Yesterday's Houses by Mavis Cheek

A (bath)room of one's own

Alan Bennett excepted, Cheek is really the best portrayer of lower middle-class life writing today. The moment we meet Marianne Flowers, her place in the world is nailed for us: she is 17, it's the Swinging Sixties, and she is about to enter a party in a house that belongs "to what her mother would call A Better Class of Person". From this moment on, Marianne's life will be a constant battle between a post-war, lower middle-class suburban world dominated by her mother's injunctions to "Rise Above" because "Needs Must", and a new world of bohemian ways and existentialist philosophy.

That battle is mirrored in Marianne's marriage to Charles, a boy she meets at that fateful party: "so funny, so clever. Somehow he seemed to fit in this elegant house." Cheek enjoys poking fun at Charles, in a series of horribly realistic scenes, as she tracks their appalling marriage from a first grimy bed-sit through their succession of homes. Everything about him is exposed to ridicule: his bizarre sexual habits (spanking Marianne with a hairbrush while she's suspended from the ceiling), his compulsive cheating, his control-freakery, his put-downs of Marianne's limited education. We see catastrophic dinner-parties with Marianne's supercilious sister-in-law, Beryl, spectacularly botched central-heating systems because Charles refuses to think professionals can do it better than he can, the betrayal of close friends like Willa, with whom Charles sleeps and with whom Marianne is then expected to socialise. All of this is all hugely recognisable in its mundane yet monstrous reflection of that very bourgeois institution, marriage.

But Cheek is no anarchist; she doesn't really want to demolish that institution. Like the best satirists, she relies on the laughter of recognition but she knows too well that it's not a laughter that advocates change. For change to happen, the laughing has to stop. And so it is only once Marianne has left Charles, moved on to Norman with whom she has a daughter, has then left Norman and found herself as a writer, that the humour dries up and Cheek can take her heroine seriously. We see Marianne move from one dilapidated house to another, causing many beautifully funny moments as she fantasises hopelessly about bathrooms - perfect, clean little spaces where she can relax and escape her tiresome husbands, bathrooms that she never gets because they're not considered important enough by said husbands, just as she is not considered important enough. But it's an angry little fantasy too, a cruel perversion of Woolf's plea that every woman needs a room of her own.

Marianne's only ally is Jean, Charles's mother-in-law, who encourages her to read Germaine Greer and get an education. When Marilyn French wanted to expose the limits of women's lives, women who married too young, she wrote an angry expose called The Women's Room. Cheek has similar targets, and wants to chart a similar period in women's lives: the apparent "freedom" of the 1960s that didn't quite reach all women, and the subsequent decades that kept them trapped. Cheek may do it with more humour than French but don't be fooled: the anger is still there.

Comments