Julie Burchill has been a writer for 30 years – since the age of 17. For five years she wrote a weekly column for The Guardian, before moving to The Times. Amongst her books are Ambition, I Knew I Was Right, Diana and On Beckham. She is currently working on a book about Brighton and a novel, Sweet. Below Julie discusses Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything.
Julie Burchill on The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
When the 26-year-old Rona Jaffe published The Best of Everything in 1958, I'm sure she didn't intend it to be anything more than a romping good read. Almost 50 years later, though, I find this book has a resonance and a sensibility that makes me want to attach it to a flagpole and wave it in the face of the next dumb bitch I see wearing a WE ARE ALL HEZBOLLAH NOW T-shirt.
Books by women about women have come a long way from Jane Austen to Jane Green - a long way backwards, that is. While the great heroines of classical literature - Daniel Deronda's Gwendolen Harleth is my favourite - constantly rebelled against marriage and domesticity and sought to walk on the wild side, the female eunuchs of chick-lit rush towards it like lemmings with PMT. In such books, men who do not want to settle down with a spouse and two veg are invariably shown as people who are scared of 'commitment' and refuse to be 'adult' - but what is particularly adult about wanting to limp through life bound hand and foot to one other person, like a drowning man in a three-legged race?
Caroline, the 20-year-old heroine of this book ('A more than pretty girl with dark hair and light eyes and a face with a good deal of softness and intelligence in it') harks back to Bronte and the other classic gals, in that married life is the last thing on her mind - and a life of the mind the first thing. Escaping from a 'respectable' family and an 'appropriate' boyfriend who jilted her anyway, she hightails it off to the city - 1950s Manhattan, in all its dry Martini, basement bistro glory, long before eco-fear and feminist-revisionism get in the way of a girl's determination to wring as much fun, love and money from life as is humanly possible.
Jaffe doesn't claim that the career girl's life is a bed of roses all the way - no feminist ever claimed that freedom for women would mean they no longer had problems, any more than freedom for blacks or gays or Iraqis guaranteed the same. Having problems, and working them out, is an essential part of being free and being adult. But she properly points out that the life of a housewife is no life for a sentient being, and in the long run can be far more hazardous to one's mental health than a few random abortions, hangovers and incidents of mildly bruised pride. At a time when most chick-lit heroines see a rose-covered cottage and a Cath Kidston ironing board cover as the height of ecstatic fulfilment, how retro-refreshing this is.
Not only is the theory sound, but the writing is gorgeous, as sharp as a shiv - 'It was one of those cold, foggy midwinter mornings in New York, the kind that makes you think of lung ailments' - and as soft as a shiver:
Sometimes her cat would slip up to her and rub his furry head against her ankle, and, looking down at him, she would feel an immense, overwhelming affection for him. My little cat. Pencil-line ribs to move with breathing as he slept, signs of life to remind her that there were other worlds inside of other people's skulls, even inside a cat's little skull.These are strange, ill-sorted days, when women who dare to call themselves feminists march alongside people who would deprive them of all their human rights by virtue of their gender, given the chance. When women who live in the freest societies the world has ever known shudder delicately and complain of being given 'too much choice' while other women are dying every day for the right to say what they choose, marry who they like and worship as they wish. When 'having it all', said of women, refers to the apparently gargantuanly greedy desire to have both a job and a romantic relationship - as if it was possible to be a fully functioning human being without having both!
The Best Of Everything harks back to a saner time when choosing progress and modernity was as straightforward as ordering dinner - 'Two Scotches with water on the side, and two steaks,' he said - and when even the idea of sharia law being practised in a modern metropolis was as outlandish as citizens being ordered to speak Klingon. The last line of this book ('Sometimes life is simple - sometimes, just when you think it will never be simple again') is as apt and lovely as any I know - especially now.