Sex, scandal and show-stopping literature: Lace is the 80’s feminist classic that you HAVE to read
Whilst Lace can be defined as “a delicate, decorative fabric, woven in an open web of different patterns and figures,” it can also mean “to change the patterns.” And that is exactly what Shirley Conran’s book did.
Lace was published in 1982 and opens with a raw description of a backstreet, teenage abortion. Even now I don’t think there are many novels that would open so dramatically, particularly those categorised as ‘chick lit,’ a genre often deemed as soft literature. So, I can only imagine how scandalous Lace would have been perceived when it was first released.
Once the abortion is over, we are transported to a glamorous Manhattan hotel in the 80’s, where four old school friends are bought back together by a young rising film star who has just one question…
“Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
The plot then flashes back to the mid 1950s, where Pagan, Kate and Maxine are at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. They quickly meet the fourth main character, Judy, and soon become the unapologetic heroines that we grow to know and love.
Lace spans over about 30 years and we see the women use their intelligence and confidence to grow up and emerge into their careers – in a time when women were still perceived as only being able to fulfill the roles of wives and mothers. The book explored the idea – can women have it all or do they need to sacrifice something along the way? Career and family – can both happily coexist together?
I don’t want to give away too much of the book and I’m not going to delve into every character. All I’ll say is that together, Pagan, Kate, Maxine and Judy are a force to be reckoned with. They are fierce and determined go-getters who don’t stop until they get what they want. To me, they are the feminist literary icons that we should be talking about.
Whilst I haven’t got a favourite of the group, I do have a soft spot for Pagan. I felt that she was the most endearing when the girls were at school, thanks to both her ballsy attitude and hilarious quips.
Yep, I’m going right on in there (oo-err), because this is one of the biggest themes throughout Lace that simply cannot be ignored.
Very early on, we learn that the 15 – 16 year old girls at boarding school are not educated about sex at all and of course, this fuels their fascination, a fascination that all teenage girls have. Whilst the lack of knowledge and teaching is frustrating, Conran’s exploration of the girls’ naivety can be darkly amusing. For example, the girls believe that they can self-induce abortion by drinking a bottle of gin and bathing in scolding water.
But, they aren’t taught the mechanics of how sex works and are simply told that their desires are bad because they risk getting pregnant *eye rolls*. Neither are they taught about rape and that you don’t have just to go along with sex, leaving them very vulnerable very early on.
One of the things that will make you positively rage like a mad woman (well, at least it did with me) is the sexual double standards at that time. The teachers (the bloody teachers of all people!), tell the girls that it is the woman’s fault if a man gets aroused and they are entirely at fault for the man’s desires. Even if they literally just stood there and didn’t do everything – it’s all their fault. Got to love the blame culture.
Speaking of desires, the girls know nothing of their own. They didn’t understand that they could be satisfied too, as society put such a strong focus on men. The girls’ needs were cast aside and when they did eventually all have sex, they felt empty, confused, underwhelmed and upset. This later carries on into adulthood.
But don’t you worry, Wendy – the sex gets better (literally). All I’m going to say is you wait until the scene later on with Judy and Griffin. You’ll be inwardly screaming, “Yes, Judy – you go girl!” and thinking just why was 50 Shades such a phenomenon when this steamy stuff had been around 30 years before.
This and the theme of sex are interlinked throughout the book. We see how men exerted authority and power over women in the form of sexual power. It didn’t matter what age they were – you wait until you see what the school’s headmaster and his driver did!
I’ve got to talk about Lili, the daughter of one of the women, who utters that beautifully bitchy line, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” Lili had such a rough childhood and by the age of 13, she is being sexually exploited because she has no money, no family and no knowledge of what is really going on. Her manager Serge depends on his power over her to drive his own income, most evident in the line, “He didn’t like sending his bank account off on her own.”
Then there’s Prince Abdullah of Sydon who, as revenge for how he was tormented by Western boys as a teenager, decides he will “have their women.” Because of course, women are inferior possessions and nothing more than that.
It’s sad how none of the women were prepared for a career. Whilst women had demonstrated their capabilities years before in the war, fast forward to the late 50’s and they were still ultimately seen as marriage and baby machines. The classic 1950’s housewife.
As the story goes on, times change and we see each character coming into their own, pursuing their passions.
Kate is a talented journalist and war correspondent, Maxine is a successful interior-designer, Judy is a public relations machine, and Pagan is a business-orientated, charity fundraiser. You go, girls.
What I love about this book is the fact that we see the shift in it being a man’s world to, eventually, a more level playing field, where a woman can make a name for herself without simply being labelled as the wife of Mr X. Of course, there was still such a long way to go at this point (and the case remains in 2017), but I love how we see the women hustle, graft and strive for the lives they want.
Another favourite moment is Conran’s social commentary on just how unprepared the girls were for the working world and life as adults. In a scene where they are reunited at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Royal Garden Party (no biggie), they discuss their achievements, but are very quick to point out how, in many ways, the education system and their parents failed them.
They discuss wishing how they’d have learned how to earn their own living, how to handle their financial affairs, issues that, at the time, weren’t deemed a woman’s business. To be honest, these are issues that I wish I could have learned at school too.
I could easily pull so many quotes out of this chapter, but my favourites are from Maxine and Judy:
“You cannot expect to skip through life with a princess-and-the-pea perspective, hoping to find no lump under the bedclothes. The bed is always lumpy.” – Maxine
“I wish we hadn’t picked up the idea that you were a failure if you didn’t have a man because then you would be without status and protection.” – Judy
If you ask me, Kate, Maxine, Pagan and Judy are the ultimate female friendship group goals. Unlike friends who drift out of one another’s lives, they have an unbreakable bond and this is highlighted when during their teenage years, they find out that one of them is pregnant. They do what good friends should do – they tackle it head on as a group, stand by the mother and raise funds so that the child can be well looked after in the foster system.
While men heavily dominated the group’s lives, friendship was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from them. Yes, men tried to break them apart, but it was the shared love that they had for one another would always prevail. This was clear in Maxine’s motto throughout the entirety of the book, that the girls would stick together through thick and thin. Or “sick and sin” as she liked to say, in her French accent.
Until the very end of the book, the message is reinforced that sticking together through thick and thin is more important than any man.
Because ultimately, it is the women who save each other throughout the book. Conran writes:
“Together, the four of them had certainly bought out the best in each other. Without the other three, where would they be? Alone, their frailties might have overwhelmed them. Together, they had strength and speed and style.”
The solidarity of their group contrasts greatly with Lili, who has no female friends or companions to support her. For most of her life, she is a lone wolf, answering only to the demands of Serge and film directors.
* * *
In the book’s epilogue, Conran writes, “Lace lies waiting for another generation to read it.”
I am part of that generation and I am so, so glad that I stumbled across Lace on my local library’s website.
Reading it in 2017 has honestly made me appreciate how far women have come and the freedom that so many of us have. Yes, there’s still a long way to go worldwide, but reading Lace made me proud that I can build my own life for myself and will never be defined by a man.
If you’re even slightly considering reading Lace, please give in to the temptation. You’ll fall in love with the characters and their friendship just like I did, and that is all thanks to Conran’s wonderful writing. She brings her characters to life through every single word, injecting humour, heartbreak and, as I like to call it, badassery at its finest.
Some have tried to dismiss Lace purely as a dirty book, but to me – it’s the feminist literature they chose to hide from us, and now – we’ve found it.
As India Knight rightly says on the back of the book:
“There was life before Lace and life after Lace, and nothing was ever the same again. I envy anyone who hasn’t read it.”