The Woman I Am Privileged To Know

I apologise heartily for the ‘blip’ that was my last post. A bit of a low point, happily done with – although am excitedly making my way through my bucket list (I have a ‘pinterest’ board dedicated to it now. Yes, I have finally joined ‘pinterest!’ Here tis if you fancy a look: I am back to musing on films and books, and this week’s post comes courtesy of Caitlin Moran and Louisa May Alcott. 

I have just finished Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl. I will admit, I had my reservations. Secretly, my only worry was that Moran wouldn’t like me if she met me. Secretly, I didn’t think I was cool enough. Caitlin Moran always has something zeitgeist-y or witty to say.Cool Girls love Caitlin Moran. They talk about Caitlin Moran over dinner parties and have Interesting Things to say about the Feminist Movement. I always keep quiet here, because I don’t think I am a very good feminist. In fact, I have always eschewed the term. I thought because I had a lot of boy friends and didn’t mind boy banter about boobs or farts that perhaps I didn’t deserve to call myself a feminist. I digress a little here, but I do want to address it – I believe in equality, so I am a feminist. I may not talk about it very much, I may not get openly angry at the radio or newspapers, (this is mainly because I don’t want to be asked to back up my opinion. I get scared then) but I, like you, think that we deserve to all be on a level playing field in work, sex and life. Anyhoo, as I was saying – yes, I am not a Cool Girl. I have never been a Cool Girl (except for that brief period in 1998 when I spent my birthday money on a Puma jacket). But once I started reading How to Build a Girl, I realised that Caitlin Moran was never a Cool Girl either. 

Although protagonist Johanna is fictional, she does appear to be based on Moran herself. The same Wolverhampton upbringing, the same dive into the world of music journalism at age 16. Therefore, I feel comfortable using Johanna as a euphemism (is that the right word?) for her creator. Which brings me to a book quoted in Moran’s novel: Little Women. Another novel where the writer uses her own experience as a basis for her world; Louisa May Alcott tells the tale of her four sisters (she was indeed one of four) who reside in Orchard House, Concord (her actual childhood home. Also on my bucket list). Although set in 1860’s Massachusetts, Johanna Morrigan and Jo March (just as I type this I realise the initials are the same. I wonder if this was intentional). In a world where girls are expected to be pretty and find a husband, Jo writes with fervour, determined to become a published author and to bring the March family out of poverty. 

Both Johanna and Jo despair of their own awkwardness. Johanna does a Scooby Doo impression on TV, quotes the musical Annie and admits to liking outdated music. Jo burns her dress from standing to close to the fire, shakes hands instead of curtsying and cries to her mother “I’m ugly and awkward and I always say the wrong things… There’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t. And I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.” Some of these quotes are altered; from the 1994 film rather than the book – I know some people hated Winona Ryder’s interpretation of Jo, but I was nine when it came out and thought she was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. Indeed, Jo March felt like a love letter to me, this awkward girl who talked too much to cover up shyness, with interests woefully different than my peers. I knew about Morecambe and Wise, Led Zeppelin and Joyce Grenfell (I still crack out that impression at parties). I loved Jo’s inability to fit in. I was given a quill and scented ink for Christmas in 1995; I copied out the entire text of Little Women, sneaking out of bed when Mum and Dad had retired for the night. Jo March was fifteen at the time of the first novel. I am now 28 and she is still my hero. 

Indeed all of my Cool Girl friends were once Jo, too. They were also awkward as girls, with an intense love of literature, odd fashion sense and conversation more suited to adults than their fellow children. This is Johanna, too. But this is the thing. If you are an odd child, who does’t know what her place is – perhaps you grow into a Cool Girl. Johanna finds her place writing in London. Jo finds hers writing in New York. They “step over the divide between childhood and all that lay beyond.” 

About seven years ago, Mum introduced me to a daughter of her friend. This little girl was ten and very unhappy; she was getting picked on at school. According to her it was because she was weird. She liked The Beatles. Her favourite TV show was Dad’s Army. She liked to wear her Grandad’s glasses. I wish I could tell this girl just how OK it would all become one day. That liking things that are different will one day shape you into an individual. You don’t follow the crowd blindly; you are strong enough to know who you are. Not fitting in as a child will often result in a well rounded adult. Hard to tell a crying girl that, though. I’d love to know what she’s up to now. Perhaps I’ll find out. I like to think she’s off to uni, or travelling the world. Whatever it is, I hope she’s happy with her own individuality. 

Before I wrap up, make myself a jacket tater and finish series one of Arrested Development – I’ve watched seven episodes today – I’d like to note a few more similarities I spotted. Both Johanna and Jo muse on their own decency. Johanna searches her caustically typed reviews for a trace of her own goodness “Surely they will know underneath it all I’m a good and noble person, in love with the world?” Jo confesses her worries to her younger sister “I don’t know if I could ever be good, like Marmee. I rather crave violence.”  They both work hard to find their voice in their writing – Johanna adopts a scathing tone, ripping apart new bands – all just to fit in. Jo writes tales of murder and gore, hoping to get her short stories accepted by the newspapers. Both of them are encouraged to write as they truly are. Johanna by intuition, and Jo by her future husband “There is nothing here of the woman I am privileged to know.” Actually, while we’re on that – both of these women act incredibly bravely when it comes to men. Jo turns down a proposal from her best friend Laurie. Who just so happens to be very rich. As a child, I never understood why she did. Not only is Laurie her best friend in the world – and he’s Christian Bale for God’s sake, but he could bring her out of poverty. But I understand now. She loves him. But she isn’t in love with him. And she has to be true to herself. Instead, she marries an impoverished German professor, who challenges and adores her. 

And it is Johanna who inspires this post. Having suggested a threesome to impress the man she’s sleeping with, she suddenly realises that he’s a bit of an arse. And that she shouldn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do in order to impress somebody. The next quote made me smile “I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness, and told myself – lovingly, like a mother to myself – ‘No! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way!”

I think this is lovely. And something we must all learn. I am not a Cool Girl yet, I haven’t quite found my place or come to terms with my own awkwardness. But I will. At least – one step forward – I think Caitlin Moran and I would quite get on. And Louisa May Alcott. I like to think of us three – along with my fellow Cool Girl/ Awkward Child friends – sitting down and having some gin and talking of books, laughing at the world. 

Jo and fr

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