Saturday, 21 March 2015

John Wyndham: an Accidental Feminist?

John Wyndham, author of many of the UK’s finest Science Fiction novels does not conjure up the image of a feminist in the popular imagination. His work is generally male orientated, his protagonists are usually professional, middle class men and he seldom addresses what we might consider female themes. Much of his work was created in the 1950s, often viewed as the decade that progress forgot, as the UK found its feet after World War Two and was forced to realise that its ambitions and horizons had shrunk. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, of nuclear power and the advance of technology, his work largely deals with these themes at a domestic, suburban level.

He has been described as ‘H.G. Wells with net curtains’ something that it is hard to dispute. His image is one of tweed jackets and pipes, a sort of benevolent paternalism; a common image to the 1950s in fact, even if Counter Culture started in 1956. He is also a conservative figure, who whilst he doesn’t really root for the British and American side of the Cold War overtly holds up Communism as something to be distrusted. This contrasts directly with Wells, whose Socialism is matter of public record, spawning both The Shape of Things to Come and The Open Conspiracy.

Wyndham is less overtly political, he seems unwilling to rock the boat. Where Wells warns of oncoming uprisings of the poor, The Time Machine providing a literal interpretation of ‘eat the rich’, Wyndham’s revolutions and catastrophes are more nuanced, and he proves less willing to put tie the plot up into a palatable bow. He may have lived in Birmingham and London for much of his life, but he does not feel like an urban writer. His work feels invested in what we now refer to as Middle England, or possibly Suburbia. His England is the Shires and county towns, of Dorridge where he was born. Those net curtains hang heavily over his body of work.

Despite this he was not wholly conservative. If we look at what he actually wrote, it is hard to miss recurring themes that must be viewed as progressive. Amongst them is a distrust of religion, which is depicted as an oppressive force in The Day of the Triffids, The Trouble with Lichen and, of course, in The Chrysalids. Another is the need for women to throw off their socialisation and be able to cope, and thrive in science; something we are grappling with today as governments push science, computing, engineering and maths (referred to as STEM in the UK) as a cure all for economic doldrums. The two often go hand in hand; events in novels highlight the need for women to grasp science and have lives outside being wives and mothers, whilst at the same time religion forms the focus of oppression against social and scientific developments that will lead to the betterment, or in Triffids the re-establishment, of humankind. In particular Wyndham focuses on the reluctance of women to move outside the domestic sphere, which again highlights the fact he was writing Bourgeois narratives for the middle class, but also underlines real life experiences. Whilst this is anecdotal, it puts me in mind of something a friend of mine recounted at a gaming convention regarding female workers at IBM during the Second World War. When they were given the title ‘technician’ many of them quit, feeling that it was a male title, for male workers; it was not that they could not do the job, but that they had never performed the mental trick that allowed them to reconcile the title with what they did day in and day out.

Similarly, religion is depicted as a cruel force that sets out to prevent people from achieving their full potential, or with an agenda explicitly targeted at making them ashamed. So the anti gerone treatment in Lichen is opposed by groups writing that “God allotted man three score years and ten”. In Triffids the plans for what might be seen as a polygamous society, where sighted men will not only procreate with sighted women but also with a group of blind women, in order to ensure there are enough people to reverse the number of deaths resulting from both the onset of blindness and the Triffid attacks are opposed on faith grounds. In both cases religion’s design is to curb progress and crush what Wyndham paints as necessary changes to society, though it is unfortunate that the solution in he provides in Triffids plays into male sexual fantasies a little too readily.

At the most extreme edge, religion becomes a cruel force investing in misery. In The Chrysalids a sort of neo Puritanism has seized control with a focus on bodily purity that is founded upon the idea that man is made in God’s image, and deviation from the bipedal image is a sin. Set after a nuclear war, the novel uses this devotion to the ideal of God as a bipedal male to explore mutation and blame. Women are second class citizens, and frequently held up as the source of sin, and mutations. The society that grows out of this is extremely masculine; even muscular. Women are shown as weak and complicit in various little subterfuges, one mother hides her daughter's trifling mutation (the child has extra toes) in an effort to keep her safe. This clearly links religious and gender oppression in Wyndham's work and in the mind of the reader.

He makes much of the natures of the sexes, though he largely casts humans as conservative with a small 'c', happy to drift along until forced to change. This conservatism effects everything, women cling to their roles within the domestic sphere, men to the world of work and commerce; seldom do these worlds crossover.

Only his protagonists differ, having the vision and intellect to view the bigger picture; either through experience or sheer luck. But even here we find differences. Men may possess vision but they are seldom practical, except in an ordinary way. In contrast the overriding quality of his female protagonists is their pragmatism, something that his male characters often lack. Bill, our narrator in Triffids, is a practical man with rare vision, to the extent that his early acquisition of anti Triffid gear, is greeted with a comment of, “That’s a damn queer thing to make your first priority” when he and Josella report to the group in the University building (a building Wyndham knew well from his time in the Ministry of Information). He does balk, however, at the polygamy plan trotted out at the group’s meeting, in part because he believes it to be unfair to the women. It is Josella, who convinces him that she has no issue with it, and that it makes sense as a course of action.

A similar situation occurs in The Trouble with Lichen, where the miraculous life extending properties
of the lichen in question pose an issue for both the protagonists; Diana and Saxeover. However, whilst the latter simply inoculates himself and his children because he cannot see a way to use the lichen’s properties, Diana takes a circular, even underhand route, establishing a beauty salon and offering it as a beauty product to her clients without disclosing what they are actually receiving. Her intention is to create a group of powerful women, who are intent on having all the years they can and who will fight for the treatment to be available once it becomes common knowledge, as it inevitably must. Again, pragmatism wins the day and though Diana’s tactics are arguably far from admirable, they make sense in a world that is openly patriarchal. This dovetails with the book’s overall theme, which addresses the way women are sidelined both by male expectation and by an internal culture that steers them towards the domestic sphere. Diana’s strategy is set upon creating a world where this cannot happen, simply because her patients will live so long that boredom will force them into public life. Her actions, over the course of the novel propel a series of events that establish the core differences between the two sexes, and at once undermine one idea of what women are whilst at the same time supporting another; that of the insidious nature of feminine wiles.

The issue over women's role in the world appears to have vexed Wyndham from early in his career writing speculative fiction and in particular he seems to have been troubled by how little connection they had with the day to day practicalities of the world, as he saw them. In Day of the Triffids this is illustrated where Coker, a character who prides himself on his ability to communicate at all levels of humanity tries to explain that in the new world women will have to let go of their old ideas about what they are allowed to do. The tirade follows the discovery that the women have been sitting in the dark next to a perfectly serviceable generator, which they haven’t thought to check because ‘it's man’s work’, a fictional link back to the IBM anecdote. The irony is that Coker fails to express his point in a way that the woman he rails against understands, sending her back into defensive protestations and, if anything, reinforcing her social conditioning.

Ultimately the treatment of the protagonists in Day of the Triffids creates more diverse paths for women to follow than Wyndham’s other work, rejecting the religion bound life that the colony at Tynsham tries to create and never quite approving the polygamous lifestyle suggested in the grand meeting. Josella, for all her pragmatism slips into the domestic role easily enough and the most notable thing about her is, despite everything, her novel; which remains of interest because it suggests a growing focus on female sexual desire and fulfilment, fully a decade before the Swinging Sixties and the Sexual Revolution (the novel was published in 1951). In contrast to this, Susan is presented as a ‘new woman’; practical and tough. Her hatred for the Triffids gives her an extra dimension, marking her out as a child of the new epoch. It is hard to see Susan settling down into the life of a wife and mother, and if she does the reader senses she will not be content with a world that stops at the garden gate, or at the local shops.

The reader is left with a strange situation, where Wyndham is at once chipping away at gender roles whilst reinforcing them on the other side. His women are both supine and strong, but seldom have the breadth of character to be both. In contrast his male characters all draw from the same well of practical, envisioned but ultimately beset by scruples; possibly reflecting his own life and nature.

Admittedly none of this is exactly Betty Friedan and it only scratches the surface of the issues women faced in the 1950s, that decade where barbiturates and other drugs became ‘Mother’s little helpers’ for women who were forced out of the workplace back into the false paradise of the home. It is far more likely that Wyndham was commenting on this reversal of fortune in women’s lives than setting out a roadmap for the future. What’s telling is that he was writing in the decade before the first wave of Feminism got going and, whilst the majority of Golden Age Science Fiction is composed of bold white men doing bold, manly things, he wasn’t afraid to focus on the domestic. Today we would compare his much of his work to the horror genre, to writers like Daphne du Maurier, whose novel the Birds was so chillingly converted to film by Hitchcock. His work’s reliance on the ordinary is part of what gives it strength, and arguably respectability. Unlike many of his successors though Wyndham made no claim on ground beyond the telling of stories, of a disturbance of ordinary life with the extraordinary, the tragic and the horrific. Nonetheless it is remarkable that female characters find such traction and ability within his work, given the time and genre in which he wrote.