Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns

Last week I was on holiday in Devon, and while browing a lovely second hand bookshop in Topsham (a very pretty town on the River Exe estuary – well worth a visit!), I came across an entire bookshelf filled with Viragos. These weren’t just the usual Viragos; there was a huge collection of very early ones, in a design and by authors I didn’t recognise. Intrigued, I spent some time reading the blurbs to find out more, and ended up walking away with one that sounded like a British precursor to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale: Benefits, by Zoe Fairbairns. Published in 1979, the novel starts in the author’s contemporary world, before eventually moving through to a projected future in the late 1990s. It centres around Lynn Byers, who, in the 1970s, is a young, married journalist who feels ambivalent about having children and is interested in the Women’s Liberation Movement, but not actively involved. She and her husband live on Seyer Street, a Victorian slum in South London that really should be condemned, and at the end of the street is an abandoned Local Authority tower block of flats, Collindeane, which immediately after its building was deemed unfit to house people and so has been left to slowly rot, and is then taken over by a group of radical feminists as a commune. Lynn has no relationship with her neighbouring feminists until the government decides to stop paying women Child Benefit, which causes a great deal of feminist outrage, and so Lynn heads over to Collindeane to hear what the women have to say about it. While there, she meets Posy, the enigmatic Australian ringleader of the commune, and timid, impressionable Marsha, its well-to-do young financier, who has run away from her wealthy background and its expectations to live life on her own terms. Posy sees herself as the head of a new worldwide feminist revolution, but her desire to lead is at odds with the women’s opposition to hierarchical structures. She is in love with Marsha, but Marsha’s fear of leaving her boyfriend David, and a conventional life, is creating a great deal of tension between the women. Into the fray enters Lynn, keen to know and understand more about the women’s movement and how to bring about societal change.

Fast forward a few years, and the government has been taken over by the Family Party, who want to pay women to stay at home and look after their children and restrict them from working. Family First and a return to traditional values is touted as true freedom for women, who can devote their energies to the home, without having to worry about money. However, this payment, called Benefit, can be withdrawn if a woman is deemed not good enough at her work of motherhood – if she is a feminist, or a lesbian, if she refuses to have sex with her husband, leaves her husband, or tries to earn any money outside of the home, and if this happens, she has to go to a reeducation centre in order to learn her true role and earn back her right to Benefit payments. As the book progresses, Family First’s policies become even more extreme, with enforced sterilisation of ‘undesirable’ women, the encouragement of people reporting on neighbours and friends who might be ‘undesirable’, increased removal of Benefit payments from ‘unsuitable’ mothers, and a corresponding plunge into mass austerity, as families struggle to make ends meet in a country whose economy has declined rapidly. When Marsha returns from a decade of travelling the world with Posy, spreading the message of feminism, to find her former boyfriend David in charge of sterilisation in the Family Party and a country in tatters, she decides that it’s time she stopped relying on everyone else to take action and did something herself. Rallying the women of Collindeane together, with the support of Lynn and her husband Derek, they start to mount a resistance. But how far are they willing to go to achieve change, and if they are successful, can they agree on what an equitable future would look like?

The story is far more complicated than this brief summary can explain, and I’ve left out various characters and details that would spoil the plot if I told you, but the overarching story of how quickly a government can take control of women’s rights, freedoms and reproductive choices is both compelling, and chilling. The blurb on the back compares it to an H.G.Wells novel in its dystopic vision, and I can see the comparison, but there is also much to compare with Atwood in its sensitive, complex and emotive exploration of women’s experiences, relationships and internal conflicts over their life choices. Lynn fears what motherhood would do to her intellectual life, her career, and her marriage and friendships, but she also has a genuine desire to be a mother and bring up a child, and in her thirties, she doesn’t have much time left to make a decision. If she does have a child, will she regret it as much as if she didn’t? Would the sacrifices she had to make be worth it? The fact that women still need to have these debates, forty years after this book was written, is a powerful indictment of how little progress really has been made for women in the 20th and 21st centuries. Derek, Lynn’s husband, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter, as he knows it won’t affect his life in the same way; after all, it will be Lynn juggling the childcare while still trying to have a life of her own, and we know from the statistics of how much childcare and housework women do compared to men, despite working full time outside of the home, that this is not a situation that has changed for many women. The feminist commune’s outrage at a male government making choices about women’s reproductive rights also feels depressingly contemporary; you only need to look at the debates surrounding access to abortion in America to know that this is still so many women’s daily reality in the so-called liberal Western world.

Benefits is a brilliantly written, incisive exploration of the complexities and absurdities of gender roles and expectations, and while it absolutely advocates the power of women to bring about change through collective action, it also sensitively and realistically depicts how difficult it can be to have a collective movement when everyone’s experiences of being a woman are very different. It also has much to say about the challenges of social economic policies and of juggling support of the vulnerable without incentivising irresponsible behaviour; David, Marsha’s former boyfriend, is a fascinating character in this respect. While it is a little dated in places, it really doesn’t feel forty years old, and I loved every minute. It gave me so much to think about, and I really can’t understand why it hasn’t become a more foundational feminist literary text. It’s easily on a par with The Handmaid’s Tale, and would be an excellent comparative text to teach alongside it. I’m going to be recommending this to everyone; it’s still in print, though no longer by Virago (I wonder why not?) and I really encourage you to read it. I’m so excited to have found Zoe Fairbairns’ writing, and I can’t wait to read more of her work!

Talking about women

I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. A slow, simmering anger at the way women are treated as second class citizens in society has bubbled underneath the surface of my seemingly placid exterior for many years. Most of the time when I’m harassed, heckled or, worse, touched – this happens a lot on crowded public transport, so I have one thing to thank coronavirus for – I put up and shut up, as we women have been conditioned to since time immemorial. Just ignore it. Just keep walking. Don’t engage, don’t escalate. As we women know, those who think we ask for it by wearing too much make up and too short skirts, the level of harassment we face is not in any way correlative to our appearance – I have even been harassed and heckled while on a school trip with a gaggle of my students staring wide-eyed behind me. I can promise you that my regulation school trip raincoat is not in any way sexy. That was a great lesson for my students on why Miss is always banging on about feminism.

My anger reached boiling point last week in a meeting where as a department we were talking about teaching Of Mice and Men to a class, and how we would handle the racism in the novel without upsetting or making uncomfortable the black students in the room. The n word is said numerous times in the novel, and it’s a discussion so many teachers have around the world every year, I’m sure – do we say it? Is it ok to say it even after we’ve explained the context? Is it a word that should now never be said? As a word, it carries such a weight, and it’s one that needs to rightly be measured with such care when it’s encountered in the classroom. What made me angry in that meeting was the sudden realisation that we weren’t having the same conversation about the words used to describe Curly’s wife in the book. Why weren’t we worrying equally about how the girls would feel about hearing a girl, of a similar age to them, described as a bitch? As jailbait? As a tart? As a rattrap? As a tramp? As poison? Why aren’t these words treated with the same horror and aversion as the n word? Why don’t they carry the same weight of violence and trauma? Because they should, shouldn’t they? Calling a woman a dog means she is being called subhuman. Therefore less than, and not entitled to the same rights as, men. And to call a woman ‘bait’ or a ‘trap’ for men – suggests that they should carry the full responsibility of men’s reactions to them. This is where our victim blaming and shaming comes from. Our language forms our way of seeing the world. The n word is now very rightly recognised as being a horrifically derogatory and demeaning word. However, the fact that similarly derogatory and demeaning words in our vocabulary used to describe women are not seen as such, and have become accepted and normalised, says everything about women’s place in our society.  Every time we use these words we are reaffirming the fact that women are seen as less than men, in every way. And yet no one bats an eyelid at them. In my almost ten years of teaching, I’ve been part of countless discussions about how to sensitively communicate racist language in novels. I’ve never once heard any one discuss how to communicate misogynist language.

I watched a powerful documentary last night, on Netflix, called Missrepresentation, all about how society’s way of viewing women is formed by the media we consume. It told me nothing I didn’t already know, but seeing it laid out in facts and figures was incredibly upsetting. So many people tell me that feminism isn’t necessary any more – that we have equality now – and yet this documentary shows in indisputable statistics that we’re actually going backwards, not forwards, in the fight for equal rights for women. Less than 10% of films made have women as the main character, but even in those films where women are the main character, the plot of almost all of those films involves the woman’s pursuit of a man to complete her life. What message does this send to the children in our classrooms, who now spend most of their free time watching Netflix? When they see women represented, they see them represented entirely within a context of their relationship to men. Success for a woman, in a film, is, over 90% of the time, seen as achieving a successful relationship with a man. The same cannot be said if you reverse the genders, of course. Men in films are out saving the world, achieving career success, defeating enemies and generally proving how strong and brave they are – of course, this carries just as much of a problematic weight as the passive depictions of women in media, because it makes boys and men think that they have to ape this almost toxic level of masculinity in order to be successful in life. But at least men are told that they have a contribution to make to the world – for women, the overriding message is, success for you is getting that ring on your finger and a baby in the oven. No matter what else you achieve in life, ultimately, without a man by your side, you’ve achieved nothing. Sounds like a plot of a nineteenth century novel, doesn’t it? And yet here we are two hundred years later, still peddling the same narratives.

Last week, one of my female sixth formers said that feminism has gone ‘too far’. I could have cried. The fight is so far from over, and yet the greatest victory patriarchy has achieved in the twenty first century is normalising misogyny to the point where many people have become convinced there was and is no need for a fight in the first place. What’s the solution? Well, we need better stories, and we need better language. And more of us need to recognise that we need these, and we need to fight for them to become reality. No more putting up and shutting up. Because if we keep doing that, nothing will ever change, and in two hundred years’ time, we’ll still be reading novels and watching films where women are bit parts in their own lives.

READING FROM MY SHELVES: SEPTEMBER

Books started: 4

Books finished: 3

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 2

It’s been a slow reading month again here. I am continuing to struggle with exhaustion, despite being back at school for six weeks now; many of my colleagues feel the same. We normally feel pretty tired when we first come back to school in September and are thrown back into the fray again after our bodies and minds have become used to a lovely long rest, but by now, the tiredness has normally abated and we’re back in the rhythm of the teaching day. This is an exhaustion that makes me want to curl up and sleep at 8pm, leaves me struggling to wake up in the morning, and makes me find it hard to concentrate on anything once I get home from work. Discussing it with a colleague yesterday, we came to the realisation that we’re all suffering from an anxiety so deep-seated we haven’t even noticed it anymore. I liken it a bit to how leaving background apps running on your phone slowly drains the battery without you realising. Living in a world that is so different in so many ways, remembering all the new rules, constantly being alert about where you’re standing and what you’re touching and who you might be making feel uncomfortable, as well the lack of certainty about anything, the fear of things never going back to normal, and the general feeling of being totally out of control of your own life, has all contributed to a deep-boned tiredness I’ve never experienced before.

So, I’ve been taking care of myself as much as I can; not pressuring myself to do more than I feel able to, and focusing on what brings me joy, as Marie Kondo would say. The highlight of my month was going to the theatre. I went to see An Evening with An Immigrant by Inua Ellams at the wonderful Bridge Theatre, which was absolutely wonderful – so powerful and thought provoking, but also funny and heartwarming and truly inspiring. I loved every minute, and it was euphoric to be back in a theatre again. As I sipped on my interval wine and sat back and enjoyed the people watching of my fellow audience members, I felt, for a moment, like I had slipped back into my old life. It gave me hope to be there, in that space, with other people who love the Arts and were clearly thrilled to be there too, experiencing something communally again. If you’re in London or its environs, I would strongly recommend booking one of the upcoming performances; we need to support our theatres! The National Theatre is also opening again this month…I shall be booking tickets and can’t wait to get back inside one of my favourite places in London!

Reading this month has been minimal and has consisted of two re-reads and an Agatha Christie, as well as some fantastic Gloria Steinem essays. I kicked off the month with the marvellous The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which left me an emotional wreck for the second time in my life, and is still one of the best books I have ever read – not having read it since I was at university, I was worried it wouldn’t have the same profundity as I had found the first time, but I was delighted to find it just the same work of genius as before. Simon and I discussed it on our Tea or Books? podcast here, and we both agreed it is just the most quietly, brilliantly devastating novel. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a butler, Stevens, in the 1950s, looking back over his career and his relationship with the former housekeeper of the Hall where he continues to work despite its heyday being long gone and its rooms largely shut up, and it has to be the most heart wrenching depiction of emotional repression and missed opportunity I have ever read. Though it’s funny, too, I must mention that – there are some lovely moments and humorous asides that lift the tone and add to the complexity of Stevens’ character. Ishiguro’s artfully restrained prose is pure pleasure to read and the story will continue to stay with me forever. It’s a perfect Autumnal novel, and if you haven’t yet read it, now is the time!

I also re-read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea for teaching purposes, which I found even more brilliant than my first reading back at university. Rhys was a phenomenal writer; this has reminded me I must explore more of her work. The exotic, superstitious malevolence of nineteenth century Jamaica is so vividly drawn, and the descriptions of lush groves singing with the pattering of summer rains, and the stifling nights filled with the fear of eyes watching and plotting revenge in the darkness, are mesmerising. Rhys’ reimagining of the Bertha-Rochester marriage and the experiences that formed both of the characters’ personalities and behaviour towards one another is such a magnificent example of both feminist and postcolonial literature. In giving Bertha a voice and a life outside of the attic of Thornfield Hall, she opens a window into a nineteenth century patriarchal and colonial world that entirely shifts the narrative of Jane Eyre into a new and deeply troubling direction. We’ve been having marvellous discussions in class about it, after having just studied Jane Eyre; it’s a challenging novel for my sixth formers to grapple with, but they’ve loved exploring how an author has taken a story and made it into another one all of her own. We even wondered today whether Jane would one day end up the same way as Bertha, trapped in the lush green dell of Ferndean when Rochester decides he wants a new, younger model…a revisionist sequel lies potentially in the making there!

Here’s hoping October has me finding more time to read; I need to get back to those shelves of mine – I’m still stuck at K!

London’s Notable Women: Lilian Lindsay

Lilian Lindsay, by Kathleen Williams

I have been taking photos of English Heritage’s blue plaques featuring women for quite some time now, meaning to research their lives and form a directory of some nature. So today’s post will be the first of many monthly posts, doing just this. I hope you’ll enjoy finding out more about these many remarkable women!

First up, is Lilian Lindsay (1871-1960), who was the first female dentist to qualify in Britain; note the Britain and not England, as she was forced to move from her home in London to study dentistry in Scotland, as no school in England would accept her. According to the British Dental Association’s very informative profile of her here, she was interviewed for a place at the National Dental Hospital in London on the pavement outside, as the hospital’s director, Henry Weiss, was so concerned that her very presence in the building would form a distraction to male students that he wouldn’t let her in the building. Rejected from her applications to study in England, she went north to Edinburgh, where she was accepted to the city’s dental school, though not without being told by a member of staff there that in doing so, she was taking the bread from a male student’s mouth.

Lilian well and truly proved her detractors wrong through her remarkable capacities as a surgeon and scholar. She won the Wilson Medal for dental surgery and pathology and the medal for materia medica and therapeutics in 1894, and qualified in 1895, becoming the first woman in the UK to do so. She promptly moved back to London, where she established a highly successful dental surgery in Hornsey, North London, and worked for ten years to pay off the bank loan she had taken out to fund her studies.

The bank loan paid off, Lilian married her former university tutor, Robert Lindsay, in 1905. They practised as dentists together in Edinburgh, and were prominent members of the newly established British Dental Association, with Lilian being its first female member. Passionate about her profession, and particularly its history, Lilian became the honorary librarian of the BDA in 1920 when her husband became its secretary. The couple moved into a flat above the BDA’s offices in London’s Russell Square, where Lilian remained after her husband’s death ten years later, and all throughout the Blitz, refusing to leave the library’s precious resources unguarded. Lilian founded the BDA’s library, amassed a world-leading collection on the history of dentistry, and learnt numerous European languages, as well as Old English, to help with her research and translation of historical artefacts. She published a book, A Short History of Dentistry, in 1933, and contributed tens of journal articles to the British Dental Journal, for which she was sub editor for twenty years. She became the first female president of the BDA in 1946.

A leading figure in both the practice and history of dentistry, Lilian was a true pioneer whose perseverance in the face of much resistance to women’s involvement in the world of medicine enabled her to make an enormously valuable and long-lasting contribution to her chosen field. Despite attending Frances Mary Buss’ pioneering North London Collegiate School for Girls as a teenager, Lilian was advised by her teachers to give up any idea of studying dentistry and instead become a teacher – a far more fitting career for a woman. Strong-minded enough to ignore this discouragement, Lilian managed to gain a three year apprenticeship to experience dentistry for herself, and after scraping together enough loans to do so, applied to study dentistry, refusing to give up when she could find no school in England willing to take her. She didn’t allow societal standards, rejection or financial difficulties to stop her from striving to achieve her dreams, and in daring to believe that she could do what no other woman had done before, she made history and paved the way to making dentistry a profession where, in the UK, women are now the majority.

A blue plaque was placed on Lilian’s childhood home in North London in 2013; sadly, a developer illegally demolished the house, and so her plaque was moved to the house where she lived in Russell Square last year, which is right next door to Faber and Faber’s original old offices. Perhaps Lilian and T.S.Eliot used to cross paths! Bloomsbury, where Russell Square is situated, is a treasure trove for blue plaques commemorating women, and I’ll feature another remarkable resident next month.

Reading from my shelves: August

Books started: 5

Books finished: 4

Books abandoned: 0

Books kept on the shelf: 4

My reading slowed down enormously in August as I spent three weeks on holiday with little time or inclination to pick up a book. At the beginning of the month, I went on a mammoth road trip to a cottage on the edge of Loch Broom, which is in the Highlands of Scotland, and the furthest point north on this little island I’ve ever ventured. We stopped for a few days en route in beautiful Ambleside in the Lake District, where we were blessed with unusually lovely weather that gave us breathtaking views on our rambles up and around the lakes and fells. Coronavirus had shut some favourite visiting places, but the great outdoors was still very much open for business, and it was such bliss to be amidst such beauty in one of my absolute favourite parts of the country.

Driving from the Lake District up to Loch Broom was such a treat; I’d struggle to find anywhere else, I think, where the landscape changes so dramatically and so quickly as you travel north and transition from rolling green countryside to bracken-browned moorland, dramatic mountain ranges, thick, pungent-scented pine forests and along the edges of huge, sparkling lochs dotted with crumbling castle ruins, every vista offering delight and wonder and awe. The area where we stayed, near Ullapool, was absolutely beautiful, filled with incredible mountains and coastline and lush forests of ferns and trickling waterfalls. We saw dolphins swimming in the distance at Cromarty, drove across the beautiful bridge to the stunning island of Skye, ate fish and chips caught fresh from the sea in Ullapool, and walked along the sandy, almost tropical looking beach at Dornoch. We had a wonderful time, and yet more joy was to come; we finished our epic tour of the North by heading to Whitby, passing through Edinburgh briefly for an all too quick lunch with my dear university friend Emma. We stayed in the picture-postcard moorland village of Lockton, about a twenty minute drive from Whitby, and we walked across the moors (getting horribly lost in the process), watched the sun set over Whitby Abbey, and walked along the cliff path above Robin Hood’s Bay, and stuffed ourselves with fish and chips. It was marvellous. On our way home, we stopped briefly in Scarborough so I could finally visit Anne Brontë’s grave – it’s beautifully situated in a churchyard overlooking the sea, and touchingly covered with recent flowers – as well as in York, so I could pop to Betty’s for some of my favourite biscuits! – before heading home. I must have driven at least 1000 miles over the course of our two week trip, and after a couple of days’ rest, I was on the road again with a different friend, this time heading south, to Devon.

Devon is my absolute favourite place in the whole world; I love its beaches, its countryside, and its relaxed pace of life. I spent every summer there as a child, and it is filled with happy memories for me. Though the heat wave we had all been enjoying had cooled off considerably by the time we made it to the coast, the damper weather didn’t ruin our trip. We stayed in a tiny, beautiful coastal village called Buck’s Mills, just next to the famous Clovelly, and near the Cornish border. We swam in the sea, we visited our favourite National Trust property, Killerton, and our favourite beach at Sandymouth, we went to Tintagel to see King Arthur, and we found a wonderful new place that we’ll go back to again and again – Hartland Abbey, which was used as the film set for Sense and Sensibility. Still a family home, it’s a wonderful place, with amazing grounds, its own fabulous beach, and a tea room to die for. They also have the friendliest staff I’ve ever met – it’s a must see if you’re in the area. We relaxed, we talked, we drank wine, we ate cake – it was blissful. Just what I needed before going back to school.

For back to school I now am, which partly explains the lack of reading, as my final week in August was spent at work, and switching my brain back on all day has been rather exhausting. But on holiday and in between holidays, I did manage four books; Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Summer by Ali Smith, English Climate: Wartime Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (a re-read for school purposes). I enjoyed them all, in very different ways; Corregidora I found a very visceral exploration of the scars of slavery and the burden carried in its descendants through the story of the protagonist, singer Ursa, whose turbulent and violent sexual relationships echo the abuse meted out on her grandmother and great-grandmother by their owner, Corregidora. I found it a painful, troubling and eye-opening read; not an easy one, but a necessary one. I would definitely be interested in reading more of Jones’ work, and would welcome any recommendations!

I picked up the newly released Summer from an independent bookshop in Ullapool, as I’ve been meaning to try Smith’s now quartet of seasonal novels for quite some time. Deliberately written and published incredibly quickly in order to reflect the current state and mood of society on its release, Summer is so current that it even explores the effect of coronavirus and the lockdown. A story about uncertainty, and change, and the ties that bind people together beyond blood, it’s told through the interconnected stories of various people whose lives randomly intersect over the first few months of 2020. I literally couldn’t put it down, and devoured it in a couple of sittings; I found it so powerful, and refreshing, and moving, and so exactly reflective of the confusion and fury and uncertainty I have been feeling over these last few turbulent months. I felt quite tearful with gratitude by the end, to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, and am absolutely in awe at Smith’s genius at being able to capture the zeitgeist so marvellously. I have since worked out that the previous books in the quartet use some of the same characters, though they can be read as stand alones, and I now can’t wait to read the rest. You mustn’t miss them.

Persephone’s new collection of Townsend Warner stories contains some real gems, that offer a rare glimpse of contemporary experiences of war, while the war was still ongoing. Taken mainly from Warner’s stories published in the New Yorker, the collection is a little uneven, and I have to say that I did find some of them quite dull, especially as I was expecting something a little more whimsical, along the lines of Lolly Willowes. Nonetheless, they were an enjoyable read, and as always from Persephone, a fascinating slice of social history. They’d be perfect to dip in and out of as the evenings lengthen.

What will September’s reading hold, as Autumn begins to descend and I feel inclined to reach for cosy rather than cerebral tomes? I am going to give myself some leeway to reach for old favourites as my mind recovers from its long lethargy, but I need to get back on the wagon of reading my unread books from my shelves. I made it as far as I in the alphabet of author’s surnames, so I have Jack Kerouac up next, before moving on to my apparently many unread Ls…