28 May 2016

Virago Made Me: The Hard Parts

“The great enemy to advancement for working-class girls was to become pregnant.  This was the terror that kept so many chaste, not moral qualms or a lack of adolescent lust.  Pregnancy was the great trap and once in the only way out was abortion.  It's important to remember how this problem obsessed women in the pre-contraception era.  For that for them was effectively what it was.   Men might buy 'something' if they could overcome their embarrassment, carelessness, or distaste.  They might or more likely might not be persuaded to use it.“ -  Maureen Duffy, 1982, excerpt from the preface to the Virago Press edition of That's How It Was.

I. That is how it was, in every particular.  According to the myth-makers, abortion is an evil that was foisted on women thanks to the invention of reliable birth control and the "sexual revolution."   Women know better as British author Maureen Duffy's novel That's How It Was demonstrates; it was one of the first  Virago Press books I ever read.   And because it was written two decades before I found it, it sent me back to my mother's library to search for more like it, and I am found some, but I get ahead of myself.

“Lucky for me I was born at all really, I mean she could have decided not to bother.  Like she told me, she was tempted, head in the gas oven, in front of a bus, oh a thousand ways.”  That's how That How It Was begins. 
That's How It Was could have been alternatively titled Two Against the World; it tells the story of the abiding love between Louey and her daughter Paddy, as they struggle to stay afloat in East London.   Just as Paddy's adolescent world is expanding, the worst happens at home: her mother is stricken by tuberculosis and hospitalized where Louey is sterilized after the doctors discover that she is pregnant and perform an abortion.   “They took my womb away.  Sterilization they call it.  You see I was going to have a baby and they said it was either it or me,”  Louey tells her. Paddy only learns of this when she sees a large incision on her mother's abdomen. Undefeated by trouble, Paddy  is able to move beyond her seemingly inescapable working class life although she suffers a tremendous loss when her mother dies.   “I was just a girl and life offered only things I despised: houses, children, security, housework. I had to pass. I had to. I had to be different.”

Maureen Duffy (b1933) has written novels, plays, a biography of Aphra Behn  and The Erotic World of Faery,  but  That’s How It Was, her first novel, is her best known work.  In a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood movie, Duffy wrote the novel, more or less on a whim, at the suggestion of a publisher.   Duffy grew up in a working class neighborhood in East London, the setting for That's How It Was.   Her father, who was Irish, deserted  the family  when Maureen was two months old; her mother died when Maureen was fourteen.   Early on she immersed herself in books, her favorites were tales of  faraway places, “stories of Ancient Greece and Rome, folk tales of Ireland and Wales, tales of knightly chivalry and poetry."

II.  ”…the madness that was born of being a certain kind of wife, with a certain kind of husband; of the suffocating feeling that life was going on elsewhere.”  - Penelope Mortimer, excerpt from Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, 1958

“I thought I was supposed to lie on a couch and you wouldn't say a word.  It's like the inquisition or something.  Are you trying to make me feel that I'm wrong?  Because I do that for myself.”
His diagnosis: she has a fear of sex for pleasure. 
Her response: “You really should have been an Inquisitor....Do I burn now or later?” -  from a dialogue between a woman and her psychiatrist, excerpted from The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, 1962

In retrospect,  1962 was an impressive year for novels by women.  Although it doesn't fit into my narrative here, Ship Of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, a novel that took its author more than two decades to complete, became the best selling novel of that year.  Partly from of years of anticipation and partly because Porter became famous for her novella-length short stories, it received mixed reviews.   We may find it easy to connect the dots between That's How It Was and The Pumpkin Eater because the old truism held then, and still holds: "The slaves always know more about the masters than the masters do about the slaves."

Penelope Mortimer said that she put everything she knew about relationships between men and women into The Pumpkin Eater and, as we now know, she put  a lot of her personal history into it as well.  Mrs. Armitage, like her creator, has been married several times and her numberless, nameless brood is a “bodyguard of children.” Some of the children have been sent away to boarding schools or  to live with other relatives, the better to make space for the father’s career.
Abortion was illegal in Britain at the time but an exception was allowed for a woman being treated for depression by a psychiatrist.  Mrs. Armitage has an abortion and the gynecologist ties her tubes at the same time; in effect there were three people, only two of them conscious, in the operating room – the woman, her husband, and her doctor.  At the urging of her own doctor, Mortimer had agreed to an abortion and sterilization after becoming pregnant for the eighth time; her seventh pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage.
Critics applauded the book;  Edna O’Brien was an early and vocal admirer. Today, Mortimer's books are mostly out of print, effectively making her unreadable. Her male contemporaries like Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene are still read, and their tone is still narrow minded and overbearing.   Mortimer’s drollery and her deadpan voice cut through blather like a knife..
Penelope Mortimer (1918-1999) was a native of Wales; her education was limited to a school for “daughters of the clergy" followed by a course at a secretarial college. This modest preparation hardly mattered; she moved to London where she dazzled a series of men into sex, setting up house, and babies. Meanwhile she began writing novels, her short stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker, and she became film critic for The Observer. Although she had not been born to upper class life, through her marriages, first  to  a journalist and then to a barrister, she ascended the social ladder.  As both novels make clear, the constraints placed on female freedom cross all class lines.

III.  Mavis Gallant wrote only two novels but A Fairly Good Time (1970) only reprinted this April by New York Review Books.
Although twenty-five year old Shirley Perrigny is a young Canadian widow recently remarried to a Frenchman, she is still essentially a girl,  trying to find her voice,  worried that the words that come out of her mouth are offensive “toads.”   During a romantic tryst she takes time to lecture a lover on the ""centuries of female rubbish"" involved in the masculine dream of female rapture.  Although Gallant underlines it delicately, abortion  is the deus ex machina that sets the plot on its way.  Shirley spends a night away from home, watching over her friend Renata who has just had an abortion.   Because the abortion is illegal (abortion only became legal in France in 1975), Shirley cannot tell her husband where she has been as it would implicate him in a criminal action.  Better to have him suspect an assignation with another man than to know the truth.   The event precipitates Philippe's gradual Cheshire Cat-like disappearance from their marriage. 
As A Fairly Good Time makes clear, things do change, although slowly.  The dissolution of Shirley's marriage is not a tragedy, her friend Renata does not follow through on the impulse to kill herself, and no psychiatrists get to play God with women's lives.
Mavis Gallant (1922-2014) was born in Montreal, Quebec but settled  in France in 1950 where she began to write fiction.   In Canada she worked as a a journalist.  Beginning in 1951 more than one hundred of her stories appeared in The New Yorker.

There is more to the Virago story here, here, and here.

1. Milton Avery - Seated Girl with Dog, 1944, Neuberger Museum, Purchase.
(This painting was used as the cover image for the 1982 Virago reprint of That's How It Was)
2. Milton Avery - Girl Reading, Philips Collection, Washington, DC.