More on Women’s Fiction

the postcardLast year I was sent a novel by an author called Leah Fleming and I didn’t really get on with it. So when I was offered her new novel, The Postcard, this year, I hesitated. But I decided I’d give her another go and when I was under the weather a few weeks back, it looked the sort of undemanding book that was fit for the occasion. And in fact it kept me good company over three days. This is another novel that would be classified ‘women’s fiction’, not least because it deals with the kind of situation that only happened to women – how to deal with single parenthood back in the 1930s and 40s when it was a disgrace to be an unwed mother and an impossible economic conundrum too. The result, as in this case, was often a great deal of heartache and distress for all concerned.

But my feeling is that this is also called ‘women’s fiction’ because it takes a broad and multi-generational view in order to find resolution, closure and contentment, in other words, a happy ending. I was very struck once by a survey I read about that sought to identify gender difference at the level of fantasy. A group of people were given the start of a story – two trapeze artists in a circus tent are performing a routine when they fail to catch hands and one starts to fall. Apparently there was a distinct difference in the story conclusions they received. The men mostly chose an apocalyptic ending – death, disaster, even the tent going up in flames. The women mostly managed some sort of imaginative contortion to ensure the dropped artist was saved. The book that contained the survey dated from the 80s or 90s, and it may be that cultural attitudes have changed since then and the gender gap is less pronounced, but it was an intriguing finding. I would definitely have saved the trapeze artist in my own imagination, but I don’t always want a happy ending to the novels I read. So it seems to me that the whole idea of ‘women’s’ fiction rests on a narrow cultural view of women that emphasises their nurturing, tender and romantic nature – a nature that is both idealised and scorned in society, but which is definitely catered to commercially.

Anyhoo, the story begins in 2002 in Australia, with Melissa Boyd’s father asking her on his death bed to discover the truth of his origins. All he owns is a box of decaying keepsakes that includes a postcard addressed to someone named Desmond and written by his mother, promising him she’ll be home soon. Then we travel back in time to the 1920s where young Callie is growing up at the glorious Dalradnor Lodge in Scotland. She has a secure and carefree existence, brought up by her nursemaid, the Belgian Marthe, and the housekeeper, Nan Ibell. Every so often her pretty Aunt Phoebe, a Gaiety Girl dancer in London, comes to visit and spoil her with treats. Callie’s happy existence is shattered when she discovers that Phoebe is not her aunt but her mother, and she is the result of a wartime liaison. Phoebe, awkward and guilty around her own child, bungles her confession and decides simply to lift the child out of her environment and into her care, a move that only deepens Callie’s resentment.

So Callie grows up feeling both kidnapped and abandoned, and it isn’t long before she takes the first opportunity that presents itself to escape Phoebe’s authority. Inevitably escape takes the form of a foolish marriage, and before long Callie finds herself struggling to make a life in the ex-pat community in Cairo. And, destined to repeat what we don’t understand, she ends up following unwittingly in the footsteps of Aunt Phoebe, falling pregnant and taking the baby back to Scotland to bring up alone. When war breaks out again, however, Callie is approached by the secret services because of her language skills and she somewhat recklessly decides she must fulfil her duty to her country. Her choice for adventure will quickly dissolve into a harrowing ordeal with desperate consequences.

I thought this story was particularly good on the consequences of abandonment. Callie is so tangled up in her emotions over her origins that she courts abandonment at the same time as she is full of bitterness towards her mother. It takes her a whole lifetime to sort out her issues, though they are compounded in awful ways by the atrocities she lives through in the war. The war section was the part that worked less well for me as Leah Fleming does too much telling, determined to cram her pages overfull with incident. When she allowed her characters to interact in ordinary situations there was a strong narrative drive at work that kept me turning the pages. This kind of book is all about what happens next, and for the most part, I felt that the storyline was cleverly plotted, especially in the patterns and repetitions that passed down the family line through the years.

This doesn’t pretend to be great literature – it’s a solid and satisfying comfort read if you like multigenerational sagas, which in the right mood I certainly do. And I was glad to try the author again with better success.



21 thoughts on “More on Women’s Fiction

  1. The term ‘women’s fiction’ sets my teeth on edge, I’m afraid, but I was interested by survey you mention. In our house, I tend to feel that a happy ending may have to be sacrificed for a more nuanced, complex novel whereas H plumps for a happy ending every time. He’s an historian which may explain it – not so many happy endings there!

    • See I’m always intrigued by these terms that provoke big reactions – what is it about it that sets your teeth on edge? I don’t like the way the term is often used in a perjorative sense as somehow lesser or inferior. But the words themselves are so neutral, it has to be a cultural thing, not a linguistic one, if you see what I mean. How interesting that H is for the happy ending (my husband dislikes them) – you are so right about history, though!

      • So often it seems to be used in a pejorative, patronising way as if women are incapable of reading anything that might tax them. Of course, I’m conditioned by years of bookselling cynicism brought on by publishers’ marketing departments!

    • The thing that is crucial for me is the effect, not whether it’s happy or not. I didn’t think that when I was younger, but I think about the nuts and bolts of plots much more these days.

      I can think of a book where a type of happy/uplifting ending was an unexpected outcome in a bleak situation and made for a very memorable effect. And another book where the outcome should have been unhappy for a more powerful outcome, but was not.

      No spoilers though in case you haven’t read them!

  2. Intriguing – particularly that survey. I *don’t* necessarily want a happy ending (depends what I’m reading). I usually need some kind of resolution but it has to be consistent with the whole of the book. I wonder whether it depends what kind of reader you are, too? if you, say, like to read traditional mainstream women’s books, you may be the type that prefers a happy ending. If you read more widely, that may not be necessary for you. It would depend very much on the demographic of the people surveyed too…. I tend to be suspicious of surveys by nature – I think I’ll just read whatever takes my mood, whether it’s “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” or “Life: A User’s Manual” (and you couldn’t get much farther apart than those two!)

    • I read the book years ago but it was an academic one, based on psychological studies carried out at a university. I believe there were about 60-70 people studied in the instance described, but more than that I don’t know. I presume any psychological study worth its salt attempts to get a demographic spread? I do think it depends on the type of reader you are – but my curiosity is aroused by whether you can then see in certain types of readers certain cultural responses. If you like traditional mainstream fiction as your staple reading diet, wouldn’t you then necessarily subscribe to certain traditional ideologies that underpin that sort of story? There are all sorts of intriguing questions about comfort zones and sympathetic characters that get mixed up in this. I don’t have any answers particularly, but I think the questions are provocative!

  3. I also dislike the term ‘women’s fiction’, which belittles the fiction, the choice of topics and the authors writing it. I’d also like more details about that survey, as I don’t think the ‘happy ending’ division is along gender lines necessarily. I have to admit, though, I tend to steer clear of ‘multigenerational sagas’ and romances, so this may not be my cup of tea (but I’m always willing to admit when I am prejudiced and am reading a great book in this subgenre).

    • See, I don’t believe the term in itself is perjorative, but that there is a line of literary criticism that uses it that way. And I’m very curious about that. Why should the words ‘women’s fiction’, so ordinary, so neutral, be burdened with this sense of inferiority? To my mind, it has to come from the beliefs we have about a cultural image of Woman – and that image may well be far from the truth about what women are like, but it may still have power – certainly the power to make people react either for or against it. Not that I’m saying this has, in fact, anything to do with the book itself or the experience of reading it. I’ve found such an enormous variety of books stuck under the label of women’s fiction that it couldn’t possibly!

      • I think it cuts both ways; there is a whole genre of “men’s fiction” (at least in marketing) exemplified by books like the “Nick Stone” series of Andy McNab. Now I have not read any of these but I suspect that they are treated (or more accurately their genre are treated) in some quarters with the same intrinsic disdain that “woman’s fiction” is.

  4. Given my history on this issue I guess you will expect me to pop up here!

    “So it seems to me that the whole idea of ‘women’s’ fiction rests on a narrow cultural view of women that emphasises their nurturing, tender and romantic nature – a nature that is both idealised and scorned in society, but which is definitely catered to commercially.”

    I believe that some men buy into the concept of “romance” rather more than I do (I mean in life as opposed to fiction) but although perforce mothers have to nurture children and are hard-wired to do so as well as physically adapted I am less convinced that there is an innate aspect of tenderness or nurturing which is intrinsically female. I think mostly and possibly in entirety it is a societal construct. I certainly don’t scorn those traits and neither do I idealise them. I think you are totally correct when you say that, for whatever reason and I suspect politics has something to do with it, commercialization tends very strongly in that direction.

    The trapeze story is interesting and I have no idea what my choice of ending might be, but I echo Kaggsy in my desire for unhappy endings in many cases and (as you will remember from our discussions of last year) there are books which are completely spoiled in the final chapter by one being provided.

    • Well I think what I’m talking about here isn’t so much about any one individual emotion or quality – ‘tenderness’, say or ‘romance’, but about a package deal of gender identity. I think any one can experience any emotion at any point in their lives, just as they can display any quality, depending on the circumstances. It’s more about the way that for women (particularly) our sense of identity has long been bound up with a certain kind of story – about being a nurse and a helpmate and sweet and gentle and kind. Now this may not fit the experience of many women in their lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s become powerless or without influence. I suppose what I’m most interested in is a belief I have that many women would scorn such an identity as having nothing to do with themselves, and yet – and yet – they may still be affected by it quite deeply, as an image that they do not wish to conform to (or indeed cannot conform to) but perhaps ought to. Or maybe think other women ought to. This is bound up with my curiosity about the stranglehold of sympathetic characters, and what we mean by that term and why they are so rigorously policed by some readers (not all).

      My feeling is that it is fashionable at the moment, and particularly in any educated circles, to revoke the whole idea of gender identity, and to insist that men and women can be anything they like. I don’t think this is so – I think the old stereotypes are still operative underground in all kinds of ways, and certainly when you enter into tricky territories like motherhood it seems to me there are powerful rules in place determining how you can and cannot act. So I just have to get my hands dirty as it were, and try to keep thinking about the identities we allow ourselves as admirable and right, and the ways that we actually behave. And literature, particularly mass market fiction, is a very useful place to explore these sorts of questions. 🙂

  5. >>>I would definitely have saved the trapeze artist in my own imagination, but I don’t always want a happy ending to the novels I read.

    Yes! Exactly! This is why I’m so fond of ambiguous endings, where you get to decide in your own mind what happens after. They don’t feel like a cheat, the way unwarrantedly happy endings do, but they leave me able to think: Yes, the trapeze artist was saved. Hooray!

    • Ah Jenny, we do react very similarly, I think. I am especially fond of endings where you go the final mile in your own head. I agree they can be extremely satisfying.

  6. I suppose one problem is that you don’t really hear the term ‘men’s fiction’ bandied about so much – it tends to be just ‘fiction’ – or fantasy (although that has also been traditionally scorned) or thrillers or whatever. (Although I might be wrong about that, my finger is hardly on the cultural pulse, maybe every bookshop now features a ‘men’s fiction’ section with big cardboard cut-outs of men looking surly with guns.)

    • Hehe! Note how empty the relevant section in Wikipedia is (reminds me of the empty room in Nancy Friday’s “My Secret Garden”). Surly (but ruggedly handsome) man with MG42 with sultry barely dressed woman in background surely (plus black cat sicking up fur-ball on the floor)

    • Lol – no, you don’t hear ‘men’s fiction’ anywhere near as much, although you’re right, that sort of macho guns and fist fight war thriller tends to move towards being labelled male. But then it’s Caroline who runs the war and literature readalong with well over half her commenters seeming to be female. There seems more flexibility in the average woman reader as opposed to the average male (I don’t mean you, DP! You are excluded). I will happily read both romance and thriller, whereas I have never yet persuaded Mr Litlove to read romance (and doubt I ever will). I love the images that both you, Helen, and DP conjure up!

  7. Pingback: Links: Monday, August 25th | Love in the Margins

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