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‘Witty, anarchic and sexually frank’: Ali Smith on Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women

Talking to Women was the book Nell Dunn published between Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967). Like them, it was unprecedented for its era, and era-forming. In it Dunn idiomatically transcribes nine informal interviews she recorded with young women she happened to be around in the year 1964, friends across the class system, from factory worker Kathy Collier to socialite heiress Suna Portman, with a particular eye to women marking themselves out creatively, against the odds. “These girls,” according to Dunn’s preface, share more than just a common time and age; they’ve each “severed themselves from some of the conventional forms of living and thinking”.

Dunn began writing fiction in the late 1950s, composing a number of short vignettes around the everyday life and people she met when she moved to Battersea and began working in a sweet factory. After leaving convent school at 14, and with an education picked up here and there across the world, she had crossed the river away from her own upper-class background from Chelsea to Battersea and settled there.

Some of these short pieces went on to form the body of Up the Junction. Its subject matter, its sexual frankness and its marked unsentimentality, its refusal to provide any fake narrative payoff, and its revelation of working-class power – especially its portrayal of the forthrightness of working-class women – ignited a public reaction part scandalised, part ecstatic. It became a runaway bestseller.

Dunn was drawn, from the start, to shared talk. Her art is ignited by voice, especially by voice more usually given no societal, literary or aesthetic power or space but whose authority, as you hear it, is unquestionable. In the early 60s the breakthrough radicalism of Up the Junction lay in to whom it gave voice as well as what it voiced, at a time when such things just weren’t done, just weren’t said.

“I like talking,” its heiress-turned-factory-worker character tells a casual male lover. It’s a rare moment of the narrator’s voice surfacing; Dunn’s narrative voice is more usually a fusion-delivery of the voices (female and male) round her and also of the sounds and sights of the time: a fragment of pop song, a bird singing above an empty house on an old bomb site, the shreds of words and colours on an advertising hoarding; so that reading becomes a kind of sensory collage, a listening vision, one that reveals the ironies, truths, comedies, foulnesses, the losses, the cruelties, the sometimes funny sometimes fuck-you survival, the social and natural realities, in an unforced transcribing, life drawn from the life.

“We had this woman from the WVS come to tell us what to do if they dropped the H-bomb on us. ‘First thing,’ she says: ‘fill your bath with water’. ‘We haven’t got no bath, love,’ I says. That put her right in it.”

Talking, naturally (as well as talking naturally), is one of the central preoccupations of Talking to Women. Dunn asks about morality, politics, economic survival. She asks about life lived with or without the having of children, whether this is a choice or a desire, and the economics of it. She asks about marriage: is it out of date? She asks repeatedly about the meaning of passion and whether her interviewees think passion is about sex, whether they “think sex is tremendously important”. She asks if they’re frightened of dying. She asks about hope. She asks about love. She asks about class, creativity, domesticity and the everyday politics of role. She asks nine young women in their 20s or just touching 30 what they imagine the future will bring them. The answers they give are “as varied as being alive”.

What comes to light, even as Ann (the experimental novelist Ann Quin) is saying the words “verbally we can’t really communicate”, and Edna (O’Brien) is commenting on how “most people are ashamed of saying what’s close to them”, and Emma (Charlton) is lamenting how “human beings are totally inequipped” and endlessly stymied by “this inability to communicate about things you really care about”, is the unashamed intimacy, the articulacy of each speaker, up against the pressure on each one, the pressure even just on language.

Sex is “only another language to me”, Antonia (Simon) says.

“Passion to me involves communication on all levels,” Ann says.

“By actually marrying someone you’re saying something that you can’t say in any other way,” says Pauline (Boty, the artist) who’s recently married her husband only days after they met because “he accepted me intellectually ... the first man I could really talk very freely to ... someone who liked women and to whom they weren’t kind of things”.

Every one of the women interviewed knows that role, and especially gender role, pressurises what it’s acceptable or possible to say. Emma is articulate about how playing the role currently expected of her reduces both men and women. “Even if I think they are unattractive I often say things which I know it would suit them to hear. But really that’s a form of looking down on them.”

Frances (Chadwicke) knows what she thinks about “dreadful things in women’s magazines making it appear that the whole point of a woman’s life is the time when she’s attractive to a man”; she connects this to “being brought up to feel a second class citizen, inferior to a man in every way, encouraged to think of oneself as the object of a man’s pursuit and therefore with no vital life of your own”.

Edna, whose “first and initial body thoughts were blackened by the fear of sin”, in a kind of echo-response to Frances, comments that “a man must feel very sad when he can’t impregnate every desirable woman in the world”.

It’s a witty read: “How can a man be unfaithful in your handknitted jumper?” / “I’ve often thought what I really need is a wife.”

It’s an anarchic read: “The older you get the less need there is for society’s morality, because you have established your own fierce rigorous morality.”

It reveals the guilts, the social and economic inequalities, the fragilities and insecurities, and the courage simply in the act of speaking at all, of every one of the women interviewed. Dunn asks Ann whether she regrets having had an abortion (still illegal till 1967 – the impact of Dunn’s writing is one of the reasons the abortion laws shifted and changed). It takes an experimental novelist like Quin to formulate choice out of no choice : “It was something that I’d chosen to do, and there seemed no alternative therefore I went ahead and did it.”

This book’s brilliance lies on the one hand in the excoriating frankness of each speaker, and on the other in its gift of what’s beneath what’s being said. “You know, a man in bed at night, and cornflakes and all that. I think I despise it as well as wanting it.” The interview with Edna reveals a young thinker wise to both her own and society’s fantasies.

“I thought about gassing myself,” Kathy says. “It’d cost you two or three bob in the meter,” Dunn says. It’s funny and it isn’t. Several of the nine women interviewed here have contemplated suicide. Two of them will die by their own hands; Frances is already gone before this book even sees publication and Ann at 37, less than a decade later. Married at 16 herself, Kathy notes how “it’s every young girl’s wish to get married, isn’t it?” Dunn asks her what her biggest mistake has been. “Getting married at 16.”

The interview with Pauline ranges across many subjects: creative inspiration, childhood, pressures, drugs, depressions, self-worth, self-definition, but its real subject is utterance. A section that begins “I felt guilty about having an ugly cunt” goes on to become a description of when she “was very little surrounded by my brothers and everything, who kept yelling ‘Shut up, you’re only a girl,’” then ends in thoughts about being expected to be / made to be /choosing to be a dumb blonde.

The multiple meaning of a word like dumb isn’t lost in a book about talking. The interview is scattered with violence and the repeated casual use of the words “kill” and “scream”. Edna too uses the word when Dunn asks her about “being a writer and having children” and Edna talks about half the time “being a mother”, and the other half wanting “not to know that they’re alive”, because “being a writer is being a writer constantly”. This split self, she says, “that’s why women’s books and writing, modern women read as screams”.

So Talking to Women is also one of the first books to address the complications of the female self fragmented by prescribed notions of what women’s creativity should or shouldn’t be. “That’s what’s so marvellous, that’s why the feeling is so terribly good, the feeling of creating,” Dunn says to Suna (Portman). “Because you’re using every inch of yourself ... to me it’s the only time I’m really alive, creating.”

In the final interview with Paddy (Kitchen) Dunn says: “I find that one’s constantly feeling what is one doing shutting oneself up in rooms writing books when there are plenty of books. Shouldn’t one be out fighting for freedom?” But it’s freedom that’s at stake, in this slim book of interviews. Emma tells Dunn: “I do wish that I hadn’t been such a pioneer. I wish I’d been a little later ... My mother was a social outcast because of me.” What do you get most out of doing now? Dunn asks her. “Talking, I suppose,” she says. Talking is, for Dunn, a politics of the personal, the social, the communal. In this way, it’s a place to live


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