Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s feckless father, is very scathing about “middle-class morality” in Pygmalion (and in My Fair Lady, which actually is better). I don’t have any problems with it myself: as moralities go, the middle-class one is pretty reasonable, though eulogies on the rewards of hard work aren’t always easy to relate to. However, after having spent a great deal of time reading popular fiction set in an affluent and predominately female environment, I’m starting to feel a little Doolittleish. What gets my goat is when middle-class women blithely dismiss aspects of life that contribute to making their own lives – and that of a great deal of other people – comfortable. There’s a hint of Mrs Merdle, the financier’s wife in Little Dorrit who wishes we could all live like savages, about it.
Lately, I’ve read Jenny Colgan’s Meet Me at the Cupcake Café and Gill Hornby’s The Hive, and I’m now in the middle of Lovers by Judith Krantz (in my defence, these are my summer holidays, and I bought it at a book stand during a week in London for 50 pence). They are three wildly different novels by three wildly different authors, but they have some things in common. They’re within the realms of popular fiction, and from a female viewpoint. Cupcake Café and The Hive both focus on a female-dominated group of people. Here, you find again the old opinions on what is good and bad in this world which I recognise from a hundred and one gentle romantic films.
Creativity is good. Consequently, cooking and baking are good things, because there you actually make something. Farming is also a good thing, in its down-to-earth naturalness. Children are quite simply the best thing ever. Bad things are: City types and City jobs; impersonal environments that lack that special warm, lived-in, quirky woman’s touch; too much focus on your career (and to be fair, this is frowned upon in men and women alike).
Cases in point: the heroine in Cupcafe Café, Izzy, is made redundant from her admin job in the City where she spent an inordinate amount of time updating her Facebook status, and uses the opportunity to start the eponymous café. The bastard on-off boyfriend whom her friends are trying to convince her to get rid of is a City type – a property developer, no less. Izzy’s employee, Pearl, has an adorable toddler whom she tries to bring up more or less single-handedly and over whom all of the book’s women swoon. A children’s party at the café where the little mites learn to bake is one of the set pieces. The novel also contains some hand-wringing over beastly “gentrification” of neighbourhoods (honestly, don’t get me started on that one). Izzy’s new love interest is a banker – wow, innovation! – but he is an adviser for a local branch, always tousled and disorganised because he’s bringing up his little brother after their parents died in a car accident. So that’s all right then.
In The Hive, one of the characters you are supposed to like, Georgina aka Georgie, gives up a high-flying career as a lawyer to marry a farmer and start a large family. She’s as happy as Larry, and is always relieved to find herself pregnant yet again: like Rachel, another sort-of-goodie, she despises “me-time”. Georgie once had an au-pair, but her immaculate housework split up the family unit; now, the children muck in (whopee – because as a kid, you simply love chores, don’t you?), and everything is chaotic but lovely. Oh, and of course Georgie still gets plenty of sex from her manly farmer husband. When Rachel looks after Georgie’s good-natured, quietly sleeping toddler for one afternoon, she muses on “what a positive thing it was to have a little one around the place; how they imprinted their wholesome routine upon the days of everyone around them […] Where did it come from, this idea that it was small children who killed your fun and tied you down?” Hold on – that must be satire, right?
I feel I’m being a bit unfair, because I enjoyed both The Hive and Cupcake Café very much. And I realise that the world must be peopled, and that it’s only fair to depict bringing up children as something else than a hard slog once in a while – there are contented housewives out there, why deny it? But it does get a bit cloying if you’re not into all that earth-mother stuff.
However, there are upsides to middle-class female morality. This is where Lovers comes in (where there is, incidentally, a City-type villain, a bitch whose bitchiness stems from her mother’s neglect, and a benevolent matriarch who “over-engages” in her twins’ upbringing although she has a full-time nanny). A good old-fashioned bonkbuster, published in the 1990s, the good characters in it nevertheless adhere to a moral code. No goodie ever uses sex as a weapon for personal gain or in order to do someone down. As one character says, defending her polygamous past: “I never slept with a man I didn’t genuinely like. I never slept with a man to get anything out of it but pleasure. I never deceived them.” And after you’ve found your great love, it goes without saying that there’s no more sleeping around. This sense of fair play is a great source of relief in a novel like this, because then you know that the characters you should root for – in spite of being miles more attractive than most people, including yourself – will not abuse their power and do something you’d find hard to forgive them.
I recently read an article lambasting the “good girl” ethos which I found curiously unconvincing. I don’t mind good girls, really. If only they could stop chirping about their sprogs all the time, enjoy the perks of modern urban life without guilt – and maybe give that City guy a break.