Writing women, working women, idle women

I am finally wading through the copious notes I took at the Port Eliot Festival, as I wanted to give a flavour of some of the talks I heard. The variety is reRJmarkable, but I’ve tried to come up with coherent groups so I don’t weary readers too much!

Me taking notes!

First, then, Rachel Johnson at The Idler Academy. Former editor of The Lady, novelist and (among other things) sister of Boris, Rachel had been asked to talk about ‘How to be an Idle Woman’. It’s important to define the idleness here: for The Idler, idleness is not sloth, laziness or apathy; it is spending time doing something t
hat you love, that makes you happy, but that isn’t necessarily productive and that you do because you choose to – or ‘a spiritual place for ourselves’. Rachel’s approach, apparently, is to find a job which pays you to sustain your idleness – that is, which pays maximum money for minimum hours. In her case, this is writing, which enables her to spend a lot of time playing tennis. A lot of her talk was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but she made some interesting points about ‘idleness as a feminist issue’ – because women are less likely to spend time doing something for themselves than men, and also tend to ‘work even in their absence’, leaving dinners prepared for family when they go out, for example. Women should be unapologetic about their idleness – an idea I like, though personally I struggle to spend time doing something I see as unproductive. (In fact I concluded that visiting Port Eliot was my own indulgence in idleness). Lack of focus makes Rachel less successful, she thinks, but as long as she’s happy, that’s a price she’s prepared to pay – which seems to me a fairly healthy attitude in a world where everything seems to be tradeable, a consumer product which we are sold pre-packaged: spending time investing our emotions in what we love seems like a good idea to me. To be busy is fashionable, she says, so to be idle and happy we need to buck the trend.

Next to Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home I reviewed when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Her latest book is a kind of long essay, entitled Things I Don’t Want to Know; it’s a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write. Levy has some compelling things to say about writing, and writing women; she describes her writing as being about displacement – ‘on the angle between the self and the world’. Her writing crosses genres – novels, essays, poems, short stories, and screenplays, as well as an interest in theatre.

The latest book responds to Orwell’s sections on ‘Historical Impulse’, ‘Egoism’, etc, and leads Levy to explore her life and writing, and, as she put it, ‘give the ideas an airing from the female writer’s point of view.’ There is much, then, that is biographical in her essay, and it sounds as though it will be illuminating for her work, but also much more wide-reaching. She reflects on motherhood, marriage, work, the conflicts of womanhood, and links it to a network of other women writers, including Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras. This is one of the books I bought and I’m looking forward to reading it.

I also heard Rachel Cooke speak about her book Her Brilliant Career (which I also bought). I’d read a number of reviews of this and was looking forward to hearing about this history of working women in the Fifties. Cooke started by saying that the history of the Fifties has been somewhat neglected by male historians, which I think is true, but her argument was that this is because men are interested in events while women are interested in lives and stories. I need to think further about this but I find this gendered images0KNMGA7Rdichotomy rather uncomfortable, though in general it may be true. However, she clearly weaves a compelling tale about how the Fifties tend to be seen as regressive, but offered many opportunities for post-war women with a taste for work and freedom. Cooke chose women whose personal and professional lives were interesting, and explores how they came to be so successful (often at the cost of their family lives). Some had ‘modern marriages’ in which men supported their wives’ work, sharing domestic tasks; in fact, Cooke discovered, other women were more repressive of these ambitions than men. We heard some interesting anecdotes from the book, culminating in the suggestion that ‘A difficult man is a genius; a difficult woman is just difficult’, which certainly seems historically true. A rethink of the gender roles of the Fifties seems timely, especially at a time when the domestic goddess in her frilly pinny seems to be on the rise.

I also attended a discussion panel celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Though seen as less than literary, her novels have been enjoyed by many, and I’ve always rather liked them (good holiday reading) and her autobiography, Slipstream, was honest and well-written. The panel (including Rachel Cooke again) asked why it is that her novels have this less-than-literary stigma, concluding that perhaps it is because she is so honest about the lives of women. Her women characters – like herself – are vulnerable, difficult (that word again!Rachel Cooke), often immoral, and not always nice. But Howard is also frank about things that perhaps the literary establishment doesn’t approve of – sex in marriage, shopping, the boredom of life as well as it’s unexpected pleasures. She also wrote well about sisterhood, and the need for intimacy between women as a nourishing aspect in a world where men are both lovers and enemies, and she is a perspicacious and convincing writer of children characters. There are many ways in which these female characters can be related to Howard’s life, though I’m uncomfortable reading the books as manifestations of autobiography, but it was fascinating to hear the panellists’ reminiscences of meeting Howard.

The discussion moved onto Howard’s life – her lovers, her marriage to Kingsley Amis, her view that ‘romantic love trumped friendship’ which led her into many emotional tangles, her difficult relationship with her children, and the way in which she framed her life (in Slipstream, in interviews etc) as an emotional failure whilst managing to be a great success as a popular writer. The Cazalet saga is considered to be her ‘great work’ and it is a remarkable absorbing series, which perhaps deserves more literary recognition of its author’s talent than it gets.


  1. Thanks Serena very interesting blog especially the 1950’s I was a housewife but mostly worked as a necessity not so much a career, more working class jobs . Stoke-on Trent where I lived then many women worked in the potteries even before the 1950’s.

  2. Thank you. Yes, the 50s saw a lot of diversity in women’s work and attitudes towards it, I think. Working class women have always led the way in the workplace, through necessity I suppose, but not enough is made of this in women’s history in my view.

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