Barbara Pym, as great a chronicler of society’s mores as Jane Austen, was, like her forebear, often confined (perhaps willfully so) to genteel environs which, in Pym’s case, meant London mansion flats or north Oxford. It often seemed as if the great female novelists of this era were duty bound to speak about emotion rather than assert their thoughts about social reality because that was what was expected of them. Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen wrote with a great eye for realism, but often it is the psychology in these novels that dominate and the result is very subtle.
Yet, sometimes, obliqueness does end up having a mass appeal. The most celebrated British female novelist of the late 20th century, Iris Murdoch, often found herself at the top of the bestseller list which means she must have been popular. It’s strange to think now that her 30-odd novels, so often wrapped up in philosophical debate and often unfurling in the form of pages and pages of near-Platonic dialogue, were hits, but somehow she must have connected with readers in a way that Smith talked of yesterday.
Murdoch is a one-off; there has been no one like her before or since. But one wonders whether most women writers have ever been allowed to find their voice in a way that didn’t limit them to their gender, or perhaps to the shelves of genre fiction. In the white heat of the Sixties revolution, it took the decidedly upmarket Nell Dunn to write entertainingly and successfully about the plight of ordinary people in books like Poor Cow and Up the Junction. Working-class female voices were still frustratingly few.
In the years that followed, I can’t really think of anyone whom Zadie Smith could call a true social ally –which is why we should cherish her, and one of many reasons why publishing is in need of a shake-up.