So there I am, deeply entrenched in my computer, working on my current book and trying to put into words the terror, the devastation, the grief, that a mother might feel when she discovers that her five-year-old son has gone missing. I was going to have him found murdered, but that was a horror too far: I discovered I simply couldn’t write about such an event.
And then comes the reminder that the rest of the week will be stormy, intermittently rainy, streaked with lightning and blighted by hailstones as big as melons. And I have to leave my desk right now and get on with the chore in hand, before all of that descends upon me.
And having assembled a pot of varnish, paintbrush, paper-towels etc, and tied an apron round myself to avoid any splashes, having sanded down the surface and disposed of the dust thus raised, I start to give the picnic table a much-needed coat of vernis extérieure satiné. As I work, my mind is still on the travails of my poor heroine; I hate to leave her dangling there – who knows what might happen while I’m not there in attendance. And shall I have the child snatched – if snatched he was – from her own home, or from somewhere else? Have I made my possible abductor too obvious?
Which is the point at which I think to myself: “Hang about! I should be sitting at my desk, working these details out, not splashing thick brown gloop all over the terrasse.” And I think further, “Did Jane Austen ever have to break off from writing Mansfield Park in order to varnish the picnic table? Can you imagine Virginia Woolf leaving Mrs Dalloway in order to palely swish a brush back and forth across the slats, one hand pressed to the headache building behind her eyes? Or Francis Hodgson Burnett dropping Little Lord Fauntleroy in mid-simper? Mrs Gaskell forsaking North and South? Simone de Beauvoir, for gosh sakes, jumping up from the page of The Second Sex currently rolled into her typewriter?” The battle against dust and dirt (and unvarnished picnic tables) is never won., this wise woman once wrote and of course, the corollary is: so why bother?
But with regard to these earlier women writers, how, you may well ask, do I know that they didn’t varnish outdoor furniture? Obviously I don’t, but I can hazard a guess which I’m prepared to bet will be 100% accurate. Contemporary women writers may have all the time-saving gadgets in the world. But most of them don’t have what those earlier literary ladies had, the very best time-saving gadget of them all: servants. Or as we ought to say, in these enlightened times, Staff, though I’m not sure that someone who comes in once a week to help keep the house dusted counts as Staff. I’ve had three or four of those, over the years, but not anymore. I don’t want to spend precious writing time discussing (or listening to moans about) peoples’ fallen arches or their delinquent son’s brushes with Social Services. And I long ago decided I’d rather have a dusty cobwebbed house than have to be ‘sociable’ in the middle of the working day. Which doubtless makes me an unsympathetic character not worth the paper I write on.
But while I’m sure Mrs Gaskell often had to deal with her Staff, likewise Jane Austen, I don’t really see either of them rolling up their sleeves and actually laying fires, polishing silver, black-leading the range. Or even cutting hedges, unlike the women writers of today. And, had she been constantly interrupted with tedious domestic detail, how profound would de Beauvoir’s aperçus have been? This was a woman who boldly eschewed all that, arguing that housewifery was a main ingredient in the social thinking which tied women down and turned them into virtual slaves.
Le Deuxième Sexe was published in English in 1953, but I didn’t read it until the ’60s, when I was living in Paris, young, exuberant and thrilled at the slicing of the umbilical cords of boarding school, which its outdated mores, and a ‘proper’ upbringing which, I gradually came to see were merely the shackles which continued the enslavement of women. It was such exciting stuff, the forerunner of the feminist movement, the first ‘important’ life-changing book I had ever read, and it certainly influenced my life quite literally forever. I grew up with four brothers: if for no other reason, the book was liberating and exhilarating.
The Second Sex is a detailed and factual account not only of the way in which male dominance had defined women as subservient, but the shocking manner in which women themselves had connived in this, allowing themselves to be subjugated into a secondary role, or even demoralized into complete invisibility. And I’m talking about the 1960s, not the 1860s. On the other hand, de Beauvoir famously said that her relationship with Sartre was her greatest achievement, one in which she tamely acceded to his desire for an ‘open’ relationship. In other words, the freedom to screw around wherever and whenever he felt like it. So not entirely convinced of her own arguments, one might think.
Back to my picnic table … I am now, partly thanks to de Beauvoir, able to varnish it myself, without recourse to any if the males in my life. Nor to my non-existent Staff. Of course there are plenty of writers who do have recourse to people to fulfil similar mundane tasks. Women who count their sales in gazillions and have big hair. Writers who produce a door-stop of a book every year, usually one which deals with angst, betrayal and ennui among the richer classes. This anecdote may be apochryphal, but I heard of one of this fabled tribe who had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig which was allowed to roam freely through one of her palatial residences. Nothing wrong with that, you may say. Well, no. But Staff had to be brought in on a regular basis to treat the pot-bellied pig for chronic constipation, using a method I won’t reveal because it’s far too disgusting. Though if I had a pot-bellied pig, of whatever nationality, running round my luxury home, I think I’d rather it had constipation than not … The writer (male) who told me this while drinking freely from a pint tankard at some crime writing conference swore it was true.
At last! Picnic table now waterproofed, I can get back to my computer …