What Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow gets wrong.

Reading between the lines.
May 25 2010 9:58 AM

What Was Feminism Really Like in 1970?

You won't find out from Martin Amis' version.

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow.

The first thing I read about The Pregnant Widow is that I wouldn't like it. Amis said he had been told it would get him "in trouble with the feminists," wrote Alison Flood in a November pre-publication puff piece in the Guardian, "but he insisted that it was actually 'a very feminist book' and that 'they haven't got a case.' " It was touching, actually, Amis' belief that there is an army of book-reviewing harpies out there, chafing to make their "case"—and that book review editors would give them this plum assignment. (In fact, with the exception of Michiko Kakutani's pan in the New York Times, the only reviews I've seen in the British or American press have been by men. They liked it.) But never mind, I thought. Martin Amis is notorious for aggressively dumb publicity-generating remarks—all leftists are Stalinists, British Muslims should be strip-searched at random—that show none of the insight into modern life that he displays in his often quite wonderful novels.

The Pregnant Widow is mostly about sexual antics among a group of prosperous young Britishers spending a summer holiday in a magically well- appointed castle in Italy in 1970. Keith Nearing, authorial stand-in and nebbishy English major ("he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven") makes dutiful nightly love with his smart but not-quite-beautiful-enough girlfriend Lily while pining for her gorgeous blond friend Scheherazade. Will Keith get to sleep with Scheherazade? It's the sexual revolution, so theoretically, anything goes—and then, too, Scheherazade is rather frustrated, as Lily confides to Keith in graphic detail, since her boyfriend keeps prolonging his arrival in order to hunt yet more exotic beasts with Arab royals. Minor characters pop in and out, there's a lot of topless sun-bathing, a lot of discussion about how feminism permits girls to act "like boys," i.e. initiate no-strings sex, and a lot of reading, too. Keith is plowing through the classic British novels, which, from Richardson to Hardy, all seem to be about women's sexual virtue: "Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What'll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall? Well, there'll be new ways of falling …"

Indeed, Keith's bumbling pursuit of the sweet, surprisingly straitlaced Scheherazade takes almost as long as Lovelace's siege of the virginal Clarissa—and is, in a different way, almost as anticlimactic. After about 1,200 pages, Lovelace drugs and rapes Clarissa, whereupon she kills herself, leaving him with endless guilt. Keith fumbles his attempt to drug Lily so she'll sleep through what he hopes will be the great assignation, and Scheherazade changes her mind at the last moment. Keith consoles himself with the fantastically uninhibited Gloria Beautyman. The conjunction of these two events—rejection by the divine Scheherazade, glorious sex with kinky Gloria—plunges poor Keith into a "trauma" of sexual befuddlement that lasts for 25 years. Men can dish it out, is the joke here, but they sure can't take it.

Martin Amis can be a very funny writer—I laughed my way through The Information, another tale of a failed Lothario with a big vocabulary. The Pregnant Widow has some inspired bits—Adriano, an Italian count, whose exquisite courtliness and macho derring-do go for naught with the ladies since he's only 4 feet 10, is a comic character of considerable genius. ("I am the only Furiosi forward with an unbroken nose," he says of his superviolent rugby team. "The lock is blind in one eye. And neither prop has a tooth in his head. Also, both my ears still hold their shape. Not yet even calcified.")

The takedown of the great novels is clever—if only Keith had spent more time reading! The present-day sections, in which poor middle-aged Keith obsesses about his collapsing body and modest life achievements, are poignant and all too true: "As he opened his eyes that morning, Keith thought, When I was young, old people looked like old people, slowly growing into their masks of bark and walnut. People aged differently now. They looked like young people who had been around far too long. Time moved past them but they dreamt they stayed the same."

But The Pregnant Widow didn't really work as a novel for me. Except for Keith, the characters are pretty thin—some are little more than names (Prentiss? Dodo? Oona?)—which is not surprising since mostly what characters do in this book is illustrate some aspect of the title, Alexander Herzen's gloomy metaphor for modern society, caught between old mores and new ones. As far as I can make out, Amis seems to be saying that feminism and the sexual revolution, which he thinks, wrongly, are the same thing, made nice girls like Lily and Scheherazade act against their nature, which is to be girls, not boys, while leaving the bad girls, like Gloria, too old to have babies when the music stops.

The removal of social constraints, in other words, places women at risk—they are more vulnerable to men's heedless drives and less able to control their own. Amis attaches these not very original thoughts to the tragic story of Keith's promiscuous, alcoholic, and possibly developmentally damaged sister Violet. In interviews, Amis has said Violet is closely modeled on his own sister Sally, who, he's claimed, might have been saved from an early death had she converted to … Islam. No drinking or "dating football teams" for the daughters of the Prophet—problem solved.

Perhaps this is Amis' way of apologizing for his earlier anti-Muslim outbursts, but it struck me as bumptious and ignorant as well as exploitative. It's one thing to make fiction of his sister's unbearably sad life; quite another to use it to make more "shocking" publicity for himself. In any case, the Islam theme certainly doesn't suggest a whole lot of comfort with female sexual freedom. When last seen, Scheherazade is a born-again Christian; and Gloria, the woman who boasted she was "a cock," is wearing a hijab. Need I add that none of the many male libertines who float through these pages is punished by the author for having lots of sex?

What bothered me most about The Pregnant Widow, though, is that it just doesn't ring true to feminism as experienced by women in 1970. I'm exactly the same age as Martin Amis, and, granted, our lives were very different. (Where was my magical Italian castle?) Still, I found myself frequently wondering: Did people do that then? Did young women shave their pubic hair? (No.) Un-self-consciously use the word fuck to mean "have sex"? Use sexist (and racist) slurs for other women, like "Junglebum" or "The Dog"? Would Lily, who thought she was a feminist, tell Keith that Scheherazade masturbated in the shower? Wouldn't Scheherazade have anguished at least a bit about whether to betray her best friend Lily?

What happened to consciousness-raising, sisterhood, political lesbianism, left-wing politics, the war and the bomb, not shaving your legs or underarms, the women's health movement, the myth of the vaginal orgasm? To say nothing of the Rolling Stones, granny dresses, mescaline, and pot. I remember 1970 as the year an astonishing number of my female classmates suddenly decided to go to medical school. Lily and Scheherazade are studying law and math, unusual majors for women then, but unlike Keith, they seem to have no curiosity about their studies and no thoughts about their future. All they think about are their bodies and their beauty, about which they have the thoughts old-fashioned men think women have but don't. I doubt there's a woman tourist on earth, for example, who is delighted to be followed around Italian towns by groups of catcalling youths, much less any who, like Scheherazade, resents that another woman gets a share of this attention.

The Pregnant Widow has its pleasures—more pleasures than profundities, which may not be what Amis was aiming at. It picks up speed as it goes along. But if you really want to know what the time felt like for women experiencing the confluence of the sexual revolution and feminism, the book to read is Marge Piercy's Cambridge novel, Small Changes (1973). She gets it all, from what it felt like to be part of an immense personal-political social transformation to the fatal attraction of countercultural gurus who said things like, "Are you woman enough to give me everything?" Yes,  way back then, men actually used that line. And, yes, it worked. Poor old Keith should have given it a try.

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Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.