Seduced by herself: Caitlin Moran. Photo: Gettty
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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

The Writers Museum
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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear