One Way to Necropolis: The coffin trains beneath Waterloo Station

BBC Radio 4 Extra's documentary about the coffin train which ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetary makes for sombre theatre, writes Antonia Quirke.

A documentary about a coffin train that ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery near Woking between 1854 and 1941 (3 August, 7.30am) told us of the subterranean waiting rooms and lifts, the coffin workshops and porters going quietly about their business, careful not to pant and strive like the platform employees in the main station – they were instead caught up entirely in the sombre theatre of their tasks. “Corpses, pauper: two shillings and sixpence”, an in-carriage advert informed us. “Corpses, artisan: five shillings.”
 
Female passengers were by law devoid of any ornament. Black and perfectly plain was the dress code – nothing to capture the gaze, nothing to shiver or shine, no thin lines of beads sewn into the fabric, no lucky opal winking on their finger. (Was even the folded handkerchief, ready for a surreptitious dab, black, too?) At Waterloo – in the 1850s the biggest station in the empire – general passenger and freight trains chugged day and night, dominating all human life. Moving into death with the London Necropolis Company and its dedicated trains and countless coffins and mourners was inevitable. “Everybody would take this train at some point,” someone said, almost under his breath.
 
The voice of each person interviewed – a historian, a gravedigger at the modern Brookwood Cemetery, a former tea lady at the café who served passengers in the 1920s – was faded out rather than cut, sliding away sweetly and politely, a fantastic way of putting the programme into a kind of swoon or trance, as though its makers were acknowledging that we all have something important and interesting to say but sooner or later blood pressure or hypertension or an unwise dash into traffic gets the better of us and our voices stop.
 
Or do they? There were moments that sounded almost like radio frequencies getting muddled, earth-side and nether-side (as packed, perhaps, as a mainline station at rush hour with the bored and irritated deceased) crossing wires. But none of it was depressing or disconcerting. There was no under-note of corrosion and damp; there were no places you’d rather not be.
 
The programme was more like a low, mass sigh and never more so than when someone came across a grave in Brookwood of a Victorian bookseller who had died at 27. “Young in years,” read his epitaph, “but old in sad experience.” It was such a tragic sign-off that the person reading it was forced to repeat the phrase in different, increasingly prosaic ways, as though querying a grocery bill. Some things are better unsaid.
A Parisian funeral tram - with coffin compartment on one side. Photograph: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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