Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Louise Bagshawe and the Unlikely Manifesto

sparklesIn tune with the spirit of Beach Week, I originally had quite a different kind of article in mind: a review of Louise Bagshawe’s  rather silly but entertaining Sparkles.  I was quite prepared to put it forward as the ultimate beach read: glossy, completely unrealistic and easy to read in a long lazy sitting, with the only concrete issue – concrete for me anyway – being that the author apparently decided to write in a whole Russian storyline without even going to Google first and typing in “How Russian names work”.  (Nobody expects realism about Russia in a novel like this but, come on, that’s just sloppy.  At least find out the difference between a surname and a patronymic.)

As for the rest – the daft characters, the unrecognisable rendition of Paris, the fixation on wealth and all things blingy – surely that’s what makes this novel a supreme piece of escapist nonsense,right?  I’ve been reading Bagshawe for a long time precisely for the reason that she’s extremely skilled at turning out very high-coloured and entertaining stories that have little or no relation to my or anyone’s reality because they are not supposed to.

Or so I thought, until I happened upon this article concerning Bagshawe’s selection as Conservative candidate for Corby and East Northants. Now, I can’t say Bagshawe’s politics surprised me; not in the least.  Her books are essentially about women from more or less humble backgrounds empowering themselves by making a shitload of money and having frightening, power-struggle sex with scary, controlling alpha men who make even more money.  The only way this kind of literature could *not* be written by someone with a deep belief in the Tory dream would be if there were, somewhere, some very talented left-wing satirist taking an extremely clever shot at Ayn Rand.  So the Conservative part didn’t really come as a shock.

But look at this illuminating little paragraph:

“When I went to the Tories to apply for the list, I didn’t expect them to have heard of me,” she says, speaking from her home in the village of Lowick, Northants. “I said: ‘Look, I’ve sold 2 million books to British women, I know how to speak to women and maybe you need somebody in your party who can relate to women.'”

Now wait just a second.

Were all those fat novels with their implausible storylines, larger than life characters and ridiculous sex scenes actually supposed to be about Louise Bagshawe, the Conservative author, relating to me, the British female reader?  And moreover, by reading them (although, thankfully, I think I got all of them from Oxfam) have I somehow fed the illusion that they speak to me as a woman?  Because I was under the impression that I read her fiction for fun, as a purely frivolous treat.  These novels have got me through my finals, my MPhil, any number of truly shitty job situations and a transcontinental move just by virtue of being well-written and absorbing and, crucially, completely and utterly removed from any situation, however dramatic or stressful, I might be experiencing, have experienced or be likely to experience.  (Now, if I did happen to be a beautiful, troublesome woman with fabulous clothing who was fending off a potentially disastrous takeover of her business by some steel-eyed, cruel-mouthed but sexy robber baron, I am sure I’d find Bagshawe struck at the very heart of my dilemma.  In fact, perhaps I’d be unable to read her novels out of sheer trauma.)

Regular readers of this site will probably know by now that I am very much of the opinion that escapism is not to be undervalued, and that to write a truly enjoyable story is both a difficult and a valuable thing.  Of the authors I read to escape, Bagshawe is an old favourite.  Her writing is consistently vivid and involving, and it always seemed to me that she embraced the unreal, soap-opera nature of her stories, being unafraid to write for sheer entertainment.  Thus it is only now, with her assertions about her candidacy, that I’ve had a moment’s thought about the social, political and economic implicatons of those stories.  And, well, I just want to say: Ms. Bagshawe, if you’re reading, I love your work.  But if you intend to use your readership as proof that you understand the situation of British women – and that’s a very diverse group – you can count me out.

Sparkles is available from Headline Review, 536 pp., ISBN: 978-0755304295

15 comments on “Louise Bagshawe and the Unlikely Manifesto

  1. Rosy T
    July 15, 2009

    Kirsty, your post mirrors almost exactly my own reaction on reading the same article at the weekend. If Bagshawe’s books (however entertaining and well executed) are really to be taken as representing the priorities and aspirations of British women, then shoot me now!

  2. Moira
    July 15, 2009

    I can’t tell you how irritating I found that interview.

    It would please me hugely if it proved to be her Ratner moment.

  3. Kirsty (Other Stories)
    July 15, 2009

    Bravo Kirsty – an excellent post. I’ve been looking forward to reading it since you trailed in on Facebook, and I wasn’t disappointed. I also saw that interview at the weekend and had a bit of a headdesk moment; I think there are few people who could speak to me less about being a woman in Britain today.

    I’m also completely with you on the value of escapist fiction. I have a huge stock of gory crime fiction for the very same reason.

  4. Anne Brooke
    July 15, 2009

    An utterly fabulous post – I loved it!
    :)

    Axxx

  5. Hilary
    July 15, 2009

    Loved this! Thank you, Kirsty, for such an apposite response to the Louise Bagshawe phenomenon.

    It might help her fledgling political career to reframe her view of this unique selling point of hers – perhaps it’s not that she knows how to speak to women, but that women deign to read her books.

  6. Christine
    July 15, 2009

    Well, talk about the news causing a review to take a sharp turn to the right (or is it the left in this case?)!

    Coming from a country where we elect an actor president, a former Mr. Universe and a pro wrestler as governors and now a comedian as a senator, I don’t think I have much to say about electing an escapist novelist as a member of Parliament. On the other hand, one can always object to someone who thinks that their ability to do one thing well automatically means that they are well equipped to govern. Does she know anything about sewers? Someone who appreciates the importance of infrastructure can always find a place in government . . .

  7. Poppy
    July 15, 2009

    Great post!

  8. Sam
    July 15, 2009

    Maybe all she is saying is that she understands what a woman wants in a book, what will turn a woman on and what will make her laugh – and that her sales prove that she understands the female sex. Not necessarily that she believes her characters reflect Mrs Average.

    Great post, Kirsty!

    Sam

  9. kirstyjane
    July 15, 2009

    Sam – that’s more or less what I took it to imply on one level (although it does very much look like a claim to understand the British female, don’t you think?), but I’d be a bit more convinced in general if she’d put forward any other arguments in her own favour in the interview. As it stands it looks suspiciously like the books are supposed to be It when it comes to her ability to speak to and for women… I’d be inclined to take Hilary’s position on the more likely relationship between her readers and her books. Like Christine, I’d be interested to know about her views on public sanitation, or maybe, oh, the economy or the gender pay gap or the impact of her heroine Mrs Thatcher’s decisions on the area she wishes to represent. You know, stuff like that…

    Ms. Bagshawe, if you’re out there, I’d be perfectly willing to listen to any views on those you may have.

  10. Louise Bagshawe
    July 15, 2009

    I am out there. And I’m hugely flattered by this review, thanks very much. (Like lots of politicians I have a google alert on my name, so that’s how I found this this afternoon). Sam has it right; what I meant, in sum, is that my books speak to what I believe to be modern British women’s feminism. I laughed aloud at your characterisation of my heroines vs. my heroes. Guilty as charged, only I don’t think the guys are scary.

    My books vary, but what all of them have in common is strong women. The woman either starts out strong, or as with Sophie in Sparkles, discovers her strength in extremis. Either way, I do not write books where girls sit around waiting to be rescued. However as you quite correctly state, I also have a view that strong women are looking for even stronger men, and base the romantic plot around that key truth.

    Alas, my own life relates to ready meals, nappy changing and running around the constituency trying to juggle it all. It’s not glamorous, and I don’t dress designer or own fabulous jewels. It’s not the wealth and the settings that I think women relate to – but it is the core values of feminism, what Naomi Wolff once called power feminism, that I think strikes a chord with women. And those feminist values I will take with me into Parliament if elected.

    Oh yes – and the sewers work very well here in Tory-controlled East Northants :)

  11. kirstyjane
    July 15, 2009

    Thank you Ms. Bagshawe for taking the time to reply. I can see we have a bit of a basic clash of ideas about what constitute the core values of feminism – not surprisingly because, like British womanhood, feminism is a very varied thing.

    I do agree your heroines don’t wait to be rescued, but there tends to be a (to me) rather uncomfortable overtone at play when they do find those stronger men; the kind of power play that reminds me rather oddly of Juliette Benzoni’s Marianne series (another strong unconventional woman who ended up in the thrall of quite a number of alpha males). That’s one of the many reasons that while I find your books very enjoyable and well-written, I wouldn’t associate them with my particular type of feminism. Other women may well, but this one doesn’t and by the look of the comments, I’m not alone there. I think your key truths might only apply to some, rather than being universal; but then you do only need some, and not all, of the vote to have a majority.

    Good luck to you in your campaign!

  12. Rosy T
    July 16, 2009

    Great to see Louise coming here to defend herself! But I’d have to agree with Kirsty here. I have seen no elements in Louise’s books (and OK, I’ve only read two) which in any way resemble the values that I take to be embraced within ‘modern British feminism’. Granted, there is no one ‘feminism’ but rather a rich and varied web of ‘feminisms’. But one of the key factors, as far as I’m concerned, separating all feminist thinking from the traditional male, western liberal perspective of individual rights and ‘enlightened self-interest’ is an emphasis on community and interconnectedness. What was it Carol Gilligan called it – an ethics of care? And can I see precious little about community in Louise’s books. A simplistic Spice Girls philosophy which says that women are entitled to grab what they want just as much as men do has nothing to do with my conception of feminism.

  13. Lisa
    July 16, 2009

    Great piece, Kirsty, and very good of the author to come on here and comment.

    I suppose I have a slightly bad reaction to people saying things like ‘I know how to speak to women’ because my immediate grumpy thought is ‘Are women an alien species? Are they some remote rainforest tribe that communicate in mysterious ways? Or do they speak the same languages as men?’ but I appreciate that Ms Bagshawe was trying to make a specific point about her fiction.

    Anyhow, a very thought-provoking piece, Kirsty. Thank you.

  14. Melrose
    July 16, 2009

    I find the Russian patronymic situation a little bit ooh, a little bit ahh, a little bit worrying. (Are there as many Russian words for “worry” as there are for “sad” or “snow”?). Puts me off a book, no matter now much I’m enjoying it… :(

  15. Melrose
    July 16, 2009

    … to explain myself better, not the patronymic thing, particularly… Glaring errors… :-(

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