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Pan, London, 1975
(originally published by Blond & Briggs, 1973)
price: £2.50; 528 pages

dedication: To the memory of VR Lang, poet and playwright, who died in July 1956

The blurb on the back:

Jane’s Tuesday lover, Tom
Jane’s Thursday lover, Anthony
Jane’s Saturday lover, Franklin
With three lovers, a smart converted warehouse in Covent Garden, a pleasant and well-paid job, independence, freedom and sex in abundance, Jane has everything.
But when she discovers that she is going to have a baby as well, everything is a bit too much…
Is the father Tom, the beautiful young burglar?
Is it Anthony, the languid lord?
Or is Franklin, the American Lawyer?
Most importantly, will the baby be black or white?

opening lines:
At the first ring her head turned automatically on the pillow away from the phone. By the second ring a more cunning defence reflex transformed the
ergh-ergh of a London phone into the double buzz of Paris for busy.

This is tremendous stuff, to be very highly recommended indeed. The basic situation is as described on the sleeve - one pregnant woman, three possible fathers – and there’s a genuine interest in finding out whose it is and what she’s going to do with the knowledge. That keeps the pages turning nicely, but – for me - what really makes this a classic is the stuff inbetween, specifically the observations of England in the early-1970s.

Dee Wells was an American journalist, who was married to philosopher Sir Alfred Ayer (their relationship was reportedly the inspiration for Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers) and was a regular on every TV discussion programme in the late-‘60s. She was also an astute observer of Britain - ‘a haunted house divided against itself,’ as she puts it (p.75) – and was particularly sharp on the upper classes:

’It’s not only that they’re different from us … and I don’t care what Hemingway said, all that money does make them different … it’s more that they’re so second-rate. They’re frivolous, but not funny. They’re vain, but not clever or beautiful. They’re educated, but dumb.’ (p.114)

And here she is on one of them in particular:

Not that he lorded it over anyone nastily, in fact he was rather humble about it all – in that way that people who know they’re superior and who have never once questioned it or tested it, can afford to be humble. Like Jesus was humble, those people are always humble – until the crunch comes, when they have their little ways of making it clear that dad was God and that they’re God Jr. (p.27)

Not that she’s got a lot of time for most of the rest of us either. She’s pitiless in her characterization of a charwoman, and this is her on the Labour Party: ‘Do they still wear greenish tweed suits and pledge allegiance to the Red Flag in rooms that smell of sweat?’ (p.13) And, perhaps, at the root of it is the English attitude to women:

’It only dawned on me recently but Englishmen don’t like women. It’s not British reticence or any of that baloney at all, it’s that they plain don’t like them…. To them, women are the enemy. Crazy things you have to humour along like drunks or village idiots … and that you escape from every chance you get. That’s what soccer games and pubs and men-only colleges and those dirty old clubs on Pall Mall are for. And even escape isn’t enough; women have to be made ridiculous as well, and despicable. You know, dirty jokes. Mother-in-law jokes. Women driver jokes. Strip shows. Bunnies. Tarts. Why have Englishmen always been so dead keen on tarts?’ (p.118)

Does she mean us? She surely does.

My apologies for quoting at such length (particularly if you happen to hold the copyright to the book), but I think it’s worth it just to establish what a fine piece of work this: perceptive, witty and provocative. And, as I say, arching above this detail is a story that you genuinely want to read, featuring a central character you really care about. Because I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression: there’s a lot more going on here, as well, including inter alia a passionate defence of radical film-making (Jane’s father was a victim of the McCarthyite purge of Hollywood).

As far as I know, Ms Wells wrote only this one novel, which would be a terrible shame if true. A search of the Internet suggests that it sold two million copies, and – it appears – most of those sales would have come in the States. Presumably American readers were responding to the psychology of a woman at a critical early moment in the rise of feminism, but, without wishing to cause offence, I suspect that they might have missed some of the beauty of the social commentary.

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