BLOODY DIF­FI­CULT WOMEN

As a woman, it’s okay not to be liked, says Sarra Man­ning

Red - - Contents - Sarra’s new novel, The Rise And Fall Of Becky Sharp (Harpercollins), is out now

I WAS NEVER THE SORT OF GIRL WHO WAS PICKED FIRST FOR GAMES OR WAS – IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM – POP­U­LAR. Maybe it was be­cause of my NHS specs, pud­ding bowl hair­cut (thanks, Mum) and dys­praxia, which meant that I was al­ways cast as sec­ond shep­herd in the school Na­tiv­ity play and moved to the back in bal­let class. No won­der, then, that while other girls were pre­tend­ing to be princesses and playing with Bar­bie dolls, I sought hero­ines who re­flected my own awk­ward­ness back at me but then turned it into a tri­umph.

The first dif­fi­cult women I chose as role models were Petrova Fos­sil in Bal­let Shoes (who’d rather fly planes than take to the stage) and Har­riet The Spy, whose am­a­teur sleuthing set her apart from her peers. As I en­tered my teens, my hero­ines had to be dif­fi­cult and doomed – and all the more bril­liant for it: Sylvia Plath, Edie Sedg­wick, Dorothy Parker and Zelda Fitzger­ald, each de­ter­mined to pur­sue their pas­sions, what­ever the cost.

In real life, I was for­tu­nate to meet women who, 200 years be­fore, may have been burnt at the stake or put in an asy­lum – once the fate of women who dared to be dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery­thing I am is be­cause of the dif­fi­cult women who set me on my path when I lost my way. Like my fem­i­nist English teacher, who stood out at my strict girls’ school be­cause she taught us about so­cial­ism and didn’t wear a bra. Or the pro­fes­sor who told me that do­ing an MA in crit­i­cal the­ory was a waste of time – if I wanted to be a writer, I should re­turn to Lon­don and write for any­one who’d give me a by­line. These women in­spired me, but they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily peo­ple I wanted to be friends with or who wanted to be­friend me. Re­al­is­ing that it’s okay not to be liked is the most im­por­tant les­son they taught me. Ob­vi­ously, no woman is an is­land – I cher­ish my friends – but like­abil­ity is not a rent that women should have to pay to take up space in the world.

When I was asked to write a mod­ern-day ver­sion of Van­ity Fair, I was coun­selled by a fel­low writer to de­cline. ‘Becky Sharp is prob­lem­atic,’ she said of the schem­ing, so­cial-climb­ing anti-hero­ine. ‘Read­ers won’t like her un­less you warm her up a bit.’ Reader, I didn’t warm her up be­cause Becky Sharp might be wicked and avari­cious, but she’s no­body’s fool or victim, which is why she’s so much fun. When I think of Becky and other dif­fi­cult women I’ve known, I think of what Richard Bur­ton said after his first en­counter with El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor: ‘She was, in short, too bloody much.’

It seems to me that when­ever there’s a woman liv­ing her best life, there’ll al­ways be a man telling her that she’s too much. That, in fact, it would be best if she were a lit­tle less. But fil­ing down the parts of your­self that oth­ers find dis­agree­able means that, in the end, you lose sight of who you are and who you could be. It’s much bet­ter to have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dif­fi­cult than to spend life danc­ing to the beat of some­one else’s drum. So, here’s to the women who aren’t afraid to be stri­dent, to take up space, to stand up for what they be­lieve in and, more im­por­tantly, the peo­ple they be­lieve in. In short, the women who are just too bloody much.

‘Like­abil­ity is not a rent that women should have to pay to take up space in the world’

Olivia Cooke plays Becky Sharp in ITV’S Van­ity Fair

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