I met Susan Swan, the author of this novel about a girls’ boarding-school, in a women’s dormitory on a holistic holiday in Greece. Apart from Susan, there was Tessa, a potter from Brixton, a German called Ingrid and Marjorie, an aromatherapist from Liverpool. Susan was a cut above the rest of us. She had been invited as a teacher of creative writing and had then been given the special status of literary consultant. While the other teachers taught mime, self-healing, massage, Tai-Chi and wind-surfing in groups, beginning at 7 a.m., Susan saw aspiring writers one at a time in the café on the beach, where she sat in a stately way sipping Greek coffee. She seemed to have thought deeply about writing, how it related to one’s life, and about the relations between men and women. She quickly assumed the role of big sister, school prefect, or even the witch, the one with magic powers. I had two sessions with her: she showed me a way of analysing dreams; and, as women often do, we discussed the opposite sex.
Dressed usually in white or black, Susan was very blonde, very elegant and very tall. Her first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, published in 1983, was based on the life a distant relation, Anna Swan, a seven-foot-six Nova Scotian woman who was exhibited as a freak in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Her second novel, The Last of the Golden Girls, has some of the subject-matter of The Wives of Bath, in that it describes the sexual awakening of three adolescent girls one summer in Canada. When I met her, she did not appear to see her height as a disadvantage so I was surprised that the narrator in The Wives of Bath has two physical impediments: she is abnormally short and she has a humped back. She is Mary Beatrice Bradford, known as Mouse. Her mother Alice is dead. She calls her hump ‘Alice’ and has conversations with it, often about penises and the nature of being male and female.
Mouse’s father Morley is an overworked doctor who is too busy to pay much attention to her. When her stepmother Sal suggests that Mouse go to an all-girl boarding-school, her father agrees; and no sooner has she got there than Sal writes her a letter: ‘Don’t get your heart set on a lot of visits from us, Mouse. I don’t like Toronto, and neither does Morley ... Morley couldn’t wait to get home and see Lady.’ (Lady is the dog.) To compensate, Mouse writes letters to another father-figure, who appears more accessible. ‘You always look brand-new, Mr Kennedy. Whether you are clapping at Caroline doing a handstand in your office or smiling down at her in her nice white party dress at Hyannis Port.’
The novel is set in Bath Ladies’ College, a boarding-school in Canada, in the year Kennedy was assassinated – and raises questions of a kind one might expect. What does being a woman really involve? What is ‘feminine’? What is ‘male’ behaviour? Is it possible that men really do have a better deal? Pauline Sykes, the most daring and interesting of the characters, certainly thinks they do. She refuses to accept the restrictions of the school and of her sex and carves a new path for herself, half the time dressing as a boy and pretending to be her own invented brother Lewis, the ‘grounds boy’ who does odd jobs. Her emulation of ‘masculine’ behaviour culminates in her cutting off a man’s penis. Swan got the idea from a real crime committed in Toronto in 1969, involving a teenage girl and a taxidriver.
Swan describes well the boarding-school’s heady and claustrophobic atmosphere, where girls often take on more exaggerated roles than they would do if they stayed at home. At my boarding school by the time we were 15 our most advanced classmate, Atalante, claimed to have slept with 12 men, including her brother. She had read all the works of Sartre – we were still reading Gone with the Wind, The Screwtape Letters and Neville Shute – and in our last term she began an affair with the daughter of an eminent academic. After we all left, Atalante turned respectable and is now a vet in the Midlands. Was Atalante’s wild behaviour – in the novel the headmistress calls Paulie ‘troubled’ – done to impress her peer group, with whom she felt out of place? Or was it rather that she was curious about ‘adult’ life and wanted to be part of it before the rest of us did? My own subversive activities – climbing on the school roof, keeping a chocolate cake under my bed, missing Benediction – were juvenile. Our last couple of years – the period that Susan Swan describes – were spent in turmoil. We did not know what was happening to us or how to focus our sexual and emotional feelings. As our young French mistress read out bits of Vol de Nuit – we were doing Saint Exupéry for A-level – some of us gawped lustfully out of the window at the surly builders working on the new Science Lab. Another girl, Pippy, fancied the gardener’s boy, known as ‘Baby-Face’. My friend Tessa kept bursting into tears for no apparent reason. Maureen insisted on leaving to become a hairdresser. This, she felt, was ‘real life’.
Pauline Sykes takes adolescent exploration to extremes. Mouse describes how the girls are sent to the infirmary for their medical checkup. Most of them, except for the very fat ones, docilely strip to their bra and underpants and wait in line. Paulie, however, whips down her purple bloomers, ‘moons’ the crowd and leaps into the dumbwaiter, disappearing from sight.
All around us, girls giggled or talked in low, astonished voices.
‘Won’t she get caught?’ I asked.
‘Paulie will stop it before it hits the kitchen,’ Tory whispered. ‘The dumbwaiter goes through a tiny classroom nobody uses.’
Tory is Victoria Quinn, daughter of Canon Quinn, who runs the local boys’ school, King’s College, and is conventionally married to Tory’s mother. Like her mother, Tory is ‘a looker’. When Mouse first sees her in the dormitory she is to share with her and Paulie, she marvels at Tory’s ‘milk-blond hair and high, plump cheeks’. Tory is sweet-natured and effortlessly ‘feminine’ – a quality Mouse admires in her. She is also in love with Lewis – and Mouse is never sure whether she knows that Lewis is really Paulie.
Mouse herself finds being ‘female’ more of a problem. At 14, she does not want to become a woman but, as Alice, her ‘hump’, says, in one of their imaginary conversations, ‘I know, but you didn’t want to be a man either.’ Mouse wants never to menstruate and is frightened of the hair growing between her legs. She seeks a role model but Sal, her stepmother, whose mam aim is to please Mouse’s father, is inadequate: ‘I thought of Sal and the way she seemed to fit those descriptions of fluffheads who like nothing but clothes and jewels.’ For opposite reasons, the headmistress, Vera (‘The Virgin’), is also unsuitable: ‘her whispery voice sounded like the sulky voice of a girl. And yet the size of her made me think of a man. I looked at her curiously. Was she one of those creatures Sal calls a “half-and-half”? I’d never seen a woman quite like her.’ The Virgin and Mrs Peddie, the deputy head, are lovers. At first I thought they – and other ‘ape-like’ women – were being dismissed as old-fashioned ‘dykes’ but Swan isn’t interested so much in lesbianism as in gender difference.
Paulie claims to be ‘in love’ with Tory but what she is really doing is experimenting in what she thinks is ‘masculine’ behaviour. When Lewis reveals that he is really Paulie, Mouse describes her surprise: ‘His mouth stank of nicotine. I tottered back, waving my amrs, and he grabbed me and held me close. He put his bony face right next to mine and hissed: “Bradford, don’t you know who I am?” ’ Soon after this, Swan discusses, through Mouse, the complications of sexual identity:
No girl I knew had amrs that grew like snakes from their torso. And now here were Lewis’s arms on Paulie ... Or was this person Paulie? Maybe it was a creature who could move with the authority of a man one minute and giggle like a girl the next. The sight was confusing and interesting – like watching a wizard melt into male and female shapes before your eyes. And every change in Paulie provoked a change in me. When she acted like Lewis, I wanted to exhale responsibility for myself like a sigh; when she acted like Paulie, I was myself again. Well, almost myself – as much as a mouse can be. And then I heard Sal’s voice in my ear – see Mary Beatrice, you’re a girl after all – deferring to a man the way a woman should. And I felt sick. Was I no different from the dummies at Morley’s hospital, who followed him into the operating-room carrying his surgical tray?
Mouse is hypnotised by Lewis/Paulie and soon agrees to go through a series of his/her ‘tests’ to prove herself as good as a boy. The tests involve poisoning pigeons, fighting local King’s College boys – one being Tory’s brother Rick – and even going to a pub and attempting to seduce local girls. ‘If you act with authority, people will accept that you’re a boy,’ Paulie says astutely, as she binds her breasts with a bandage and tucks her long black braid into her hat. In the next hilarious scene Mouse, pretending to be Nick the Greek who can’t speak much English – or Greek either – finds herself on the ground with a plump girl called Josie. ‘And I thought with a little shock, this is how you’d look, too, Mouse, if you were lying there waiting for a boy’s hands to love you. I’d be scared, maybe more scared than the boy. And not knowing I was the mountain to be scaled.’
Everyone may sometimes wonder what it’s like to be a member of the opposite sex: what Swan describes best is the giddiness of suddenly having the roles reversed. I remember my own rage and confusion aged six when two boys and their sister came to tea. My brother, 18 months younger than me, wearing a Red Indian head-dress, charged up and down the corridor with the boys while I was stuck with the girl, playing with the dolls’ house.
Something like this feeling of injustice is what fuels Paulie’s anger. After all, as Lewis, she has dared to fight Rick, Tory’s brother, Who is bigger than her. It is Rick who, as his sister’s protector, later demands that Lewis show his penis as proof that he is really a boy. This is what drives Lewis/Paulie to cut off the penis of Sergeant, the school’s dwarf handyman, and glue it onto her own body, killing him in the process.
The description of Mouse First seeing Sergeant’s corpse with its evidence of castration is convincingly ghastly – ‘I could see the walls of fatty red muscle, and I faintly smelled the horrible odour’ – but the account of Paulie’s trial in the next chapter is too frivolous. The playful, Gothic tone of much of The Wives of Bath makes one forget that is isn’t usually acceptable to cut off a man’s penis.