For the main theme of The English Lady Murderers’ Society I tried to capture something of the experience of women in coping with aging, grief, the solidarity of women and the unreliability and idiocy of men. It was an adventurous choice because it’s a commonplace of writing that few male writers can create convincing, rounded and individualised female characters, and I set myself the task of creating seven of them, I’ll leave to the reader to decide if I’ve succeeded, since clearly I lack the necessary perspective.
What I find more interesting is to examine my motives in embarking on this task. Chance played a large part. I had a flash of inspiration – or as near to it as comes in the life of an author – when, as I explain in the background to the book, events suggested a marrying of the genre of women’s group novel with that of a murder mystery. However, once I’d started and was confronted with having to invent my cast of characters, the writing became a journey of exploration to see if I could find a female sensibility inside me. When I explained the book to a woman friend, she said,”You must have had to get in touch with your female side.” I think it would be more accurate to say my female side moved in and started changing the curtains.
In retrospect the book may be vulnerable to two serious criticisms, and I offer them for you to judge. The first is that any claim it may have to a female perspective is a pretence, and at best it’s just a clever pastiche. It may look to some degree like female writing but it lacks authenticity, and the supposed female feeling isn’t truly felt but only borrowed: in short the entire book is just a bag of tricks. The second criticism grants that the book may not be just a pastiche, and that the female sensibility may be genuine. However – and this is the crucial point – men get in contact with their female side like tourists visiting an unfamiliar country: it isn’t the place where they live, the place to which they are inescapably committed and which forms the daily texture of existence. So isn’t it the case that the male author (me in this case) is simply exploiting female experience for his own purpose while contributing nothing to its understanding? As I say, I can’t tell.
My approach to the book wasn’t programmatic. I didn’t have an agenda of female issues or perspectives that I wanted to investigate or discuss. Such matters as I’ve covered emerged naturalistically from the descriptions of the characters and their interactions and the situations in which they find themselves. And of these the central question, from which they others were spun off, was: why a women’s group? Or, to put it another way: why was the group not a mixed group? Why did the women of Puybrun feel they needed a group at all? I don’t think it was really in order to learn tatting or how to dance the tango.
Purely for reasons of the plot, I made Janet a widow, but this decision forced me to address its concomitants: her experience of age and grief. Then, as I worked around these ideas, it came to me that in the nature of things most women find themselves as some point widowed, and so for many of them a significant part of their lives will be spent relying upon other women for love and support. I don’t think this applies in any material degree to men. Those of us who survive our spouses will soldier on alone or seek comfort from women but not from other men.
This insight, such as it is, helped me place the English Lady Murderers’ Society (the women’s group not the book) in context as part of the lifelong parallel system of relations that women build among themselves alongside whatever dealings they may have with men, a system which is a sort of preparation for time when they will only have other women to rely on. The emotional intensity that I’ve tried to describe within the group derives from this and it feels right to me, though I acknowledge I may be mistaken
Another way of looking at the themes is that I wanted to write a funny book.
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