[first-time mothers after an ante-natal class]
‘Have you bought all the equipment yet?’ asked Career Girl, who was called Carol. ‘Look at this list my friend gave me: six crotch-fastening envelope-necked vests, six babygros, three dozen elasticated disposable nappies, Moses basket for first six weeks, drop-sided cot for afterwards, it goes on and on, I mean, I ask you.’
‘You don’t have to buy all that,’ said Alice stoutly. ‘My mother put me in the bottom drawer of her chest-of-drawers when I was a baby. My cousin’s just had twins, and she sleeps them side by side in an opened-out suitcase.’
observations: Most story collections tell you where the individual items first appeared: this one doesn’t, but I would have been interested to know, as a guide to their target audience. Helen Simpson’s stories are following women’s lives over the years, and this collection goes with newly-weds and pregnancies. An Interesting Condition would be familiar territory for anyone who actually attended such ante-natal classes in the 1990s - it’s a very funny and accurate picture. The health visitor hasn’t quite finished knitting a uterus to fit inside the model pelvis: the class is going to watch a doll being born. One of the expectant mothers is
the dressiest woman there, wearing a scarlet leisure suit appliqued with characters from Tintin, snow-white socks and navy-blue deck shoes-- and I was very sorry not to be able to find a photo of that.
The next story is Labour, a description of a baby being born, very cleverly written, but it’s hard to know who it’s for. Either you’ve been through it and you know, or it’s outside your experience and there doesn’t seem much point in reading a fancy Greek drama about it. The stories are a very mixed selection, some a lot better than others – Christmas Jezebels is very funny, and the best ones are reminiscent of Angela Carter.
Simpson has a later collection – originally called Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, now sadly reduced to Getting a Life it seems – which is wonderful. It has views of women at a slightly later stage, and is spot-on: real, entertaining and thought-provoking.
This earlier book has too many miserable fat women with low self-esteem and no hope. Simpson is seen as an upmarket writer, but the stories are like the fiction that used to appear in old women`s magazines, but without the happy endings. Low-rent mag stories at least were hopeful, positive, and not just about love. They were big on friendship and improvement and certainly never encouraged staying with the wrong chap.
Links on the blog: A baby hat here, and a discussion of what babies (and their parents) wear here.
The picture is from the Cornell University archives – there was a strong home economics department there in the first part of the 20th century, with a clothing and textile division, and these are examples of clothes used or made in a class.