When Romantic Heroines Turn Bad: The Rise of the ‘Anti-Chicklit’ Novel.

Sarah Gamble

Swansea University

That chick lit is a thriving literary genre there is no doubt: according to the editors of Chick Lit: The New Women’s Fiction, ‘chick-lit books [in the US] earned publishers more than $71 million’ in 2002 (Ferriss and Young 2006: 2). By 2005, the Wall Street Journal quoted figures predicting that sales of chick lit in America that year would total around $137 million, an increase of around 7% (set against a predicted decline in the sales of general romance novels by 6%) (Trachtenberg 2005: 4). Yet despite its enormous commercial success—or perhaps at least partly because of it—chick lit remains an area of literature that is often denigrated for its intellectual triviality, its retrogressive preoccupation with romance, and its questionable fascination with consumption. As Louise Candlish, herself a successful chick lit author, has argued, chick lit ‘remains as renowned for the savaging it gets as a concept as for any of the work itself’ (Candlish 2007: 23). Famously, the novelists Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing have dismissed it as ‘froth’ and ‘instantly forgettable’ (Guardian 2001: no page no.), while the American journalist Anna Weinberg has argued that a large proportion of chick lit titles ‘really are trash: trash that imitates other, better books that could have ushered in a new wave of smart, postfeminist writing, and trash that threatens to flood the market in women’s reading’ (Razdan 2004: no page no.).

Feminists have developed a particularly wary relationship with the genre, for while on the one hand it represents a significant contribution to women’s writing—in terms of quantity and commercial popularity if nothing else—on the other, it seems to embody a pernicious perpetuation of the idea that women need to find the ‘right man’ in order to be truly happy. In The Feminist Bestseller, for example, Imelda Whelehan draws attention to the way in which, however inventive their narrative structure, however much they might ‘seem on the surface to provide a refreshing antidote to the sugary coating of the classic romance narrative’ (Whelehan 2005: 198), the similarity of chick lit novels’ endings constitute ‘in a constant re-enactment of the myth that true love seeks you out’ (Whelehan 2005: 205). While typical chick lit heroines are likely to be professional women, with jobs in the media or business worlds, they are portrayed as still preoccupied with emotional relationships and agonising over decisions relating to marriage and motherhood.

What I have chosen to designate the ‘anti-chick lit’ novel constitutes a straddling of contradictory positions with regard to chick lit—an acknowledgement of the playful, even seductive, nature of such narratives set alongside a deliberate attempt to subvert the romantic resolution to which they ultimately submit. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two texts I am using as exemplifications of this are not written by authors who are customarily identified with the genre. Michèle Roberts is a poet, novelist and critic, whose first novel was published in 1978. Currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, she is renowned for narratives that blend sensuality, mysticism and feminist critique. Carol Clewlow also published her first book—a travel guide to Hong Kong and Macau—in 1978, and is the author of five novels. Less well-known than Roberts, her work is nevertheless similarly saturated with literary and feminist consciousness.

Yet in 2005, both these authors published books that engage in an ostentatious flirtation with the conventions of chick lit. Reader: I Married Him, by Michèle Roberts, is the story of an indecorous widow, Aurora, and her sexual escapades in Italy, while Carol Clewlow’s Not Married, Not Bothered uses its defiantly single heroine, Riley, as the focus for an extended consideration of the multiple advantages of spinsterhood. Although neither Clewlow nor Roberts included the term ‘chick lit’ in the novels themselves, or publicly categorised their texts as part of this genre, reviewers were quick to spot the parallels. In the New Statesman, Kate Saunders noted of Reader, I Married Him that, “With a sassy cartoon sketch on the cover and a sparkly blurb about a woman who can’t stop getting married, Reader, I Married Him is packaged as chick lit” (Saunders 2005: no page no.); while in The New York Times Lauren Collins described Aurora as “position[ed] somewhere between Bridget Jones…and Jane Eyre” (Collins 2006: no page no.). Although not as widely-reviewed as Roberts’ novel, Not Married, Not Bothered was presented from the outset as (in the words of the review on the British Arts Council web page) ‘a refreshing antidote to the single-and-desperate novels favoured by some chick-lit authors’; an opinion reiterated in Amanda Fennelly’s review of Clewlow’s book on the RTÉ Entertainment web page: ‘Imagine Bridget Jones, 30 years on, if things hadn’t worked out with Darcy. She would be everything that Riley Gordon…is not’.

Such reviews evoke the very dialectic between participation and opposition that typifies the anti-chick lit novel. Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered certainly both take advantage of the commercial opportunities offered by the commercial chick lit niche. The novels are packaged in pastel-coloured jackets featuring stylised script and delicate line-drawings of solitary women, and to the casual browser, there is nothing to distinguish these books from more straightforward examples of the genre. It is only on further perusal that small details emerge indicating that all might not be as it seems: the figure on Roberts’ novel, glamorously clad in figure-hugging dress and high-heeled shoes, is holding a gun in one hand; the woman sitting with her back to the viewer on the cover of Clewlow’s book may be clutching nothing more deadly than a glass of wine, but the unclaimed second glass set beside her on the park bench only serves to highlight the absence of the other half of the conventional romantic ‘couple’. To be sure, it is the publishing company, not the authors themselves, who are primarily responsible for the way in which these novels are marketed, but such cover-art represents a canny awareness of these texts’ potential appeal to consumers of more conventional chick lit novels. Indeed, it is distinctly ironic that it is precisely this sector of the audience who would be best placed to recognise the subtle—and not-so-subtle—allusions to, and underminings of, the conventions of the genre that take place between the covers of both these books.

Identifying the anti-chick lit heroine: or, what’s in a name?

A strong preoccupation shared by the authors of both Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered is their interest in issues of naming and classification, considerations of which work to problematise an unconsidered acceptance of the main protagonists as straightforward romantic heroines. Roberts’ and Clewlow’s principal characters are both given unconventional first names, and the discussion this arouses elides into a consideration of the ways in which the characters are situated within their culture’s wider classificatory systems as regards women. Both are—as Bridget Jones might term it—‘singletons’: but of specific kinds which do not necessarily conform to the conventions of commercial chick lit.

The heroine of Roberts’ novel refers to herself throughout as ‘Aurora’, but her stepmother Maude insists on the more prosaic version of her name; ‘Dawn’. It is never quite clear whether Aurora has chosen a more glamorous form of her original birth name, or whether Maude is deliberately choosing to anglicize it, thus making it more mundane. Whatever the case, neither will compromise on the issue—when Maude introduces her to the local parish priest, Father Kenneth, as Dawn, Aurora promptly contradicts her: ‘actually my name is Aurora, though most people find it too much of a mouthful’ (Roberts 2006: 38). Father Kenneth‘s response is to comment on the etymology of ‘Aurora’ which, he informs her, derives from ‘Saint Aurea, virgin, feast day the eleventh of March. You were named after her, I expect. Though I’ve an idea you come into Dante and Petrarch too. In an allegorical sense, at any rate’ (Roberts 2006: 38). His remark serves to draw the reader’s attention to the inherent ‘literariness’ of Aurora’s name, but—significantly—in terms which emphasise its instability as a designative term. It is the allusion to Petrach, in particular, which confirms this, since his persistent references to ‘Aurora’ in his sonnets is in itself a pun on the name of his absent object of desire, Laura.

Aurora is thus identified from the outset as a slippery subject, and this is only compounded by her cultural status as widow. While the state of widowhood may itself appear to be unambiguous—the death of a husband being an undeniably incontrovertible act—Aurora herself draws attention to the way in which becoming a widow might destablise a woman’s coherent sense of self:

As a widow, without the structure of marriage to tell me what to do, I had no idea what I was any more… I could be this, or I could be that. With Tom I’d been a hippy who smoked dope, listened to David Bowie, threw the I Ching. With Cecil I’d been an elegant and gracious hostess giving art historical dinner parties. With Hugh I’d been a walker, camper, devotee of folk songs and real ale. But now? Alone, I could be anything. (Roberts 2006: 35)

As the passage cited above makes clear, she is not only the possessor of a dual name (Aurora/Dawn), but a multiple widow, having lost not one, but three, husbands; and thus evades any singular form of representation or designation. The issue of what, exactly, happened to these men is one that is largely occluded within Aurora’s narrative, but it becomes an increasingly obvious—hence suspicious—evasion as the story progresses.

Clewlow’s presentation of Riley Gordon is less complex, but conveys a similar desire to problematise chick lit’s version of the romantic heroine. Like Aurora/Dawn, Riley is doubly named, having rejected her feminine first name of Adeline in favour of her more androgynous middle name. Her decision constitutes a deliberate declaration of allegiance, since it is her mother who selected the despised ‘fancy French name’, and her father who ‘named me after his favourite car, a Riley Sprite he’d owned in the halcyon days of his youth’ (Clewlow 2005: 12). Witness to her parents’ unhappy marriage throughout her childhood, Riley has always sided with her father, and continues to distance herself from her ‘vain, batty, anorexic’ mother (Clewlow 2005: 123) even after his death. Besides, she claims, the ‘jaunty, freedom-loving air’ of the name ‘suits me…I like to think it entirely encapsulates what I am’ (Clewlow 2005: 13). What Riley ultimately perceives herself be, in fact, in her self-formulated, self-named identity, is a being without a mother.

If Roberts differentiates her heroine from the chick lit norm by making her a widow, Clewlow achieves the same thing by creating a principal character who is an unapologetic spinster: a term that Riley, and her author along with her, most enthusiastically upholds. Bridget Jones and her ilk may be similarly single, but they are on the pull, not on the shelf—Bridget speaks for most of them when she says that her biggest fear is dying alone and being found ‘half-eaten by an Alsatian’ (Fielding 1996: 33). In contrast, Riley is actively dedicated to pursuing an independent life, in accordance with her firm belief that:

actually, as far as the spinster is concerned, her state has nothing to do with absence, or loss, or missed opportunity. It’s not Second Best at all but First Choice. In fact the view up here on the shelf is pretty damn good from where she’s looking. (Clewlow 2005: 144)

Her narrative celebrates, quite literally, the ‘Life of Riley’, in which she has ‘pretty much everything I want’ (Clewlow 2005: 243). Not Married, Not Bothered thus identifies itself as the antithesis of mainstream chick lit, the central thrust of which is the search for an ideal(ised) relationship, and the extent to which Clewlow’s message transgresses the romantic norm is indicated by her claim that her publishers refused to let her use the word ‘spinster’ in the novel’s title. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour at the time of the novel’s publication, she gleefully observed:

Wasn’t that a delicious irony? The entire book was supposed to reclaim the word “spinster” rather as gay men have reclaimed “queer”, but what they said, entirely backing up my argument, was that the publishers—the people who bought the book—many of them would be young, many of them would be male, and they would come out in a hot flush if they saw the word “spinster” and would be entirely convinced they would never sell the book. (Clewlow, Woman’s Hour, 24 November 2005)

Clearly some kind of compromise was reached, as Clewlow’s use of the term ‘spinster’ was retained, but was relegated to a subtitle—An ABC for Spinsters. Furthermore, it does not appear on the cover itself, but is discreetly tucked away on the novel’s inside title page where it is, presumably, less likely to scare away potential readers.

Daughters of the revolution: feminism in the anti-chick lit novel

The deviance of Roberts’ and Clewlow’s heroines from the chick-lit ‘norm’ is further added to by the relatively mature status of their principal female characters. Following the example of Bridget Jones, the main protagonist of a typical chick lit novel tends to be somewhere in their late twenties to early thirties. But Aurora is 50 and Riley 53, which makes them nearly old enough to be those characters’ mothers. Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered are thus potent exemplifications of Imelda Whelehan’s argument that, as the earliest writers and consumers of chick lit age, so ‘the generational specificity of original chick lit is starting to broaden and blur’ (Whelehan 2005: 191). As Whelehan says, Bridget Jones’ earliest fans are now ‘creeping into their thirties and forties’ (Whelehan 2005: 191)—but Roberts and Clewlow place their characters even further along the age spectrum; a decision which raises some intriguing dilemmas. Firstly, it implies a slightly different relationship to feminism which, as many critics of chick lit have already noted, plays a pivotal, if not always openly acknowledged, role in the formation of the genre. The editors of Chick Lit: The New Women’s Fiction define it as exemplifying the conflict experienced by ‘the generations of women coming of age after the women’s movement of the 1960s’, between the empowerment of social and financial independence on the one hand and the lure of traditional notions of romance and family on the other (Ferriss and Young 2006: 9). Imelda Whelehan puts it more concisely, arguing that ‘feminism lurks in the background [of the chick lit narrative] like a guilty conscience’ (Whelehan 2005: 176).

Aurora and Riley, though, are not feminism’s inheritors, but would have come of age at the height of the second wave, which means that they have an experience of feminism-in-action that younger women, raised in a supposedly ‘postfeminist’ age, might lack. Yet, interestingly, Roberts and Clewlow—feminist writers both—muffle this fact within their novels. Of the two characters, it is only Riley, with her militant campaign in support of the spinster, who retains some adherence to the tenets of second-wave activism. At one point in the novel, for example, she engages in a vehement diatribe against the infertility industry, which she regards as ‘a step backwards in the advancement of women’ (Clewlow 2005: 131). Her assertion that ‘if every women has a right to have a child—the axis on which the whole baby business turns—then having a child must be at least part of what it means to be a woman’ (Clewlow 2005: 131), constitutes a rejection of essentialist arguments that make women nothing more than the sum of their biological function. Nevertheless it has to be said that Riley fails to draw an explicit connection between reproduction and feminism. Instead, it serves to illuminate the plight of the single woman, ‘those who inflict themselves with the disease of remaining childless’ (Clewlow 2005: 132).

Despite the fact that she describes herself as ‘a good old-fashioned sixties feminist’ (Clewlow 2005: 155), Riley is explicitly critical of feminism at several points in the novel, which she portrays as a movement intrinsically hostile to the spinster. When she decides to ‘reclaim the word’ (Clewlow 2005: 29), her first act is to go to Bristol University library and carry out an electronic search to unearth further information:

I tapped in ‘spinster’, expecting a list to show up. You know the sort of thing, textbooks pretending to be something more interesting with racy covers and titles: Niggers with Attitude: Black Pride in the Nineties; Queering the Pitch: The Law and the Homosexual; Finger in the Dyke: A History of Anti-Woman Humour….

Instead it came up ‘WORD NOT RECOGNISED’. (Clewlow 2005: 30)

Feminism is thus as guilty of excising the spinster from record as patriarchy, and emerges in this text as a bastion of political correctness taken to ludicrous extremes: the promotion of the use of ‘Ms’ as an all-purpose designation for women is dismissed as a ‘piece of feminist flummery’, for example, by a character who ‘is more than happy to use “Miss”’ (Clewlow 2005: 251).

Alternatively, feminism is aligned with the more batty forms of New Age quasi-mysticism, becoming little more than a messy combination of self-indulgent self-help philosophies. It is significant that the only figure in the novel explicitly identified as feminist is Riley’s friend Magda, owner of a New Age Wiccan shop. Magda is a free-spirited eccentric who, in the belief that it is ‘TOTALLY EMPOWERING’ (Clewlow 2005: 1 [uppercase in original]), is engaged for much of the book in planning a ceremony to marry herself to herself. Her desire to go through the ceremony barefoot because ‘Shoes…are patriarchal’ (Clewlow 2005: 287 [italics in original]), is a clear send-up of extreme essentialist feminism—Magda’s adherence to which is somewhat undercut by the fact that her self-marriage ends, not with an empowering assertion of female independence, but the bride settling down happily with a Scotsman who drunkenly stumbles into the midst of the ceremony by accident.

The same displacement of feminist sentiments onto an alternate character can be seen in Reader, I Married Him, in which the complete lack of gender consciousness displayed by Aurora is counterbalanced by the radical feminism of her best friend Leonora. Now a nun in an Italian convent, Leonora was ‘a feminist in the seventies’ (Roberts 2006: 19), and has not relinquished her allegiance to the movement in middle age. Imprisoned for the—mock—assassination of a misogynistic bishop on a ceremonial visit to the convent, Leonora spends her time in the police cell ‘scratching socialist-feminist graffiti on the walls with the sharp edge of the crucifix on her rosary’ (Roberts 2006: 190). In her vivacious iconoclasm and her refusal to reverence patriarchal institutions, Leonora is a typical Roberts heroine; yet in a novel which centres on themes of disguise and deception, her feminist views remain curiously insubstantial and unsubstantiated. The first-person narrative is filtered through Aurora’s point of view, and, for reasons that are not evident for most of the novel, she has a vested interest in slanting her story away from vehement expressions of female protest. Feminism is thus reduced to rhetoric—a mere order of words used to give a false impression within a duplicitous situation, and nothing more than one amongst many methods of concealment. When Aurora’s new parish priest, Father Michael, impresses upon her his liberal views, for example, they include the opinion that ‘women’s liberation is the true Second Coming of Christ’ (Roberts 2006: 47). But the truth revealed later in the text is that Michael is not a priest at all, but an undercover policeman investigating Aurora’s role in her husbands’ deaths. Moreover, his desire to dominate and exploit women sexually—he likes to use bondage and flagellation on Aurora and is also seen picking up a prostitute—reveals his feminist sympathies, like his religious sentiments, to be an act assumed only as part of his deductive—and seductive—project.

Subverting the romance plot

The implied critique of feminism offered by Roberts’ and Clewlow’s novels is counterbalanced, however, by their overt critique of the discourse of romance. The fact that marriage is specifically mentioned in both titles suggests that it will be a central theme in the text; moreover, it would appear to mark a point of distinction between Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered, since the former indicates a progression towards a conventional resolution, while the latter rejects it from the outset. In actual fact, both novels deliberately set out to undermine the romantic premise that underlies the more conventional chicklit narrative, one by avoidance, and the other by multiplying the happy-ever-after conclusion to the point where it loses its significance altogether.

Not Married, Not Bothered does rather hedge its bets in this regard, admittedly, since embedded in Riley’s stringent critique of marriage is a wistful recurrent memory of a youthful love affair with an American academic in Bangkok, presented to the reader in fragments of recollection narrated in an elegiac tone that is quite unlike the sardonic, amusing and colloquial narration that characterises the rest of her story:

They say that time stands still when lovers meet, don’t they? But it’s not true, it’s not true at all. It’s so much better than that. Time doesn’t stand still. It runs, it dances, it disappears down black holes.

As his long thin finger pushed that coin slowly along the bar towards me, it seemed like time collapsed, that everything we were or had been or ever could be was caught in that long lazy movement. (Clewlow 2005: 148)

As Riley herself is clearly aware, her romance with Nathan, brief, but never forgotten, stands somewhat at odds with her desire to exemplify a model of spinsterhood cut free from the unquestioning assumptions and stereotypes culturally attached to the single female; one of the most pernicious of which is the myth of:

An old lost love story. Another of those clichés. What the spinster is supposed to have (besides a cat), what makes her what she is, what lends her that enduring air of loss, the Lost Love Story, like some stole thrown around her shoulders, protecting her decency, her modesty…making the world more comfortable with her, providing the necessary explanation, the justification for her state. (Clewlow 2005: 143)

Her nostalgic recollections seem to function as precisely such a story of lost love: furthermore, while it is Riley who ends the affair, running away from Nathan’s declarations of love and all the emotional risk that it entails, the text both proffers and withholds the seductive possibility that their story has not ended. Riley has periodically attempted to renew contact with her former lover—and in a different kind of novel, she might well have succeeded. Clewlow, however, uses Riley’s attempt ‘to push the plot forward’ (Clewlow 2005: 236) to perpetuate—rather than negate—her deconstructive intentions, for when, after years of prevarication, Riley eventually gathers the nerve to send an email to Nathan, it is only to discover news of his death. As she says, this is in many ways ‘the perfect ending for me’ (Clewlow 2005: 324), since it allows her ‘to do what I always wanted to do, which was to keep our affair perfectly preserved in that aspic of memory’. Although she subsequently decides to ‘[give] the whole thing up’ on the grounds that ‘in the end, life goes on…Real Life, that is’ (Clewlow 2005: 326), this is merely the final move in a series of vacillations between the competing discourses of romance and pragmatism that have run throughout the narrative. Riley’s final vision of ‘Spinster Heaven’ (Clewlow 2005: 345) is thus given a slightly quizzical slant, since, as the novel makes clear, there is a cost exacted for being a spinster, even if it is one she is ultimately happy to pay.

If Clewlow’s narrative allows romance to feature within the life of her heroine, even if it is long gone and irretrievable except as a nostalgic recollection, Roberts’ represents a far more satirical treatment of the topic. The title of Reader, I Married Him indicates from the outset the irony that underlies Roberts’ portrayal of literary romance, since the more astute reader will recognise the title as one of the most famous lines in romantic fiction. Taken from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), it promises a story of love that will triumph over all adversity. In actuality, this is nothing more than the first in a long list of red herrings scattered liberally through the text, designed to make the reader misrecognise the novel as something entirely less subversive than it is. (A prior knowledge of the romance genre in general, and of the chick lit narrative in particular, is of no help here; in fact, the more well-informed the reader, the more easily she may be hoodwinked into making false assumptions that the novel will end in the familiar ‘happy ever after’ conclusion.)

For a start, Aurora’s status as a widow throws an entirely different slant on Jane’s triumphant declaration of marital achievement. In Jane’s case, the subject of her enunciation is Edward Rochester, the one and only love of her life, and she is speaking as a wife who remains contented with her lot after ten years of happy marriage. But when applied to Aurora, it is impossible to work out to which man this statement might refer as she has been married three times; running counter to the concept, so central to romantic fiction, that the heroine’s quest is for The (irreplaceable) One. As Gillian Beer asserts of Jane Austen in a study of key women writers of the nineteenth century that shares its title with Roberts’ text, ‘marriage is the aim of all…Austen’s heroines and we do not see them again, except in prophetic glimpses, after the hour of their success, and they do all succeed’ (Beer 1974: 45). But as far as Aurora is concerned, marriage is not the definitive conclusion to the female life story that it is for the nineteenth-century heroine, since her primary identity in the novel is that of a widow, not of a wife. In this sense, Aurora’s story takes as its starting point the unwritten, unconsidered, conclusion of the conventional romantic narrative—that mortality renders all relationships finite.

Reader, I Married Him proceeds to imbue this rather nihilistic viewpoint with black feminist humour, the purpose of which surfaces at the very end of Aurora’s self-told tale, when she picks up the reference to Brontë and reworks it. Unveiled by Michael as a black widow, a serial husband-killer, she assures her continuing survival—and the chance to secure yet another husband—by shooting him dead at point-blank range. ‘Reader’, she triumphantly asserts in the novel’s final line, ‘I murdered him’ (Roberts 2006: 229). In appropriating and perverting Jane Eyre’s famous affirmation of wedded bliss, Aurora demonstrates the fatal blind spots inherent in the stereotypical marriage plot that make it all too easy to slip from marriage to murder. So well has she played the part of grieving widow that few people, seemingly, have thought to question the premature, and surprisingly similar, deaths of three men all married to the same woman. Aurora’s first husband ‘fell off a balcony in Notting Hill’ (Roberts 2006: 125); her second ‘out of a hotel window into the Grand Canal’ (Roberts 206: 136); and her third ‘fell off the cliffs at Lands End’ (Roberts 2006: 227). Yet these details are only revealed later on in the novel, for most of which Aurora has referred to the circumstances that led to her widowhood only in the vaguest terms—as she artlessly puts it, they all ‘suddenly died’ (Roberts 2006: 11 and 13).

Robert’s narrative includes no sense of moral outrage at Aurora’s success in literally getting away with murder: the fact that she never regards any of her marriages as conclusive is construed as entirely admirable. As Riley serendipitously observes of widows, far from being crushed by their bereavement, ‘they may just emerge from their husband’s death doing the Merry Widow waltz’ (Clewlow 2005: 75). Aurora herself feels neither shame nor guilt, offering as her only justification the observation that ‘Marriage is awfully difficult…adapting oneself to another person is not easy’ (Roberts 2006: 227). But if marriage is a prison to be broken out of, it is also simultaneously the means by which escape is effected, since the continuous transition from widow to wife enables Aurora to remain undetected: ‘Most criminals use aliases. I had just kept getting married and changing my name’ (Roberts 2006: 226). In her refusal to be fixed by the patriarchal plot, in which marriage becomes the desired ending to every woman’s story, Aurora reveals herself to be an engaging—albeit rather disturbing—feminist heroine.

Conversations with the reader: confidences and the confidence trick

In her essay ‘Mothers of Chick Lit?: Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History’, Juliette Wells observes that the central characters in chick lit narratives are rendered likeable ‘usually because of their endearing faults rather than because they are paragons’ (Wells 2006: 52). Both Roberts’ Aurora and Clewlow’s Riley, with their slightly chaotic lifestyles and accumulation of eccentric friends and relations, conform to this paradigm—although it is Roberts who is particularly audacious in her attempt to pass off the habit of serial killing as an ‘endearing fault’ on a par with the habitual over-consumption of chocolate and chardonnay or poor choice in boyfriends. What allows her to get away with it is her exploitation of chick lit’s informal, confiding and upbeat form of address.

Whether or not they directly follow the epistolary model established by Helen Fielding in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the majority of chick lit novels are written in the first person, allowing for a frank and familiar relationship to be established between reader and narrator. But the more sophisticated examples of the genre take extreme liberties with this convention, thus foregrounding the illusion of disclosure that it appears to offer. So, for example, Anna Maxstead’s Running in Heels (2001) conceals the narrator’s steady decline into anorexia, and Marion Keyes’ Anybody Out There (2006) masquerades as the story of a broken marriage, only revealing over halfway through the true reason for the husband’s absence: his death in a car accident. Where these instances differ from the novels under discussion is that, whereas the lack of disclosure they offer is seen to stem from the heroines’ own self-delusion—to a great extent they are telling the truth as they perceive it—both Roberts and Clewlow practice a much more calculated form of deception.

Not Married, Not Bothered is particularly flamboyant in its inventiveness. The informal, even chatty, tone of the majority of the narrative fosters a sense of intimacy, reinforced by Riley’s consistent direct acknowledgement of an audience. For example:

If you ask me how all this got started, I’d say it was with Magda deciding to marry herself.

You may wish to read that line again. (Clewlow 2005: 1)

In addressing the reader directly in this way, Clewlow works to break down the fictional frame of her text, drawing the audience into a confidential exchange with her character. Yet this is, of course, only a masquerade of intimacy; a fact which comes to the fore in Clewlow’s use of footnotes. This is partly done for comic effect, allowing Riley to insert anecdotal asides and amusing comments into the periphery of her narrative, but she also uses footnotes in a mock-academic manner, referencing a variety of texts in support of her central argument in favour of spinsterhood. Many of these are real—such as Shirley Conran’s Superwoman and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—but others are complete fabrications, including texts published by characters within the novel. This is done with no intent to deceive—it would be difficult to conceive of a reader naïve enough to take all of Clewlow’s references at face value—but instead is a blatant miscegenation of reality and invention that reveals the artful hand of the author at work.

As has already been observed, far more is at stake in Reader, I Married Him, since Michèle Roberts has to play some particularly mendacious narrative games in order to ensure that, firstly, Aurora’s murderous activities are only gradually brought to light as the story progresses: and, secondly, she retains a sympathetic audience throughout this process of disclosure. Aurora’s dishonesty as a narrator is not immediately obvious, despite the fact that, on a second, and therefore more informed, reading, her narrative is laced with heavy hints regarding her criminal past from the outset. When attending confession, for example, she openly admits that ‘No way did I feel encouraged to tell Father Kenneth any of my real sins, not the major ones, not the mortal ones that merited hell if not properly forgiven’ (Roberts 2006: 32). She even tells him that she ‘feel[s] responsible’ for her third husband’s death (Roberts 2006: 34). Yet his indulgent reaction—‘That’s women for you…always too much upon themselves’ (Roberts 2006: 34)—is exactly what she expects, since she knows that her public identity as a widow, as a middle-aged woman and as a devout Catholic all run counter to any perception of her as a murderer.

It becomes increasingly obvious that behind Aurora’s ‘big blue eyes…wide-eyed innocent gaze, and…long blonde curls’ (Roberts 2006: 51) lies the spirit of a ruthless risk-taker. Not only can she not resist lacing her narrative with allusions to her crimes—allusions she ensures that neither the characters within the text nor the reader of it will take seriously—she also engages in other covert activities. One of the central comic episodes of the book concerns Aurora’s interrogation by a custom official at Treviso airport, during which her extreme skill at obfuscation and misdirection is demonstrated. We already know that she is smuggling a pistol into the country on behalf of her friend Leonora, which she has concealed in a box of sanitary towels (an ironic choice for a woman who has gone through the menopause). To allay the officer’s suspicions, she does not deny the carton’s usefulness as a hiding place, but claims to have used it to conceal a dildo: ‘I never travel anywhere without it. I’m on my own, you see’ (Roberts 2006: 62). Such a combination of flirtatiousness and embarrassment successfully deflects attention away from, not only from the real item secreted in the box, but also other items unsuspected by the reader. Along with the box of sanitary towels, the customs officer also interrogates Aurora about a canister of white power which she claims are Hugh’s ashes, brought to Italy to be scattered in accordance with his final wish. The extent of her deception is only revealed much later, when she discloses that, while the white powder is indeed human ash (although, since ‘Things often got mixed up on the deli shelves when I was dusting’, she isn’t sure which husband they belong to), concealed within them is a ‘sachet of cocaine’ and a ‘packet of dope’ (Roberts 2006: 202).

So although Aurora claims to be ‘hopeless at plotting’ and ‘not an accomplished criminal’ (Roberts 2006: 223), events reveal how disingenuous her narrative actually is, revealing a woman who is not only a murderer, but also a habitual drug-user and a former prostitute. While she might present herself as a hapless heroine in the chick lit mode, ‘who just reacts to events as they occur and does her best at any given moment’ (Roberts 2006: 224), the gunning-down of Michael with which the novel concludes, combined with her direct address to the reader, demonstrates that Aurora has been conscious of an audience from the beginning. Her reader is now not her cosy companion, but her accomplice and an accessory to murder, whom Aurora—and beyond her, her author—has manipulated every step of the way. A certain amount of dizziness and self-deprecation is expected of a chick lit heroine, and Roberts deliberately plays on this in order to encourage the reader to ignore disclosures that indicate her homicidal nature.

Literary self-consciousness

The final element in Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered that marks both a point of contact with and a differentiation from mainstream chick lit is the relation they establish with a pre-existing tradition of female authorship. As has frequently been noted by both reviewers and critics of the genre, it is a connection to which chick lit is obviously, and knowingly, indebted, with Jane Austen being most frequently cited as its founding foremother. Some writers, as Juliette Wells says, openly display that connection, and ‘invite us to view their works as descendents of women’s literary classics’ (Wells 2006: 48), but many do not foreground the connection between the trials and tribulations suffered by their modern heroines and the conventions of the nineteenth-century courtship plot. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Fielding makes the parallels with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice clear, but also filters them through contemporary adaptations of the novel for film and TV, so the novel’s main point of reference is not so much the original text as its reworkings in contemporary popular culture.

Both Roberts and Clewlow openly insert references to prior literary works into their texts, and they bring in a considerably wider range than is often the case with even the most self-conscious chick lit novel. Austen looms particularly large in Clewlow’s narrative, in which she is credited with a pivotal inspirational role in the development of Riley’s own writing career. A moderately successful children’s author, Riley filches the title of her first novel, The Importance of Aunts, from one of Austen’s letters, and she also finds inspiration in Austen’s life story, citing her as ‘not just a spinster heroine, the spinster heroine, St Jane, patron saint of spinsters’ (Clewlow 2005: 117). What is interesting here is that, in shifting focus from the content of Austen’s writing to the context in which it was written, Clewlow works a new twist into the contemporary revisiting of Austen’s work. Whereas Bridget Jones is obsessed by the romantic fantasies Austen created, Riley is more interested in the extent to which she embodies the freedom of the single woman who has eschewed romance for writing.

The fact that the title of Reader, I Married Him is, as has already been discussed, a literary quotation makes it an eminently suitable title for a novel packed with reference to a wide range of nineteenth and twentieth-century texts. Like Riley, Aurora is an enthusiastic reader, who compulsively compares ‘real’ life to fiction throughout the course of her narrative. But, she resembles Bridget Jones in the way in which literature for her appears to represent little more than simple romantic wish-fulfilment. Jane Austen’s works (and Pride and Prejudice in particular) are mentioned several times—Aurora’s Italian boyfriend is likened to Mr Darcy (Roberts 2006: 184), and she compares herself unfavourably with Elizabeth Bennett (Roberts 2006: 186). However, Austen shares the fictional stage with a wide variety of other writers, from Elizabeth Gaskell to Ruth Rendell: nor is she the most significant. In fact, the presiding literary spirit over Roberts’ text is not Austen, but George Eliot. Aurora’s favourite novel is Middlemarch, a novel that features both an Italian sojourn, and a heroine who becomes a widow. Reader, I Married Him in itself can be viewed as a reprise of Eliot’s novel in a distinctly ironic mode, substituting postmodern relativism for nineteenth-century realism, and a first-person, distinctly self-interested and undoubtedly unreliable narrator for Eliot’s nuanced and detached presentation of her fictional world. Eliot’s concern with presenting a microcosm of society in a sweeping narrative covering the different perspectives of many characters becomes, in Reader, I Married Him, a narrow, wholly subjective, tale centred upon a single figure.

The key to Roberts’ referencing of Eliot in Reader, I Married Him can be found in her choice of title for her novel, which is both a direct quotation from Jane Eyre and a reference to its prior use as a title by the literary critic Gillian Beer for her 1974 study of Austen, Brontë, Gaskell and Eliot. Beer’s book ‘sets out to show how women and their situation were depicted in certain English novels of the past’ (Beer 1974: ix), and in her chapter on Eliot, Beer notes her recurring interest in the figure of the murderous woman. What is most interesting about Eliot’s portrayal of such figures, argues Beer, is that

she can…depict murderesses as being basically nice women. It is astonishing how frank and how detailed she is about her heroines’ violent desires. Her understanding of what drives them to extremes—the frustration of their lives with men and the treatment they receive—results in a pity which makes it impossible for her to condemn. (Beer 1974: 196)

Although Beer admits that neither of the principal female characters in Middlemarch ‘actually murders or contemplates murdering her husband’, she nevertheless maintains that ‘the desire is there, however well buried, under mountains of duty, as in Dorothea’s case, or of respectability, as in Rosamund’s’ (Beer 1974 197). What Roberts has done in her novel, in other words, is taken as her starting point the latent homicidal desire Beer discerns in Middlemarch, creating a heroine who carries out the crime that Dorothea herself does not even quite know she would like to commit.

A further twist to Roberts’ use of literary references lies in the suggestion that Aurora’s success in concealing her crimes—not only from most of the other characters in the novel, but also from the reader—may be derived from books, raising the possibility that she is a more canny and critical reader than she superficially appears. From her narration it is apparent that Aurora is a fan of crime novels as well as romances, and it is from this source that she derives her talent as an astute plotter and her skilled use of misdirection. Her more audacious narrative sleights-of-hand employ many of the plot devices used within crime fiction, such the omission of crucial information, the downplaying of the real significance of key details, and the passing off of deliberate manipulation as mere coincidence. Yet, in her simultaneous evasion of both capture and marriage, Aurora’s narrative jettisons the customary conclusion of the crime novel along with the traditional romantic ending. In this way, she evades literal and metaphorical entrapment in a narrative that itself resists enclosure and tidy resolutions.

In Writing Beyond the Ending, Rachel Blau du Plessis begins with the assertion that ‘Once upon a time, the end, the rightful end, of women in novels was social—successful courtship, marriage—or judgemental of her sexual and social failure—death. These are both resolutions of romance’ (Blau du Plessis 1985: 1). While chick lit as a genre may balk at killing off heroines who do not succeed in their quest to secure the alpha male, it generally tends to ensure that—to paraphrase what Beer says of Austen’s heroines—they ‘do all succeed’ in that endeavour, even if they don’t get quite as far as the altar. However, Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered both constitute emphatic rejections of the either/or fate postulated by Blau du Plessis, for Aurora and Riley not only end their narratives still unmarried (or in Aurora’s case, unmarried again), but also openly triumphant in their—admittedly different—constructions of singledom. In this respect, Roberts’ and Clewlow’s narratives thus largely fulfil Blau du Plessis’ demand that contemporary writers ‘write beyond the ending’, which she defines as ‘solv[ing] the contradiction between love and quest and…replac[ing] the cultural legacy from nineteenth-century life and letters by offering a different set of choices’ (Blau du Plessis 1985: 4).

However, perhaps these novels do not so much write beyond the ending as around it, since they have inherited from chick lit and its romantic precursors an awareness that marriage is still a choice available to the heroine, though not the only one. Aurora is particularly ingenious in her exploitation of the marriage plot to her own ends, but Riley, too, has flirted with its attractions: she is not completely immune to the blandishments of romance. Ultimately, however, both refuse to play the game according to the rules, and it is this that makes them such subversive heroines.

While both Carol Clewlow and Michèle Roberts have literary careers outside the parameters of chick lit, in Not Married, Not Bothered and Reader, I Married Him, they have produced texts which, while they critique the limitations of the romantic paradigm, also pay tongue-in-cheek homage to this popular literary mode. And a further intriguing thought is that, in tying their work into a continuum of women’s writing, and in critically utilising many of the narrative tactics and character models of the chick lit narrative, Clewlow and Roberts—whether or not they are aware of it—could be regarded as gesturing back to chick lit’s neglected origins from within contemporary feminism. In 1995, Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell published an edited collection of stories entitled Chick Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, which Mazza describes as ‘fiction that transgressed the mainstream or challenged the status quo’ (Ferriss and Young 2006: 21). The use of the term ‘chick’ was ironic; intended, said Mazza, as ‘a way of saying, “Careful, if you think you know us”’ (Ferriss and Young 2006: 27). Clewlow’s and Roberts’ texts reinstate this deconstructive impulse within their versions of chick lit and similarly challenge their readers to not take feminine stereotypes at face value. Instead, the readers of Reader, I Married Him and Not Married, Not Bothered must remain alert to the ironic possibilities open to writers who are aware of the potential of feminist subversion from within the boundaries of popular women’s writing.

Works Cited

Beer, Gillian (1974) Reader, I Married Him: A Study of the Woman Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Blau du Plessis, Rachel (1985) Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press.

Candlish, Louise (2007) ‘Queens of Chick Lit’. Books Quarterly: 23–6.

Clewlow, Carol (2005) Not Married, Not Bothered: An ABC for Spinsters. London: HarperCollins.

Clewlow, Carol (2005) interview. Woman’s Hour 24 November. Retrieved on 15 January from http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2005_47_thu_02.shtml.

Collins, Lauren (2006) ‘Food, Sex and God’. The New York Times 25 June. Retrieved on 10 January 2007 from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/books/review/25collins.html.

Fennelly, Amanda (2005) ‘Not Married, Not Bothered by Carol Clewlow’. RTÉ Entertainment. Retrieved on 11 January 2007 from http://www.rte.ie/arts/2005/1214/notmarried.html.

Ferriss, Suzanne and Young, Mallory (2006) ‘Introduction’. In Ferriss and Young, (eds.) Chick Lit: The New Women’s Fiction. London & NY: Routledge 1–13.

Fielding, Helen (1996) Bridget Jones’s Diary. London: Picador.

Mazza, Cris (2006) ‘Who’s Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre’. In Ferriss and Young, (eds.) Chick Lit: The New Women’s Fiction. London & NY: Routledge 17–28.

Razdan, Anjula, ‘The Chick Lit Challenge’. Utne Reader March/April 2004. Retrieved on 23 March 2008 from http://www.utne.com/2004-03-01/TheChickLitChallenge.aspx

Roberts, Michèle (2006) Reader, I Married Him. London: Virago Press.

Saunders, Kate (2005) ‘No Ordinary Lady’. New Statesman 24 January. Retrieved on 10 January 2007 from http://www.newstatesman.com/200501240045.

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey (2004) ‘Chick Lit goes “Glam”: Why Novelists are Pushing Stylish, Powerful Women’. Wall St Journal 15 October. Retrieved 8 January 2007 from http://www.josiebrown.com/josie_brown/true_hollywood_lies_in_the_wall_street_journal/index.html.

Wells, Juliette (2006) ‘Mothers of Chick Lit?: Women Writers, Readers and Literary History.’ In Ferriss and Young (eds.) Chick Lit: The New Women’s Fiction. London & NY: Routledge 47–70.

Whelehan, Imelda (2005) The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

No author (2005) ‘Plat du Jour’. British Council Arts November. Retrieved 13 January 2007 from http://www.britishcouncil.org/arts-literature-literaturematters-nov05-platdujour.htm

No author (2001) ‘Bainbridge Denounces Chick Lit as “Froth”’. guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 23 March 2008 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/aug/23/bookerprize2001.bookerprize