Seduced by herself: Caitlin Moran. Photo: Gettty
Show Hide image

A hasty rehash: Frances Wilson on Caitlin Moran’s new novel

Those expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them.

How to Build a Girl 
Caitlin Moran
Ebury, 343pp, £14.99

When How to Be a Woman appeared three years ago, it was like the turning over of fresh soil. Here, in a blend of memoir and polemic, was the new feminism: buoyant, transgressive and up for a fight, “rugby style, face down in the mud with lots of shouting”. Caitlin Moran, a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who began writing for the Times as a teenager, had caught the spirit of the age: feminism was about being treated with politeness and equality, and not being a feminist was like bending over and saying, “Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy.” Along with everyone else I punched the air as I read her book. With Moran in the driving seat, we could relax about showing the way ahead for our girls.

There was only one problem, which seemed unimportant at the time but signalled the car crash to come. Although Moran had a clear sense of her own direction, she never looked in the rear-view mirror. Before Lady Gaga felt free to shoot fireworks from her bra, there was some groundwork done by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, but Moran wrote as if the world was born the day she came into it. Feminism, her younger readers might think, was something she alone constructed, brick by brick, on foundations she herself laid down. In that sense, it is appropriate that her first novel is called How to Build a Girl, but a better title might be How to Make a Fast Buck.

A coming-of-age tale about a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who starts writing for a music paper as a teenager, How to Build a Girl comes with a level of hype otherwise reserved for Philip Roth. Added to which it is being promoted by a “rock’n’roll literary tour”. Those in the mosh pit expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them. Apart from the heroine, there are no girls to be found in the threadbare plot, unless you count the bit parts played by her washed-out mother, nasty cousin and a sexual rival called Emilia. Any character roles are given to the men, who also have all the best lines.

Otherwise there is very little difference between Moran the novelist, who says “cunt” a lot, who “gets her freak on” over cartoon characters and describes the state of her mouth after giving a blow job, and Moran the journalist, who does all the same things. How to Build a Girl is simply a hasty rehash of How to Be a Woman. Even the jokes are recycled; the only job available for Moran in Wolverhampton, she says in the first book, is a dead prostitute. The only job available for her in Wolverhampton, she says, less wittily, in the second, is as a prostitute. Except that it is not Moran but Johanna who now says it, and a disclaimer at the start of the novel stresses that “this is a work of fiction” and “Johanna is not me”.

Who, indeed, would want to be Johanna? Even Johanna doesn’t want to be Johanna, so she gives herself the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, demon journalist. Being in the company of Johanna or Dolly for 343 pages is like being pinned to the wall by a bore at a party, who guffaws at her own gags, boasts about her vagina and sees herself as a “legend”. What was once refreshing about Moran’s writing now comes across as laboured and tiresome. When we first meet Johanna she is masturbating, or “seducing herself”, and her self-adulation wavers for only a nanosecond at the end of the book, when a sexual threesome goes wrong. For those who can’t get enough of the world according to Caitlin, Channel 4 has commissioned a six-part comedy series, Raised by Wolves, written by Moran and her sister and based on their childhood.

How to Be a Woman was a celebration of all women, and How to Build a Girl is a celebration of one woman. You might argue that in our age of selfie-obsession this is what we should expect from a writer capable of defining a generation. Or you might see it as lazy and cynical. “Like all the best quests,” Johanna reflects of her experiences, “I did it all for a girl: me.” 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle