Two slim books about women, one a fiction of a young woman’s life, the other a kind of biography inspired by a film and its maker. One written and published in the 1950’s, the other published in 2012 but concerning itself with events of the 1970’s.
The opening lines of the earlier book immediately identify it as English, with a young and rather quaint voice:
A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.
The second book begins with a visual image and is immediately oppressive:
Seen from a distance, a woman, etched against the darkness…Framed by mountains of rubble, a tiny white figure, barely more than a dot against the dark expanse…
This second book is written by Nathalie Léger, a French author, quite academic in her approach. She was asked to write a small entry for a film encyclopedia about the woman who acted in and directed a film, Wanda, in 1970, but became quite overwhelmingly interested in her subject, Barbara Loden, and Loden’s subject Wanda. She says:
I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form; a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.
In the 123 pages it takes Nathalie Léger to tell the story of Barbara Loden and her film, we see into Léger’s own life. Conversations with her mother, often difficult, musings on her own life and on Barbara Loden’s life with Elia Kazan to whom she was married for a while, and on Loden’s subject whom she called Wanda, a poor simple woman, divorced by her first husband because she was hopeless at all the things a woman should be able to do, house work and child care. A woman who drifts, just getting by on her looks and her body. Not that special, you might say, but available. In fact her looks and her body are all she has. Nathalie Léger relates to the pull of attraction between the sexualised woman and the hunting male. She alludes to her own sometimes impulsive sexual acts. She can relate to the poor woman sitting at the bar in the diner with no money in her pocket. Barbara Loden’s character encompasses women from Marilyn Monroe to Bonny of Bonny and Clyde. Wanda almost seeks out a life in jail. It feels safer. Many other women were moved by Leger’s little book. In 2012 she won the Prix du Livre Inter which is awarded by popular vote of readers across France.
What then are the commonalities between this book and Barbara Comyns’s which has quite a different voice in her narrator, Alice, eighteen years old and living with her parents, a beauty, or so it is implied by the description of her flowing golden hair and the undesirable attention she gets from lecherous males? Alice has a unique way of seeing the world, but she has had to learn to keep her head down and submit. Her timid suffering mother can’t protect her from her father, the vet who gives unwanted animals by the bagful to the vivisectionist, who kicked her mother in the teeth as she knelt to take his boots off. They live in an atmosphere of fear and quite significant deprivation. And like Wanda, Alice is quite unprotected. She has no relatives and the few allies she has do not have the means or power to help her in any significant way.
Her mother dies, and after an experience of entrapment and near rape she returns home:
I stood outside our house. I could see my father in the gaslight standing by his roll-top desk sort of snarling to himself. I dared not go into the house all pulled about and stained…
She runs to the only safe place she knows, the home of Mrs Churchill the charwoman. But still, eventually she has to return home. She realises the assistant vet, a quiet man called Henry Peebles, has a soft spot for her. He is kind and trustworthy. But to Alice he is boring. She calls him (to herself) Blinkers. The thought of having Blinkers gazing at her devotedly for the rest of her life appalls her. She wants love and excitement. Like Wanda.
She gets away from her father into a claustrophobic kind of employment for a while. She attracts the attention of a handsome upper-class young man, Nicholas:
I landed at the feet of a young man wearing a white sweater. He picked me up with much care, as if I’d been a little wax dolly, and carefully brushed my coat with his hands. I thanked him, but I could barely bear to look at him, he was so handsome. There was a sort of aura of easy happiness around him; no one else I’d seen close-to had that look about them.
Maybe there is an alternative to Blinkers. She is filled with hope and excitement.
I won’t give away any more of the plot of this extraordinary novel, also quite short (only 157 pages) but disturbing and intense in the extreme.
These books, while equally absorbing, and representing different styles of discourse, have at the core one idea. When a woman is totally alone and unprotected, she has but one counter in the game against fate. Her body. Alice can only hope for rescue from a man and all she has to offer is her beauty; Wanda can only sell herself, her body and her loyalty to any man who will accept her.
Some readers found Nathalie Léger’s book lacking in faith in women. In my opinion, neither author shows her female characters as being inherently submissive. Sometimes the dice are too heavily weighted and one can only use the limited resources one has.