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Radical Portraits of Working Class Women Writers – Laura Maw

Virginia Woolf’s maxim in her now-classic polemic was this: ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’.[1] But what if a writer did not have access to these resources – this independent wealth, this private space? What, then, might her fiction look like?

Take four women as a possible answer. Shelagh Delaney wrote her first play, A Taste of Honey, on a borrowed typewriter and notepaper she stole from her employer’s office.[2] Ann Quin was living in rented bedsits in London when she wrote Berg – writing late at night when she returned from her secretarial job, interrupted by her landlady, sitting with a hot water bottle balanced on her knees to save on her gas bill.[3] Buchi Emecheta woke at 4am, while her five children slept, to write what would become In The Ditch, her ‘self-documentary’ novel about living in poverty.[4] Andrea Dunbar wrote The Arbor on a school exercise book, drafted messily in the rooms of her family’s council house.[5] These women did not have money, nor rooms of their own, to write their work. Their fiction is groundbreaking, lyrical, experimental.

Most of these women lived in rented housing on council estates, in bedsits, in small flats; Dunbar, for a time, lived in a women’s refuge for victims of domestic violence.[6] Often, their parents worked in public service or manufacturing (Delaney’s mother was a factory worker and her father was a bus driver; Dunbar’s parents worked in the textile industry).[7] With the exception of Emecheta, each of these writers left their state schools as teenagers. Many worked as they wrote: Delaney as a store assistant and theatre usher; Quin as a secretary and waitress; Emecheta as a cleaner and assistant at her local library.[8] The majority of them, at various points in their lives, received state benefits. Their work was written in rented flats, without access to generational wealth, with limited time. These experiences of being working class shape a writer’s ability to produce work, her work itself, and its reception – yet they are experiences so often overlooked. What would it be like to move these experiences into the centre of the frame?

Imagine a literary biography that uses working class experience as its lens. Ordinary Treasure: Radical Portraits of Working Class Women Writers paints portraits of four writers – Shelagh Delaney, Ann Quin, Buchi Emecheta and Andreea Dunbar – who wrote radical fiction about working class lives.

These women were, to varying degrees, unrecognised by the British literary establishment during their lifetimes; their legacies today are uneven, difficult to pin down. For Dunbar, her working class background overshadows her work as a playwright; she is remembered largely through the lens of tragedy and pity – her time spent in a women’s refuge; her alcohol addiction; her sudden death at 29. Publishers and critics found Quin’s experimental writing difficult to classify in her lifetime, and despite a republication of her novels by And Other Stories in 2019, she remains, largely, a cult figure.[9] Shelagh Delaney is remembered solely for her controversial debut play, A Taste of Honey, which gained her national recognition – and fierce criticism – for its depiction of working class Salford.[10] Today, Honey eclipses her other work; her subsequent plays and a short story collection are now out of print, her screenwriting largely forgotten. Buchi Emecheta enjoyed the most success in her lifetime: she was named on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983, and several of her novels were reissued by Penguin Classics – yet, like the others, as a working class woman her legacy is often diminished.

Working class literary history is full of silences. It is, too, a history – where attempts have been made to catalogue it at all – that is predominantly shaped by men. Literary website The Modern Novel’s page of working class novelists from 1930-1950 features only men.[11] Many essays that attempt to define working class literature in postwar Britain, when these four women were writing, unfailingly focus on works by Joe Orton, Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Stan Barstow. Women writers are nearly always absent; Ordinary Treasure seeks to correct this. It is a radical examination of how class shapes a writer’s work – through the lens of four women who did not have the luxury of wealth or a room of their own.

Top image credit: Virginia Woolf, Wikimedia Commons.

Laura Maw has written for Granta, the New Statesman, The White Review, Hazlitt, Catapult, and Electric Literature, among others. She is a recipient of the Antonia Fraser Grant, awarded for the writing of women’s biography, and was awarded a Women’s History Network Independent Researcher Fellowship for 2023-24. Ordinary Treasure: Radical Portraits of Working Class Women Writers is her first book, and will be published by Virago in 2026. She lives in Manchester.

 

[1] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1928; Penguin Classics, 2000), p. 6.

[2] Selina Todd, Tastes of Honey (Vintage, 2021), pp. 1-2.

[3] Ann Quin, ‘Leaving School – XI’, London Magazine, https://thelondonmagazine.org/archive-leaving-school-xi-by-ann-quin/ [accessed 28/6/24].

[4] Buchi Emecheta, Head Above Water (Heinemann, 1994), pp. 57-70.

[5] Kerry Hudson, Andrea Dunbar, Royal Society of Literature, https://rsliterature.org/anthologies/andrea-dunbar/ [accessed 28/6/24].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Delaney, ibid, p.16-17; Dunbar, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/17/social-deprivation-in-britain-andrea-dunbar-arbor [accessed 28/6/24]

[8] John Harding, Sweetly Sings Delaney (Greenwich Exchange, 2014), p.23; Quin, ibid; Emecheta, ibid, p. 55 and p. 28.

[9] Hannah Van Hove, is it lovely yet?, Map Magazine, https://mapmagazine.co.uk/assets/articles/Is-it-Lovely-Yet-FINAL-FINAL-2.pdf [accessed 28/6/24], p. 4.

[10] Todd, p. 93.

[11] The Modern Novel, Working Class Novelists 1930-1950, https://www.themodernnovel.org/their-lists/other/working/ [accessed 28/6/24].

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