The year 2020 in itself is far from being any cause for celebration; but perhaps we can salvage some optimism from reckoning how far we’ve come in the last 60 years, since the year 1960, which now stands out as a truly pivotal point for both working-class and feminist fiction. What do we remember of 1960? Which of us were around back then? It’s worth taking a moment to review what a key turning point it was in our literary history.
Up until the end of the Second World War, fiction was largely a male and privileged preserve. A recent review of the territory, The Prose Factory by the well regarded critic D. J. Taylor, scarcely mentions women – apart from a concessionary chapter called ‘Lady Writers’ (sic) with brief nods to Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch. Otherwise the field was dominated by male writers and critics with public school backgrounds, such as Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham.
Then came the 1950s and the beginnings of a revolt against that entrenched establishment. Kenneth Allsop’s The Angry Decade (1958) gives a vivid picture of the post-war, middle-class, grammar-school-educated newcomers, who he describes as more ‘dissentient’ than angry. In fact the main tenor of their fiction was not anger but laddish humour and cocky irreverence ‒ in marked contrast to the parallel post-war movement in France, typified by Camus and Sartre’s expositions of existentialist philosophy.
By the end of the ‘angry decade’, the spotlight was passing down the social scale to genuinely working-class authors, like Alan Sillitoe with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960). These writers gave us a graphic picture of both social conditions and also the mindset of post-war working-class Britain. We are almost more familiar with the ‘kitchen sink’ film versions (named after a John Bratby painting of 1954) made soon after: gritty black and white visions of the back-to-backs in Nottingham and Manchester, that were the reality of the times.
And soon after the working-class writers came the women! The new decade began with a bang for women’s fiction: Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls (1960), dealing explicitly with sex and the single girl. Certainly there had been women writers before, but never such a ‘ground-breaking exploration of taboo subjects’, according to Jane Stevenson in her survey of Women Writers in English Literature. And what else was happening in 1960? It is no coincidence that the Pill hit the pharmacists’ shelves, or more likely the underside of the counter, in 1960, the answer to all the excessive pregnancies described for instance in Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater (1962).
As the 1960s unrolled, so did the demand for new feminist fiction, with Margaret Drabble’s The Summer Birdcage in 1962 and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means in 1963. The future of the genre was assured. This was not the ‘escapist’ fiction of Mills and Boon that had flourished between the wars; this was social realism in graphic detail. One spin-off effect of its popularity was to open the door to more female editors, like the big names of Liz Calder and Carmen Callil (both aged 22 in 1960), who could confidently publish yet more female fiction as the century wore on.
Also, and most significantly of all, the increase in output created a huge increase in female readers, in reading groups and at literary festivals, to the point where 80% of all fiction is now bought by women. Read Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The stories of our lives to find out more; and to ponder how this whole revolution in writing and reading has happened in just the last 60 years!