Shelagh Delaney: A victim of sexism... or maybe just not that good

The play 'A Taste of Honey' is getting rave reviews, but was its author really discriminated against or is that just today's fashionable thinking?

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Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, now revived at the National, was first produced by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1958 before transferring, a year later, to the West End. The media fuss that accompanied it was inspired both by its left-field subject matter (race, illegitimacy, homosexuality), the author's extreme youth – Delaney was 19 when the piece was first performed – and the sale of the film rights for a then eye-catching £20,000. Thereafter Delaney, who died in 2011, wrote only one further play, the poorly received The Lion in Love (1960), before pursuing a career as a screenwriter and radio dramatist.

To the actress Lesley Sharp, who plays the mother of pregnant, black sailor-fancying Jo, some kind of reparation was clearly due. Delaney, she declared, was the "godmother" of later woman playwrights – names mentioned included Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill – with a yen for previously taboo subject matter and gritty treatments, while not herself being given the support afforded to male contemporaries.

"She set the bar very high," Ms Sharp added. "She was a lone voice in 1958 and she was surrounded by men who were taken up by the establishment and courted, and their plays were put on regularly and were reviewed favourably."

At which point, curiously enough, I began to smell a rat. The implication here, you infer, is that Delaney was the victim of a masculine plot, and that her trajectory as a dramatist was pretty well stymied by a conspiracy of playwrights and impresarios determined to keep the first nights for themselves. The reality, on the other hand, turns out to be slightly more complicated.

Delaney made her debut at a time when press interest in the arts was at an all-time high, when the Angry Young Men (and one or two honorary Angry Young Women) stalked the front pages, "youth" and "controversy" went together like "chicken" and "bread sauce" and talent had begun to take a back seat behind sheer notoriety.

Certainly she suffered some unfair treatment from highbrow critics furious at the column inches being given to precocious upstarts, but the conclusion of Harry Ritchie's classic study of the period, Success Stories: Literature and the Media in England 1950-1959, is that her reputation, like that of such male contemporaries as Arnold Wesker and Colin Wilson, went into decline for reasons that were straightforwardly aesthetic: "not because critics were jealous or unappreciative of their talents, but because they were not particularly talented writers who struck it lucky when literary merit was not a criterion for literary prominence".

What we have here, in fact, looks suspiciously like an example of the very common tendency to manipulate, and ultimately mythologise, the past in an attempt to satisfy the expectations of the present. Naturally, outspoken women writers need some kind of lineage, and if one of their forebears can be exhibited as a victim of male prejudice, then so much the better.

And yet, a little research insists, the late 1950s and early 1960s were a good time to be a woman writer. A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble were starting their careers, Iris Murdoch's was already established, and the talent pool had grown so thronged that by 1965 Simon Raven could write a mock-humorous essay for the Spectator alleging that their male equivalents would soon be out of a job.

More or less the same tendency – taking liberties with the past to make a contemporary point – can be observed in The Invisible Woman, which purports to uncover the "secret" of Charles Dickens' love affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. The difficulty for any Dickens fan is that most of the evidence for the liaison is as thin as workhouse gruel. Certainly we know that Dickens had dealings with "Nelly", that he clandestinely rented addresses at which Miss T and her mother may at various times have stayed, but all Professor Michael Slater, the world's leading authority on Dickens and his works, could say of the academic conference staged to consider these questions at Boulogne, site of one of the "love nests", was that there was no conclusive evidence that she had ever set foot in the place.

It is the same with the baby Felicity Jones so confidently dandles, the sole proof of whose existence is a remark make by Dickens' daughter Kate in extreme old age to the effect that "there was a child but it died". Dickens' alleged inamorata went silently to her grave in 1914, with younger relatives always warned "not to bother Aunt Nelly about Dickens".

Slater's forensic study, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal (2012) is not, it should be stressed, the work of a spoilsport. He suspects that there is probably something going on, notes the six pairs of silk stockings bought at the Hull draper's shop in 1869 and applauds Claire Tomalin's biography, from which The Invisible Woman takes its title, but like most scholars he wants firm evidence – and there is none. But, of course, it suits a modern audience for the great Victorian sanctifier of the pleasures of hearth and home to be seen sneaking around in an adulterous affair because this is such a staple of the celebrity merry-go-round of the early 21st century, convicts him of a basic human frailty and ultimately, give or take a remove of 150 years, makes him "just like us".

This reluctance to allow the past a life of its own, and to avoid the historian's fatal mistake of pressing it into service on the present's behalf, lies all over the modern media landscape. It can be glimpsed, again, in the simmering controversy about Mary Seacole and the attempt to raise a statue to her in the grounds of St Thomas' Hospital – stoutly resisted by purists who claim that the efforts to memorialise her as "the black Florence Nightingale" seriously misrepresent the real role she played in the Crimean War, where her main achievement was to serve hot drinks to the troops rather than attend to their sickbeds. Truth, opponents of the scheme suggest, is being sacrificed in the interests of creating a black role model for the nation's history books.

None of this is to imply that we don't need black role models, or talismanic women playwrights, or that Dickens' emotional life in the last decade of his life isn't a source of endless fascination. But to go back to Lesley Sharp's encomium to the author of A Taste of Honey, the world is full of neglected writers whom posterity seems to have forgotten. If it were down to me, for example, there would be plinths in Westminster Abbey to Mary Mann, whose tales of late 19th-century Norfolk life are the equal of Hardy, and Flora Mayor, whose novel The Rector's Daughter (1924) is, as far as this critic is concerned, up there with George Eliot. On the other hand, if Miss Mayor, who was published by Hogarth Press, knew Virginia Woolf and seems to have had every advantage, has never quite made it into the canon, I can't for the life of me attribute her absence to sexism. The real culprit is good old-fashioned taste.

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