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Deciding to Keep It : HER OWN TERMS by Judith Grossman (Soho: $16.95; 277 pp.)

February 07, 1988|Carolyn See

This is a story bound to be incomprehensible to some; unbearably familiar to others. "Her Own Terms" is set in England, in the '50s. Irene, a scholarship undergraduate at a women's college at Oxford, is in the quintessential '50s female fix: She's pregnant; All the gin and quinine and running up and down stairs she can manage have had no effect whatsoever on her condition--she's going to have to find an (illegal, of course) abortionist.

On the train going down to London, Irene is given an offer she'd be, perhaps, a fool to refuse: A famous novelist (now divorced) tells her that she'll regret the abortion forever; that the death of this child will live with her always; she'll be a murderess in her own eyes if she goes through with this terrible thing, etc. Irene is welcome to stay at his place, indefinitely, no strings attached, until she has the baby. In this way, of course, she'll be having it both ways: keeping the baby, being a "true woman," carrying on the values of a patriarchal society, and finally getting to be a part of the English literary establishment and upper-middle class, all the things she's worked so very, very hard to attain.

Flash back, then, to what Irene has come from. Later in her life, she'll be able to label her class, coolly, as "upper-working, lower-middle," but when she's still in it, to Irene, it is the world: a stifled, lonely, poverty-stricken, thin little stratum of society; a world of semi-detached villas where the husbands--if they aren't lucky enough to get away in the army to see the world--are stuck in 11-hour-a-day dead-end jobs.

The women are stuck with even less; their little houses, their narrow lives, their forlorn hopes for a better future for the few children they have. (In one beautiful passage, Irene remembers the flourishing tiny gardens in the front and back of these unlovely houses, tended by unloved human beings: "The main point was to stand around in the malodorous drift of air from the neighbors' roses, and listen to the blackbird up on the chimney pot, singing first in one direction, then in another. It was the sanctuary between the house walls and the world outside the fence--between misery and blank necessity, a margin."

The structure of "Her Own Terms" is very clean and clear: that first, devilishly convenient offer from the famous novelist; then, in the middle, a visit from a nurse who may be able to bring on a miscarriage; and then a resolution of the pregnancy at the very end. But between these three short set pieces lie the two main parts of the book. The first half has terrible memories of life in the upper-working class; a life made miserable for Irene by a gaggle of female harridans: a mother whose life's work is the liberal appropriation of guilt, an older sister who's mean and beautiful, perms her hair, and wants to be a dietitian. And, in this background, handfuls of sad, spinster aunts--total castoffs from society--make each other hot chocolate, sleep alone.

Irene's brain, her insane desire to please, and her high tolerance for misery obtain for her, finally, a state scholarship to Oxford. From the terrible, oppressed world of women and the underclass, she goes into the (to her) equally terrible, oppressing world of men and the upper class.

Poor Irene! From the fiendish world of her family, which was at least straightforward in its savagery, she falls in with a group of self-serving poets, and one of their friends, Roger, who looks like a bear but acts like a cross between a wart hog and Hermann Goering. (In a family-oriented paper, all you can say is that Roger uses Irene endlessly and enthusiastically in a physical way, while equally endlessly and enthusiastically insulting her person and her intelligence.) Roger beats her, studies right under the only light in the room, hesitates to introduce her to his friends in case she might embarrass him, and calls her "Piglet." (One wonders about karma and human behavior and its consequences: Did men in the '30s, '40s and '50s simply never take into account that the women they insulted might take up pen and paper, so assured were they of women's stupidity? Do parents now--when they bash their child--never even consider that their battered tot may grow up to have a long memory and a talent for telling stories?)

In many ways, "Her Own Terms" is a revenge novel, a settling of old scores. Even Dame Helen Gardner from St. Hilda's College (who taught at UCLA with radiant success for a few semesters in the '50s) is here portrayed as a female lackey in Oxford's male-dominated world: "The famous Miss Gardner" greets her students with "a smiling but indifferent gaze" and sits with her "knees placed well apart in a gesture of raw dominance. . . ."

No matter how brilliant the minds at Oxford, Judith Grossman seems to be saying, they're in the service of a system unspeakably cruel to the lower classes and to women. And, no, she won't go along with it. The first step, albeit 30 years later, is to speak out against injustice in every last gruesome detail--down to those thrifty, intellectual gents who washed out their condoms, more than once, to use and use again.

Mothers, grandmothers, buy this one for your daughters, as a cautionary tale.

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