Saturday, 24 August 2013

Four Bare Legs in a Bed by Helen Simpson

book of short stories published 1990:  this extract from An Interesting Condition








[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.

10 comments:

  1. Moira, very practical baby clothes - there is beauty in their simplicity. Cheers

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    1. Thanks Carole, I thought it was a lovely picture, so stark, and so different from the baby clothes we buy today.

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  2. Oh, Moira, this does sound like a an enjoyable look at that time just before the baby comes. But it's odd to me that there's not more positivity about it considering the topic. I still might look for some of SImpson's stories. And I'd have liked to see a picture of 'the dresiest woman there,' too...

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    1. I had very mixed reactions to her stories - some of them hit the mark, but some less so. And the Labour one - well, as I said, it was a pretty good description, but not one I wanted to relive!

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  3. Whoa, a story that is a description of labor? I only went through a Cesarean (with no real labor pains) and I don't want to read about any version of it. The book has to get better from there.

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    1. Yes, she certainly is covering women's experiences for better or worse, but I would have liked a bit more 'better' in this collection.

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  4. What I most recall from the stories in "Hey Yeah Right Get A Life" are the unrelenting gaze case upon middle-aged women by teenaged girls. But isn't that collection the one with the woman who goes into a bizarre little clothing shop?
    I love your pic on this one too. Would love an austere little babe to dress in these austere little clothes.

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    1. Yes, teenage girls, and exactly, she looked at the relation between them in a very unusual way. I was always struck by the woman getting a teenage girl to babysit but thinking 'but it is she who should be going out tonight, not I' - not because she shouldn't have been going out etc (of course not) but because it identified an interesting line of thought. Now I'll have to re-read, looking out for the clothes shop...

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  5. Here's the story I was talking about, Moira. The descriptions of clothing in it are quite wonderful which made me think it right up your street.
    http://www.barcelonareview.com/22/e_hs.htm
    Here's just one:
    'That on you,' I said excitedly of the strange item the girl had persuaded Isobel to try, pelisse-like but sleeved, pink and fawn and minutely pleated as the gills on the underside of a field mushroom. 'That's so clever, like Mme de Sevigné meets Simone de Beauvoir.'

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  6. And yes, you're right - it was that reciprocal looking and assessing that made those stories so satisfying.

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