanima connects Meena to her roots and encourages her to be the best person she can be.

‘Anita and Me’ explores the effects of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 on muslims, hindus, and sikhs; the violence, the displacement, and the mess left by the British Empire. It explores racism towards first and second generation immigrants in this country, and how this can result from jealousy as well as ignorance. All this is witnessed through Meena’s eyes. It is her story and it is a powerful, poignant, disturbing, and very funny one. I am so glad that this rich book is on the GCSE syllabus.



#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Stella Gibbons

Blog Post 6: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)


The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

This novel is a delight, even more so for me because it is one of those classics that I had never read until recently. It’s smart, funny, quirky, clever, ahead of its time and it very much deserves a place in my top 100 novels written by women in the last century.

‘Cold Comfort Farm’ is essentially a parody of the unremittingly depressing rural novel written by the likes of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and Mary Webb. It begins with Flora Poste living her metropolitan London life. The death of her parents hardly touches Flora as, according to her, she only ever saw them for a month a year and they were pretty remote. The problem for her is more to do with finances. After death duties have been paid, Flora has a £100 a year to live on. Her friend, widow and collector of heart-broken men and brassieres, Mrs Smiling, tells Flora she must stay with her in Lambeth and ‘learn how to work’. But Flora does not want to do this. Instead she writes to distant relatives scattered over Britain asking if she can come and live with them.

The landscape and tone of the opening pages set up the reader to expect a society novel such as they might get from Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh. But a fairly short way into the book and the writing and story take a distinct turn when Flora decides that she will go and stay with the Starkadders on their farm in Sussex.

When Flora arrives in Howling, she realises that she will be living with a bunch of eccentrics, whose names would strike horror into the heart of Mrs Smiling. There is her somewhat depressed Aunt Judith who is married to Amos, who preaches hell and damnation to the Church of the Quivering Brethren. There is also lustful Seth and brooding Reuben. There is Micah, Ezra, Urk, Luke, Mark, Caraway, Hark-away, and my favourite, Adam Lambsbreath. There is the slightly bonkers poet, Elfine, ‘wild as a marsh-tigget in May’. And, of course, the animals : Big Business the bull, and Feckless, Graceless, Pointless and Aimless, the cows.

The Starkadders live in squalor and discord, under a curse that began many years ago when the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom ‘saw something nasty in the woodshed’. Now she lives in her bedroom upstairs, (a sort of Bronte mad woman in the attic?), has her meals brought to her on a tray, and oversees household operations from her bed. If anyone tries to move out, she has a funny turn and they have to stay. She also owes something to Flora, to right a wrong done to her father.

Flora, using resourcefulness and tenacity, sets about putting things in order, from the kitchen to their love lives. Some modern readers may see this as a townie interfering in the ways of country folk, but she simply wants everyone to be happy and for harmony to be restored. This includes practical advice on birth control to one of the local women who gets pregnant every year when the sukebind is in blossom, a plant with ‘dark green leaves and long, pink tightly closed buds’. 

If you ask me, I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I…I cannot endure messes.

Gibbons’ novel is quite ahead of its time. To ramp up the parody, she uses a post-modernist technique of asterisks which highlight particularly purple pieces of prose.

••Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its was between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

If this passage only deserves two asterisks, imagine what three will deliver.

There is also a futuristic element with the novel being set in the not too distant future and everyone travelling about by plane. This part doesn’t necessarily add anything other than more quirkiness so it is quite forgivable.

‘Cold Comfort Farm’ does the opposite of what it says on the tin: it uplifts your soul and makes you smile. But we are left with a question. Just what exactly did happen in the woodshed?

#100WomenNovelists: Jeanette Winterson

Blog Post 5: Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1985)


Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

I first became aware of Jeanette Winterson when I watched her TV adaptation of ‘Oranges are not the Only Fruit’ many years ago. It was so enthralling that I had to read the novel. I have re-read it several times since, for the horrors, the one-liners, the wit, and the weeping. It is fresh every time.

‘Oranges’ is a novel about many things: religious extremism, a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in a northern town in the 60s, parental expectations, otherness. Like Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, this is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. We experience Jeanette’s absurd life through her eyes and ears. In fact it is her ears that play a crucial role. She goes deaf for three months which Mother explains away as Jeanette being ‘in a state of rapture’. She is eventually taken off to hospital by a church member and has her adenoids removed, which cures her. Her mother brings oranges, a recurring motif.

I tried to build an igloo out of the orange peel but it kept falling down and even when it stood up I didn’t have an eskimo to put in it, so I had to invent a story about ‘How Eskimo Got Eaten’, which made me even more miserable. It’s always the same with diversions; you get involved.

Jeanette’s mother, whose life revolves around her Pentecostal church and missionary work, sees the world in opposites: black and white, good and evil, saint and sinner, heaven and hell. She doesn’t even want to do the thing you have to do to beget a child so she adopts. Jeanette is very much wanted, but wanted as a future missionary, to save souls from the fiery furnace. Jeanette’s father lurks in the shadows and is never really a proper character. It is all about the mother.

Mother sees wickedness everywhere, especially ‘next door’. She keeps Jeanette at home until eventually the authorities force her to attend school. This is a shock not only for Jeanette, but for the teachers, the headmistress, her fellow pupils and their parents. There are complaints. Jeanette can’t understand why her sampler – THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED – gets her into trouble. Surely it’s more meaningful than TO MOTHER WITH LOVE?

I did upset the children. Not intentionally, but effectively. Mrs Sparrow and Mrs Spencer came to school one day all fluffed up with rage; they came at playtime, I saw them with their handbags and hats, revolving up the concrete, lips pursed. Mrs Spencer had her gloves on.

As Jeanette grows up she begins to understand that it is not just religious mania that is confining her, but also the lack of outlet for her creativity. Her life is framed by the Bible, it gives her structure, and it gives the novel its structure. But thread throughout the verses and references, are Jeanette’s flights of fancy which are caught up with myth and fable and fairy tale. Her imagination is her way of understanding the world and it is her escape.

When she falls in love with a girl, she is treated terribly by her church family and eventually leaves home to start another life in Wigan. Homosexuality and the Church is still wrought with contention and this novel is a timely reminder that Christians should act like Jesus, not like the avenging God of the Old Testament.

The dark humour (a theme emerging from my women novelists of the 20th century) pulls the reader through Jeanette’s traumatic experiences. Mother, the Ena Sharples of the church, has some of the best one-liners. Jeanette inherits this quick wit but she has a mind that soars above the pettiness of religious extremism and is won over by love.

When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I’d seen Pastor Finch.

‘He’s in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,’ I replied.

‘Don’t be fanciful Jeanette,’ said the voice. I looked up. It was Miss Jewsbury; she always talked like that, I think it was because she taught the oboe. It does something to your mouth.

There is a ray of hope at the end, when Jeanette goes home for a visit. It has to do with pineapples.

#100WomenNovelistsofthe20thCentury: Beryl Bainbridge

Blog post 4: The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)


The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

Written over forty years ago, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ is particularly relevant for our post-Brexit times. Brenda and Freda, two mismatched room mates, find work at the local Italian bottle factory in London. It’s not especially hard work, putting labels on bottles of wine, though it is very cold and they have to fight off the advances of some of the Italian workers, though mostly these men are respectful and slightly in dreaded awe of these English women.

Brenda has escaped an abusive husband, the bravest thing she has ever done or is ever likely to do. She has a tendency to let people walk all over her, Freda included. Freda delights in calling Brenda a victim. Freda is tall and big and sexy and rather intimidates Brenda. She is also a fantasist, in love with elegant Vittorio, a relative of the factory owner, Mr Paganotti. She dreams of a better life, preferably one where she is Vittorio’s wife, living happily and romantically in a castle in sun-drenched Bologna. She likes the Italians.

Brenda hinted she didn’t like foreigners – she found them difficult to get on with. Freda said it proved how puny a person she was, in mind and in body. ‘You’re bigoted,’ she cried. ‘And you don’t eat enough.’

The women’s relationship is complex and contrary. They need each other but they get on each other’s nerves.

Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable – but then she had never been married.

This central relationship makes the major event of the novel shocking and horrific. And yet bizarrely comic.

Bainbridge passes no judgements; she is not an authorial narrator, though she leaps from one viewpoint to another. We are in Freda’s head, then Brenda’s, then perhaps Vittorio’s, then maybe Patrick’s, the Irish delivery man that Brenda is reluctantly drawn to. But the writing is so clear and concise that we are never muddled, though frequently surprised. And often shocked.

This novel is a dark comedy. At times, a farce. But the overwhelming tone is one of unsettling menace. The action mainly takes place around the outing organised by Freda for the factory workers. They are to take a picnic and drive out to a stately home somewhere. But nothing goes to plan. What happens is macabre and funny and it is this fizzing cocktail that makes Bainbridge a guilty joy to read.

Six times shortlisted for the Booker, how did Beryl Bainbridge never win? Readers and writers alike will be asking this question for a long time to come.


100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: E.M. Delafield

Blog post 3: The Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

November 7th.
Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa. Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: ‘O, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworth’s?’

Edmée Elizabeth Monica De La Pasture was the daughter of a Count and a famous novelist, Mrs Henry de la Pasture. Under her pen name E.M. Delafield, ‘The Diary of a Provincial Lady’ is her most loved and well-known book (and she was a prolific writer, despite an untimely death in the war) and has never been out of print. This semi-autobiographical diary is full of charm, wit, and self-deprecation and is quintessentially English, a comedy of errors which touches on real issues and is therefore right down my street. So why have I never read it until now? Has it gone out of fashion? Absolutely not. The diarist may be an upper-class lady recounting the daily conflicts of domestic life in a Devon village in the 1930s, but underneath there is a recognisable woman with everyday struggles that are still relevant today, despite the boarding schools, the French governess and the servants.

She is married to Robert, a bit distant, grumpy, falls asleep over the Times and grumbles about the state of the house, but he’s essentially a good sort. She acts as a buffer between him and the two children, the delightful Robin and Vicky, who can’t always be counted on to be perfect in front of important visitors, especially Lady Boxe, her nemesis who drives imperiously around the village in her Bentley, flinging sly remarks which turn the writer to dreams of murder.

The interesting thing is that despite the fact they live in a fine house, have a cook, a maid, a governess etc, the Lady is always having to borrow from Peter to pay Paul. She has to be creative with her bills and regularly pawns her great aunt’s diamond ring to clear the household debts. And she must go humbly before the bank manager to procure an overdraft. You could call this family the modern day equivalent of the squeezed middle, a family that is living beyond its means. But the writer enters pieces for the Time and Tide magazine and has some success with publication. We can see that she longs to have more literary success and earn money in her own right. One way she hopes to do this is to better acquaint herself with the literary world, but usually this has unsatisfactory consequences.

Very, very distinguished Novelist approaches me (having evidently mistaken me for someone else), and talks amiably. She says that she can only write between twelve at night and four in the morning, and not always then. When she cannot write, she plays the organ. Should much like to ask whether she is married.

The diary is one of my favourite forms of writing. In the footsteps of Pooter and the descendant of Bridget Jones, E.M. Delafield’s diary deserves its place as a classic of the 20th Century. I feel like I should have read this book before. After all, my second novel ‘This Holey Life’ is of this tradition and I wonder if I somehow absorbed the essence of the Provincial Lady by cultural osmosis. Vicky is also struggling to be a good mother and a good wife and to have good thoughts about her neighbours and members of the community but is continually thwarted in her good intentions by the everyday muddle of life. A common theme for diarists, so it seems.

E.M. Delafield shines a light on the politics and dynamics of family life and a small community and this was handed on to Barbara Pym, a couple of decades later. (Yes, I will be blogging about the divine Miss Pym.)

Final word: Don’t be fooled by the ‘Lady and “Provincial’ of the title.

(Also, I am thrilled that there are several follow up diaries. Result.)