Secret Lives: Real Women in Fiction

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Written by Ann Kennedy Smith

A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter (Borough Press, 2016), Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea  (Scribe, 2016)

I spend a lot of my time reading other people’s private letters and diaries. I do this because I’m writing a book about Cambridge’s first female students and university wives, and as is so often the case for women’s history, the only way to find out about them is by reading their letters.

When I’m not researching and writing, I’m often reading fiction. Two recently published novels I enjoyed are based on the lives of real women, and both novelists have used the freedom of fiction to re-create and illuminate their stories in imaginative ways.

Natasha Walter is a journalist and campaigner, the author of two acclaimed nonfiction books, The New Feminism and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Her first novel, A Quiet Life, tells the story of the American Laura, who moves to England in 1939, falls in love with an upper middle-class Englishman and becomes deeply involved in his dangerous world of spying. It is loosely based on life of the American Melinda Marling, ‘the communist in the Schiaparelli coat’ as Walter calls her, who was married to a Cambridge spy, Donald Maclean, who defected to the East in 1951.

As Walter herself says, there is not a shred of evidence that Melinda ever took part in, her husband’s treacherous activities, although she followed him to the East in 1953, taking their children and her secrets with her. The biographical facts are not important here, because A Quiet Life is ‘not a history book’ but an edge-of-the seat spy thriller about an extraordinary woman who is fatally underestimated by everyone around her. Laura Last is able to take enormous risks for her work precisely because she is so adept at presenting a bland, perfectly made-up face to the world, but it comes at a personal cost.

Her story is mainly replayed in flashback, from the moment when, as a socially awkward young woman, she boards an ocean liner taking her from New York to London on the eve of war in 1939. She is drawn to Florence, a young Communist, both for her principles and self-confidence:

Laura realised that she was one of the first women she had ever met who appeared to have no physical uncertainty. Her dress was shabby, her hair unwaved and her eyebrows unplucked, but her gestures were expansive and her voice determined. Laura had been brought up into the certain knowledge that a woman’s body and voice were always potential sources of shame, that only by intense scrutiny and control could one become acceptable.

The friendship with Florence triggers a series of events: Laura’s growing political awareness, meeting and falling in love with Edward, taking up work as a photographer and a spy. Walter cleverly intertwines a gripping plot with perceptive insights into the other aspects of her life that Laura has to conceal like every woman of her time, to maintain the illusion of ‘her own work of femininity’. The recent fuss about whether the next James Bond could be a woman overlooks the fact that, historically, women have always been rather good at keeping secrets. What did our own mothers and grandmothers not speak about? There may be much more beneath the surface of every ‘quiet life’ than we suspect.

Gavin McCrea’s first novel, Mrs Engels, strikes a very different tone. It is also based on the life of a real woman: Lizzie Burns, the mill worker from Manchester’s Irish slums who became the lover of Friedrich Engels, and moved to London with him in 1870. Engels is famous as the co-founder of Marxist theory, and although Lizzie is mentioned in passing in accounts of his life, very little is known about her. Lizzie was illiterate, so left no letters or diaries, and Gavin McCrea’s novel gives her a voice.

And what a voice! Lizzie, in McCrea’s fictional version of her, is hilarious, with a turn of phrase that is at turns hair-raising and poetic. She may not be educated, but her views on life and love are spot on. At the beginning of the book she advises all unmarried women not to be fooled when it comes to choosing a husband:

What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping – is the mint that jingles in his pockets. In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Lizzie is a born survivor. Her working class background has given her a searing contempt for the foibles and hypocrisies of the political men around her, but to the outward eye she is discreet as she moves through the intellectual drawing rooms of London. She is good at keeping secrets, and the women around her (including Marx’s put-upon wife Jenny, his mistress Nim and renegade daughter Tussy) keep confiding in her, even when she does not want them to. But Lizzie is fundamentally kind, and a good listener: ‘My memory is in my ears’, as she says. It is a survival mechanism she has learned to conceal her inability to read.

She has other secrets too. We, the readers, are the only ones who know what is really going on in her mind as she struggles with the contradictions in her life. Her memories of her sister Mary dominate her thoughts, and their shared story is threaded through the main narrative. For all her fierce humour and insistence on money being the only thing that matters, Lizzie seeks and eventually finds a personal legitimacy of her own, through a growing assertion of her own independence and self-awareness.

Both of these writers have used fiction to explore the truth, as they see it, about their central female characters. When I read letters in the library’s archive I sometimes feel as if I am spying on Victorian women’s secret lives, but my excuse is that their stories deserve to be told and their voices heard.

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Ann Kennedy Smith’s blog:

Natasha Walter campaigns for Women for Refugee Women, which ‘aims to give a voice to women who are all too often unheard and unseen’: