Rebel Writers: The Accidental Feminists by Celia Brayfield

Though they would have gasped and giggled if you’d told them so, the seven writers profiled in Celia Brayfield’s excellent book were the modest midwives to the fierce feminism which erupted in the capitals of the West at the end of the 1960s, among them Edna O’Brien, Shelagh Delaney, and Nell Dunn. Following the rise of the Beat poets came two decades of being snubbed and slapped around by rebellious movements for social change whose members believed that once you’d ticked the box marked Brotherhood of Man, you were free to treat women any way you wanted. But perhaps no youth movement was as miserably misogynist as that of the Angry Young Men, the group of British playwrights and novelists who whinged their way into public consciousness in the 1950s.

Wayward Young Women

A rebellious girl could become a hippie if she was prepared to lie back and think of the revolution—but a girl couldn’t become an Angry Young Man. Their gynophobic tendencies were summed up nicely by myself, describing John Osborne’s debut, Look Back in Anger, as “that play where somebody does the ironing while someone else shouts at her.” But very quickly, starting with the teenage Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1958, came a parallel movement of young women writers with something far more interesting to say, for the simple reason that women at the time had so few rights.

It seems incredible that British girls in the 1950s were considered old enough to consent to sex at 16—still the legal age in the U.K.—but that a single woman could not open a bank account without her father standing as guarantor. A married woman couldn’t open a bank account, which allowed for a grotesque situation: O’Brien’s envious husband happily pocketed her advances and royalties into his personal account but described the success of her first book as “the death-knell of the marriage.” The age of majority being 21, some of these writers’ fathers had to sign their contracts for them, which allowed for the protection of their interests.

A rebellious girl could become a hippie if she was prepared to lie back and think of the revolution—but a girl couldn’t become an Angry Young Man.

A critic for the Daily Mail dubbed Delaney an “Angry Young Woman,” in his opening-night review, but anger, like sexual desire, was not something “decent” girls could own back then; it might have been more accurate to call them Wayward—“difficult to control”—Young Women. From the Irish county girl’s daughter—O’Brien—to Dunn, descended from Charles II and Nell Gwynn and granddaughter of the fifth Earl of Rosslyn—the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo—what they had in common was a desire to grab their share of the social revolution taking place in the postwar West, rather than make do with being an artist’s mistress, stripping off and washing up in some bohemian garret before their youthful charms faded and they were replaced by someone more malleable.

Edna O’Brien, 1971.

Despite their brains and talent, Brayfield writes, these women were corralled and condescended to every step of the way. O’Brien’s first book was bought by an editor who fancied her; Delaney wanted to buy a sports car with her earnings and was told off by her mentors. But their ambition and determination wins through, and their youthful gumption will make you feel both your age and like cheering.

Gung-Ho Optimists

Unusually, the rich girls in this book are as interesting as the poor ones. Here’s the reluctant debutante Charlotte Bingham: “I said, ‘Right, from now on, no going out for six months: no boyfriends, no social life, nothing.’ …. I had to have some sort of achievement before I was twenty, you see, something recognisable to myself, anyway, because twenty seemed so awfully old.... I would come home, go straight upstairs, change, then I’d write from eight o’clock until one or two in the morning and at weekends.” Dunn leaves her big house in Chelsea, crossing the bridge to live and work in the slums of Battersea: “I had the only bath in the street so there was always a queue for it.” Unlike the champagne socialists of today, she sent her sons to the local school and took a job in a sweets factory, experiences which inspired her book Up the Junction, published when she was only 27, outraging her own class with its clear-eyed portrayal of easy sex and illegal abortion. Or consider the teenage Virginia Ironside, who excuses herself on dates to scribble down her suitors’ silliest lines, which will end up in her novel Chelsea Bird. Like all true writers, she was born with what Graham Greene called the “splinter of ice in the heart.”

But as a teenage writer from a blue-collar background myself—whose mother would infuriate her by inquiring how the “typing” was going when I was being read by more than a quarter of a million buyers of the New Musical Express before I was old enough to vote—it was of course the experience of the working-class writers which made me flinch and smirk. Like Margaret Forster (author of Georgy Girl), I had parents who were both confused by and hostile to my reading habit, and like her I yearned to leave home to read unbothered—though in my case, this was matched by an equal desire for sex and drugs, unlike the wholesome Miss Forster who married her first love untainted by either.

They all desired to grab their share of the social revolution, rather than make do with being an artist’s mistress.

Though the Angry Young Men tended to blame women for their problems only slightly less than they blamed England—they were the incels of their day, without even actual sex starvation to blame for their bad tempers—the Wayward Young Women didn’t blame men for theirs, even when seduced and then abandoned. They never made long, dreary declamations blaming England, either, even though they were girls becoming women with all the hormonal havoc that implies (Bingham and O’Brien reported constantly crying as they wrote), while at the same time exploring this process through fiction. The Angry Young Men seem extremely dated now—like curmudgeons accidentally born young, with their trad jazz and their cardigans—but the writing of their female contemporaries remains remarkably fresh, possessing a gung-ho optimism missing from most modern female writers.

Edna O’Brien’s books were publicly burned by a priest at her hometown church; today, it’s more likely for young women themselves to demand that books are, if not burned, then marked with a trigger warning. As a nod to today’s cry-bullies, Brayfield’s opening author’s note bears a disclaimer that reads like an apology: “Readers may be distressed by some of the events described and the language the writers chose.” It’s a sobering reminder that progress, in the free-speech arena, threatens to be a thing of the past.

Julie Burchill is a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph and the author of several books, including, most recently, Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite. She lives in Brighton