Poor Cowposted on 18 Dec 2017
Poor Cow by Nell Dunn
Published in 1967, Nell Dunn’s Poor Cow looks like a classic slice of life in the ‘kitchen sink drama’ mould – an impression that the Ken Loach film adaptation staring Carol White helped to cement when it came along later in the same year.
22 year-old Joy is the product of both her working class heritage and the heady and materialistic aspirations of the 1960s. She wants the excitement and glamour of the ‘swinging 60s’ but doesn’t have the money or the networks to move in the circles she sometimes fantasizes about.
Already a mother (of a toddler called Jonny) she is in an abusive relationship with the child’s father and her husband, Tom, who is also a petty criminal bound for jail, Joy’s life is anything but joyful. With the incarceration of Tom, Joy embarks on a relationship with another thief, Dave, who she convinces herself is the love of her life - but he too ends up in prison.
Living with the only reliable adult in her life, Aunt Emm, Joy pieces together a sort of life as a barmaid, glamour model and sometime prostitute. It’s a life of survival and Dunn certainly captures the dankness of life in 60’s Britain for those living on the margins – the smell of cheap perfume, dirty lino, back-street abotions and body odour seep from the pages.
Whatever money comes in, legally or illegally obtained, is spent in a few brief moments of rapture before the everyday grind resumes. The search for love is the only quest that seems to offer any sort of escape from the tawdry realities of a life of poverty but even that, we suspect, is something she will never really find. She really is - as she herself puts it - a poor cow.
The book is written from an interesting and quite complex viewpoint. For much of the time we see the action filtered through the eyes and sensibilities of Joy but we never wholly enter into her world-view. Dunn keeps us in this privileged position of seeing through Joy’s eyes but importantly too just outside her world; it’s as if we’re seeing what Joy sees but retaining our special position as a reader able to evaluate and judge.
This special point of observation is what gives us a clue that a book that appears at first to come from within the working class tradition it is in fact not quite what it seems. Dunn herself came from an extraordinarily privileged upper class background – her father was Sir Philip Dunn and she was related to the man who infamously ‘broke the bank at Monte Carlo’. She had an unconventional upbringing and, seemingly rejecting her heritage, in 1959 she went to work in a sweet factory and later married another writer with working class credentials, Jeremy Sandford.
So although Dunn’s career as a writer shows a long-term commitment to and interest in the plight of working class women living on the margins, her own background seems to keep her slightly removed at best and verging on the condescending at worst.
We can see this ambivalence most clearly in Poor Cow through the correspondence that passes between Joy and Dave while he is in prison. Dunn is keen to show the contrast between the idealised relationship Joy imagines for herself in the letters and the real life decisions she actually makes. In searching for a realistic representation Dunn makes Joy’s letters sprinkled with misspellings and malapropisms and while I have no problem with imagining that such mistakes would be commonplace, especially where spelling is done phonetically, the errors seem to get more intensive and farcical as the book goes on.
By the end it almost feels that Dunn has dropped into a stereotype or caricature of a working class woman rather than anything that really convinces. Towards the end I found these letters painful to read but not because of the obvious gap between the fantasy and reality of Joy’s life but because the misspelling of the letters felt uncomfortably condescending.
Having said that, I still think this is a recognisable portrait of a kind of life that people today are still living - what it means to live at the margins is essentially the same in 2017 as it was in 1967. And I’m also convinced of Dunn’s empathy and understanding of the issues Joy faced despite the fact that the author will always be an outsider given her own class background. It’s a hard read but a necessary one even if it’s just to counterbalance the preponderance of the middle-class angst that tended to dominate British fiction in the 20th century.