I never fail to be impressed by the variety of books published by Virago. Although there have been many relatively recent authors published as Virago Modern Classics, most of the books from this imprint that I’ve read so far have been those written in the early twentieth century. Set in London and first published in 1963, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction is about as far from the turn of the century icy gentility of The Age of Innocence or the inter-War rural struggles of South Riding as it is possible to get, so I thought it would be an interesting one to pick next.
Up the Junction is a slim novella detailing the exploits of a group of young girls working in South London during the 60s. The characters are not particularly well-defined: they tend to blur into each other and often it is impossible to tell who is doing or saying what in any scene. The first person narrator is particularly elusive and difficult to pin down and usually this would annoy me no end. However, this comes across as a deliberate choice and it seems to me that Dunn does not so much tell the story of these people but instead uses her characters to tell the story of a particular time and place in a series of interconnecting vignettes. The frequent bursts of song which appear throughout the novella help to fix this era in the mind of the reader. The characters aren’t really characters at all, but are a means of producing statements and situations which reveal the harsh reality of life in 1960s South London, where times are hard and enjoyment is grasped with both hands and relished. The style reflects this, being bawdy, brash and full of life. Characters express such sentiments as ‘Why should we think ahead? What is there to think ahead to but growing old?’ (p. 78) and ‘what you don’t get caught for you’re entitled to do‘ (p.85) and there is the constant feeling of wringing as much as you possibly can out of a life that is far from perfect.
There is a peculiar mix of free, modern attitudes and traditional values exhibited in this novella. On the one hand, the girls want sex, they want it outside the confines of marriage with whomever they choose and they want to enjoy it, but on the other they accept that they probably won’t enjoy it and would rather suffer an illegal, painful and dangerous abortion than have a baby outside of wedlock, expecting a boy to marry them if they become pregnant. They drink brown ale, they smoke cigarettes and they tell filthy jokes. It’s interesting to see the development here: these girls are not yet quite the Sex and the City girls, but they would like to be, and to make up for having to face harsh realities which aren’t a part of glossy, glamorous twenty-first century New York living they are harder, tougher and earthier.
Up the Junction by Nell Dunn. Published by Virago, 1988, pp. 110. Originially published in 1963.