When I was eighteen, during my gap year, I worked in a boutique bookshop in Hampstead, to earn money towards a six-month trip to Australia. I didn’t earn much (£46.33 a week after tax) and didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I lasted six weeks – a record length of time for me at that age.
My grandmother was staying with us at the time and she had said she would walk up the high street to visit me in the shop.
‘She’ll never make it,’ said my mother. ‘The high street is too steep.’ Grandma was overweight and I had never seen her walk further than from the car to the house. So I didn’t expect her. But one afternoon she appeared at the shop door, leaning on her wooden walking stick, tartan-skirted, her short grey hair slightly darkened by exertion. She was out of breath, but pleased to be there and she smiled, almost shyly. It felt conspiratorial and, for the first time, I felt that she had a sense of pride, both in herself for having made it, and in me.
The shop was, as usual, empty that afternoon and we started talking. She had found amongst the shelves New Grub Street by George Gissing, first published in 1891. I had never heard of it, or him, but Grandma held the book and spoke with such zeal about how she had loved this book and its author. In fact, she said, she had written her dissertation about him.
I now see that Gissing, a lower-middle-class man from Yorkshire, where my grandmother was also born and raised, would have caught her eye. He went to university, wrote about working people, married a working-class girl and had a stint in prison. Things had got better for him later, but perhaps she identified with his complications. But the word ‘dissertation’ coming out of my grandmother’s mouth somehow shocked me. It’s not that I didn’t know that she had gone to university, but she never talked about it. She talked about Coronation Street in dismissive tones, before settling down to watch it. She talked about the holiday she once had in America with Grandpa during which a large number of watermelons somehow ended up in the boot of their car. She often expressed dissatisfaction that she had never become ‘somebody’ in her own right. Yet she never talked about the fact that she, a girl from a working-class background, had won a scholarship to Cambridge. I knew that she had attended Newnham College, as all three of her daughters later did. I knew she had studied under F.R. Leavis. But never had she mentioned that she had completed a dissertation about George Gissing.
As I understood it, somewhere between being a particularly beautiful and promising young woman and having children, Grandma had become a severe hypochondriac and depressive. She had married a local boy – my charming, patient grandfather who became a County Court Judge – and yet domestic life had not, to put it mildly, brought her the satisfaction it was supposed to have done. Would she have been happier if she had been able to make a totally different life choice, such as that of her sister-in-law Lucy, who emigrated in the 1940s to Australia with a female ‘friend’, to run an organic fish shop and write poetry? If so, it was another thing Grandma didn’t talk about.
Yet Grandma did talk to me that afternoon, and it was as if a wild flower had grown out of the rubble, survived for a day and then disappeared.
Following Cambridge, my grandmother became, as a local Yorkshire paper boasted at the time, a ‘High Literary Quality Teacher’, but had to give up that career when she made the decision to get married. She didn’t talk about how this had affected her, other than to state bitterly the bare fact that she had been ‘stopped’ from teaching, but her years of subsequent malaise, taking to her bed, and irritability must have been triggered, or made worse, by not being able to act in the real world outside the remit of the domestic.
The second wave of feminism of the sixties and seventies – an ‘-ism’ with which my mother became directly identified by the fact that she became a novelist exploring the condition of women within marriage and motherhood – was a movement that improved the lives of many women, whilst at the same time no doubt creating casualties.
Raising three children and working intensively, as my mother did, created tensions and difficult-to-balance juggling acts. Yet as I write this, I have a desire, perversely perhaps and briefly, to applaud my grandmother’s extreme lack of balance. Her inability to ‘put up and shut up’, her manifest misery at her plight, seems to have set my mother on fire. Grandma went into depressive flight, and my mother wrote herself into fame in her twenties; my mother’s siblings too have all been high achievers.
My mother’s fight helped set me ‘free’. When I was at my all-female, state secondary school I remember describing myself with enormous confidence as a ‘postfeminist’. At university, an American feminist lecturer assured me that I was no such thing, and that there were yet feminist battles to fight. Indeed, I observed there for the first time the so-called power of the often abused and evidently fragile public school boys who would confide to me about their sexual anxieties; I saw others tear down posters for women’s meetings, and men from the town kick in the doors of the women’s centre. I listened to women talk about their anxieties around men and body image. Yet such activity amazed me. What was wrong with them all? I observed, but somehow did not feel implicated. Perhaps I was lucky to be a third generation female of a family of women who didn’t compromise? Or perhaps I have my escapee Great Aunt Lucy’s genes?
How many F words are there in Feminism? Failure. Flight. Fire. Fight. Fame. Finally, for my generation, thanks to our mothers and grandmothers: a kind of Freedom?