Interviews in the 1960s: Nell Dunn’s “Talking to Women”

Ah, the experimental ‘60s!   Even if you weren’t alive then, you may be nostalgic for Twiggy, Woodstock, peace marches, communes, Procul Harum, Jules and Jim, and Margaret Drabble’s early novels.

In London I recently came across a copy of Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, a fascinating if decidedly odd book first published in 1965 and reissued in 2018 by Silver Press.  Dunn is best-known for Up the Junction, a collection of short stories that won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and Poor Cow, a novel about a working-class woman in London struggling to get by while her husband is in prison.  Both books were made into films.

Carol White and Terence Stamp starring in the film version of “Poor Cow”

Talking to Women is a different kind of vintage ‘60s book.  It is a collection of interviews Dunn conducted in 1964 with nine of her friends of different backgrounds.  They are writers, factory workers, housewives, artists, theater costume designers, and actresses.  They chat about sex, monogamy, motherhood, identity, work, and other intimate subjects.  

Nell Dunn with her friend Kathy Collier, who is interviewed in this book.

Each interview is headed by the first name of the interviewee and a brief description of her job, marital status, and, if applicable, number of children.  Curious readers will look in the back of the book to find the women’s last names and read their short bios . Not surprisingly, Edna, who turns out to be the writer  Edna O’Brien, was one of the most articulate of the interviewees.

In the preface, Dunn explains the concept:  “If these girls have anything in common it is a belief in personal fulfillment—that a woman’s life should not solely be the struggle to make men happy but more than that a progress towards’ the development of one’s own body and soul.”

The interviews are very colloquial, obviously transcribed just as they spoke, often in run-on sentences.  To be honest, I could not identify at all with the first interviewee, Pauline Doty, a gorgeous blonde pop artist and actress who tragically died in 1966.

Dunn’s first question to Pauline is about fame and anonymity.  She wonders if Pauline ever wishes  to return to the days before she became famous.

PAULINE:  Well, no, because I never expect people to know who I am.  Except there has been a slight change lately when I’ve been in the company of people who are well known and they never know who I am, I mean, if someone knows about you, someone’s heard about you and you’re slightly famous, you know, then you’re worth talking to, and if you’re not, then you’re not, sort of thing and I sit there completely quiet and think, ‘Well, I’ve done something too.’

 Pauline is brave and honest, but I had trouble relating to her.  Perhaps she is less articulate than the others–does this have something to do with being an artist?

But I was very interested in most of the interviews.  Edna is the writer Edna O’Brien, and is intense on the subjects of writing, motherhood, neurosis, and sex.  Kathy, who works in a butter factory, says she thinks the most important thing is money.  She had a baby  at 14, doesn’t mind working, and at 26 lives with her mum and her 10-year-old son.   Kathy is tolerant of all life-styles, including  homosexuality (which was then illegal).  Frances talks more abstractly about free love and the economics of fidelity.  Emma, a housewife, is very funny and natural, and for that reason is my favorite. 

NELL:  And I think the only way to keep a man is by being really nice, making a nice home.

EMMA:  And you should actually knit.  How can a man be unfaithful to you in your hand-knitted sweater?

In many ways, these interviews remind me of the intense conversations I had with close friends in my twenties.  We talked about our attitudes toward sex and work.  Talking with Women seems very modern, if not entirely feminist, and the openness of the dialogues is unique–part Cosmopolitan, part anthropology.

I did laugh when these young women worry about losing their looks and  being washed-up at 40.  But it is true that when I was in my twenties I could barely imagine turning 30, let alone 40.  

A good read!