In Nell Dunn’s 1964 classic Talking to Women, the conversations feel more alive than ever

Dunn talks to women about, well, everything: sex, love, bodies, identity, marriage, motherhood, politics, ageing, work, freedom and money.

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In 1964 Nell Dunn spoke to nine friends about, well, everything: sex, love, bodies, identity, marriage, motherhood, politics, ageing, work, freedom and money. Among her group were a socialite, a factory worker and various members of London’s literary and artistic demi-monde, including two recently rediscovered Sixties icons: the pop artist Pauline Boty and the novelist Ann Quin. Talking to Women, now reissued after more than 50 years out of print, invites us to eavesdrop on their intimate, freewheeling conversations as they sit “feet up… the small tape recorder balanced precariously between [them], a glass of wine somewhere nearby”.

Dunn understood that to take possession of a voice is to claim a place in the world. She was born into upper-class privilege but, in 1959, finding herself newly married, isolated and kicking her heels in a smart house in Chelsea, she moved to working-class Battersea – the wrong side of the river.

Cutting herself adrift gave her the possibility of self-reinvention. She bought a pair of tight white jeans, bleached her hair and wore it in a beehive, took a job in a factory wrapping chocolate liqueurs and became a writer. “It was no big experimental business,” she said an interview in 2016, “I liked it and moved in.” What she liked was the community and camaraderie but, most especially, the women. Shrewd, exuberantly gobby, and apparently less reliant on male patronage, these women seemed freer than those of her own set.

She began writing short vignettes about them, first published in the New Statesman and collected as Up the Junction in 1963. They drew closely on real life: “most of what I wrote… I heard, some of it I made up.” Hailed at the time as an honorary Angry Young Man, her writing is far more inventive than the association would suggest. “I like talking,” says the narrator of Up the Junction (also a Chelsea heiress), but the author seems to prefer listening. Dunn’s stories are collages; she often hands over the task of narration to the voices of her subjects.

In our own time, books in which women voice their own experiences in their own words are still readily dismissed as merely “personal” and who gets to speak is still very narrowly defined. Nevertheless, lately new, difficult-to-categorise forms of first-person non-fiction have emerged by writers such as Maggie Nelson, Sheila Heti, Lara Feigel, Olivia Laing, Chris Kraus and others.

Reading the older conversations in Talking to Women beside these newer accounts, it’s clear that much has changed – and much hasn’t. In many ways, those conversations of 50 years ago continue: ambivalence about marriage and motherhood, conflicts about different versions of personal fulfilment, the possibilities of a romantic love that
isn’t self-destructive.

The distance is more visible elsewhere, especially in what Dunn’s book reveals about how far the form a woman’s life might take was predetermined. Freedom is found in little pockets of daily life and eked out, or else claimed through subterfuge – paying lip service to expectations and trying to do your own thing despite them. It’s significant that several times exchanges about autonomy end up becoming discussions about adultery – the freedom on offer limited to exchanging one man for another.

So much of this book of talking is about not talking: about what can and cannot be said. It’s clear that talking is a risky, difficult thing when what you want to say is so at odds with what you’re permitted to.

Perhaps what speaks most urgently to our own era is this effort to bring women’s lives, ulterior by necessity, out into the open; to make private inequity and suppressed shame public and communal. There are raw disclosures from Boty and Edna O’Brien about the strangeness of having a body or wanting to escape it. Quin seems defiant initially, but it becomes clear at what cost: a disavowal of what she calls “the whole feminine side”. Domesticity occasionally offers safety and satisfaction, but is often the scene of oblivion: “two children, one wife and one sink,” as O’Brien puts it, “a man in bed at night, and cornflakes and all that.” Driven to despair by “the same thing day after day”, Kathy Collier admits she has thought of gassing herself. Dunn responds: “It’d cost you two or three bob in the meter” – there’s always humour, too, though it’s often dark.

This is real talk – unmediated, round the houses, at times deeply poetic. Right on the cusp of second-wave feminism, this book makes space for women to find the means of expressing new ways of thinking, feeling and being. Half a century on, these conversations are more alive than ever. 

Jennifer Hodgson is editor of a collection of Ann Quin’s stories, “The Unmapped Country”, published by And Other Stories

Talking to Women
Nell Dunn
Silver Press, 170pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain