On Writing about Politics and Privilege
17th Oct 2014
The contrast between public faces and private lives always interests me. The more outwardly privileged and successful someone is, the greater that contrast can be.
When I see high achievers, I often think: “Don’t remind me what’s brilliant, admit what’s broken.” I’m also intrigued by romantic relationships between people with differences in their background or politics.
My novel (working title: The Blue and the Gold) is set in the early years of the UK Coalition government and centres around the difficult marriage between a conflicted Lib Dem MP and former PR, an itinerant Tory with ADHD, distracted by social media.
The idea to write about politics and privilege came from a new government and an old memory. Twelve years ago, just before I went to Durham University, an older alumnus told me about some of her dazzling contemporaries, barely thirty and already in very senior jobs.
As an eighteen year-old with anxiety and depression, this charmed life supposedly open to me seemed completely closed and remote. But it was also fascinating, especially her digs at left-leaning friends for marrying Tories. For years I had ideas for fiction inspired by the conversation but couldn’t flesh them out. After the 2010 election I realised the Coalition was an ideal backdrop for the story.
Inside the elite
Researching the novel has meant looking for common ground with those in very senior jobs at a different life stage. Characters who met as Durham students, setting key parts of the story there, and being an alumnus myself gave me access to university alumni networks.
One particular book I discovered was Mary McCarthey’s The Group, about women alumni of the prestigious Vassar College; a classic story of friendship and rivalry among privileged women set in the 1930s.
Yet when it comes to British politics, looking for books about or by women can be dispiriting (Let’s not even mention the obvious! Shudder). As Shirley Williams writes: “The role of women in our society has changed out of all recognition. But it has changed least in the House of Commons.”
Barbara Castle and former House of Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd have also written memoirs describing their very different routes into politics. While Shirley Williams, daughter of a political scientist, saw public life as a calling, Barbara Castle and Betty (now Baroness) Boothroyd, came from humbler beginnings.
As well as Parliamentary life, their stories refer to wider milestones in women’s liberation, such as equal pay legislation. Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers Of A New Day, mentions Mary Heaton Vorse’s delight at working-class women’s camaraderie during the early 20th century.
For modern insights into politics and marriage, I also enjoyed Half A Wife, a polemical memoir of working parenthood by political journalist Gaby Hinsliff, and Couples: The Truth by Kate Figes, a study of relationships which helped in my research around difference within couples.
Facing difficult feelings
In my novel, a younger character confronts the privileged older characters with the realities of a world beyond them. Her feelings at witnessing people in an affluent bubble reflect how I personally felt while researching the novel.
An invisible disability means I often relate to underdogs, despite a fairly comfortable background. This leads to mixed emotions around people who appear conventionally perfect, especially those a generation older who benefited from an economic boom.
In one sense, it’s strange to write about an affluent couple with children when your circumstances are completely the opposite.
In another, entering a different universe is easier when you’re used to feeling you don’t belong. When I’m uncomfortable writing remote experiences, I remember Juliet Stevenson in Alison Oddey’s Performing Women, discussing playing Cleopatra at drama school. After a director called her performance “pathetic” and virginal”, her anger fuelled her to make it better.
Tips For Writing Power and Privilege
At first I hid behind my day job to research the novel, thinking people wouldn’t speak to me otherwise but they were actually keener when I was upfront. Just meeting people in “work mode” is limiting for developing your characters and social media and public events are great levellers. For example, I loved the ‘Becoming an MP’ session at the WOW Festival.
During my research I’ve also found people’s openness very striking. I felt a great affinity with some, which seemed mutual at the time. However, as we went back to our disparate lives, I sensed they’d affected me much more than I had them.
Think of how your characters handle themselves
How a character portrays and reacts to privilege will depend how and when they got it. Cherie Blair has spoken publicly about feeling like an outsider as a Comprehensive-schooled woman studying law at LSE. One executive woman with a similar backstory told me: “I don’t get overwrought by that kind of thing.”
Even the most privileged person will have barriers. They might respond with denial, bravado, shame or indifference. Barriers also don’t have to be huge to matter.
Think of the bigger picture
A great story makes a great book whatever the protagonist’s background. But the lack of books about women in power reflects our unequal society where those positions are still dominated by white, upper-middle-class, able-bodied men.
As well as using stories to challenge and critique the current system and those in power, we can also use writing to imagine different societies with completely alternative power structures and privileged groups.
– Maxine Frances Roper
Maxine is freelance writer, speaker and journalist who loves politics, theatre and music. When not writing she trains businesses and organisations in dyspraxia awareness. She daydreams of being paid to write about ‘90s pop culture, and wishes her short-term memory was as good as her memory for ‘90s TV soap story lines. She tweets incessantly at @shakeandcrawl.
Can you recommend any books written by or about women in powerful or prestigious positions that were particularly powerful or though provoking? Leave us a comment with some of your best non-fiction or fiction recommendations!