Sisters

John Sutherland

  • Tit for Tat by Verity Bargate
    Cape, 167 pp, £5.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01908 2
  • Watching Me, Watching You by Fay Weldon
    Hodder, 208 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 340 25600 1
  • Maggie Muggins by Keith Waterhouse
    Joseph, 220 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7181 2014 0
  • Mr Lonely by Eric Morecambe
    Eyre Methuen, 189 pp, £5.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 413 48170 0

Tit for Tat is dispatched from the front line of the war between the sexes. The heroine Sadie (play on ‘sad’ and ‘sadist’) Thompson (play on Maugham’s unregenerate prostitute) is so comprehensively victimised that her only recourse is to victimise herself more shockingly than even her enemies can. And with her self-inflicted wounds she is supposed to win a kind of freedom.

We encounter the heroine at the inaugural moment of her first messy period and awkward bra. As a girl, Sadie is neglected by a moderately amiable mother and abused by a drunken stockbroker stepfather, Jock (Ms Bargate likes a meaningful name). Grown up, she is seduced and bullied into a septic abortion by her timid, clap-ridden fiancé Tim. He changes his mind, but too late: Sadie is sterile. Tim, now a selfish husband, knows this, but lets the ignorant heroine attend the infertility clinic for a year before some friendly lady gynaecologist breaks the male conspiracy of lies. Sadie’s rebellion is to fake cancer and have her left breast removed. The cruel inversion of male-pandering cosmetic surgery properly mortifies Tim, whom Sadie takes – wrongly, as a final irony reveals – to be having an affair with someone fertile. In all this, her only friend is Aunt Chris, a golden-hearted whore who commits suicide rather than submit to a total pelvic clearance.

This is not a subtle novel, either in theme or writing. As the title makes very clear, revenge is its main preoccupation – revenge, moreover, of a peculiarly nose-cutting, face-spiting kind. And it recalls, probably deliberately, other, less enlightened images of heroic feminine masochism such as, topically, the legendary bird in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, who impales her breast on the thorn tree ‘and dying, rises above her own agony to out-carol the lark’. Sadie is a bird of a different feather; nor is her self-mutilation the mother-pelican’s emblematic tearing of the breast to feed an ungrateful brood. In Tit for Tat it is a bitter gesture whereby, anticipating womanhood’s inevitable horrors and persecutions, these can be mastered. Finally, divorced and breastless Sadie achieves what can be seen as one of the Amazonian ends of militant feminism – utter separation from the male sex and with it ‘a desolate sense of triumph’.

In one sense, like the fiction of Erica Jong, this novel trades on the post-Portnoy freedom to open up life’s dirty little secrets. It compares interestingly in this respect with the pre-Portnoy, and much more reserved, My friend says it’s bulletproof by Penelope Mortimer. But Tit for Tat has none of Roth’s or Jong’s jollity – the secrets are dirtier and much more frightening. Bargate’s narrative tone is traumatised and post-operative. What literary flourishes she offers are flattened by the awful obsession with what can happen to a woman: ‘I went over and put my arms round Chris, not wanting to squeeze her too hard in case cancer was like toothpaste in a sealed tube.’

The imbalance I find in the novel is that most frequently observed by my sex in tendentious feminist writings: are all men that bad? Jock and Tim are worse than even Victorian melodrama could make brutal male relatives. Male surgeons will cut off anything for money – especially if it’s attached to a woman. Male politicians are chauvinist hypocrites who do not even try to understand what a woman goes through. ‘Imagine,’ says Chris, ‘if they had periods. We’d have monthly Hiroshimas. We’d be on World War Six Hundred by now. My god, if men ovulated you could get abortions at the bus stop.’

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