The first book I read last year was Nell Dunn's Up the Junction, a short novel published by Virago in 1963 consisting of a series of vignettes about the Battersea neighborhood in London which must at the time have been remarkably colorful gauging by the tone of the storytelling and of the characters portrayed. It seemed only fitting that I end the year with another Virago Classic by Nell Dunn, Poor Cow published in 1967. An equally colorful story, which coming so close on the heels of the very comforting and very innocuous Little House books, made me feel slightly disoriented and a little shocked even, so raw or visceral are the events that occur. It is again a no holds barred portrayal of a young woman who makes all the wrong choices in an era when 'anything went'.
In the introduction to the book it's noted that one critic said of the book: "I was disgusted, I was nauseated, I was saddened but I was not bored." Curiously so many years later when little raises eyebrows I had a slightly similar reaction. Disgusted or nauseated might be words too extreme for my feelings, but Joy's life is indeed something of a train wreck. You want her to succeed, but in a way she doesn't even try. That's not entirely true, but you can't help but shake your head by her actions and her naivety. Is it naivety or laziness or something else? Even decades later she makes you think and wonder.
Dunn was a Chelsea girl who moved to Battersea and worked in a sweets factory. She seems a little like a fish out of water, but from the sounds of it, she was very much at home in this other side of London. She was unencumbered by a formal education and all the baggage that comes with it. But books were her refuge, and Battersea was a world that freed her from a more conventional and rigid upbringing and obviously inspired her writing.
"Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage, where they went their own ways, sexually and financially, where there was plenty of work, so much work they could afford to be cheeky, rebellious, loud-mouthed. If they lost one job, they got another. If they lost one man, they got another. The humor and energy, the violence and the freedom were exciting. Nobody pretended, nobody was pretentious. It seemed a real world, where women could lead real lives. They did not seem oppressed, despite their low pay. There was a sense of matriarchy. Women were strong, openly strong, rather than deviously influential."
Joy is a curious character and you wonder how many "Joys" Dunn must have met or known in those days. She is unapologetic and her name actually very much fits her, but she is also the "poor cow" of the title. You get the sense she is happy in her own way and utterly vivacious and fun loving. She may make poor choices, but she knows it and does it anyway-hence the 'poor cow'.
At the start of the novel twenty-two-year-old Joy has just had a baby, a week-old son clinging to her as she toddles down Fulham Broadway from the hospital, skint but starving hungry. She and little Jonny return home to Tom, who is a thief by trade. She knows better--"never marry a thief", because inevitably he'll get caught, which he does. And sent to jail for four years. And so the scene is set and Joy must fend for herself. She takes up with Tom's colleague, Dave, with whom she clicks in a happy and satisfying way until he, too, is caught thieving. It's almost comical that she and Dave are together after his heist, when the cops arrive and he makes a dash for freedom she calls out, 'don't leave me, Dave', and he comes back only to be taken away.
Joy always seems to manage be it through barmaiding or modeling (in the nude . . .) or taking money for favors. Her idea of achievement is getting a car, the ultimate wish come true. She even takes her driver's test sure she can seduce the instructor into passing her and surprised when he resists. Whatever happens, good or bad, she is always a good mother, and Joy's joy is her son Jonny.
This is such a 60s-ish, Virago-ish book. I like the way Dunn captures the feel of the time and place through use of language and Joy's personality shines through her conversations with her aunt and friend and her letters to Dave (and his replies back on the same letter). It's a fascinating slice of life from an endlessly fascinating period of history.