When I was a small girl, dressed in moss-green corduroy dungarees, with plaited blonde pigtails (which I had to braid all by myself because my mother was not capable of fashioning hair into anything other than a scrappy ponytail), I loved fairy tales. There was nothing I enjoyed more than having morality served up in narrative form – so that I could digest it whole – accompanied by slightly sinister illustrations, to hammer home the message, whatever it was, and usually it was don’t lie or cheat, work hard, never trust spinsters, (unless they have wings and a wand), remember that your Daddy loves you and will do all he can to protect you (unless he marries a controlling bitch step-mother type, in which case, good luck) and, if all else fails, don’t freak out – because you can just fall asleep and in a hundred years or so there’ll be a man along to save the day.
And the morals you learned from fairy tales were weird, when you thought about it – because in fairy tales, you had to wait around for a man before anything was sorted. In my real life, however, it was women who got things done. My mother was a woman and she cooked and took us to school and went to work and kept the household ticking over while my Dad was out doing unspecified masculine things at Crown and Manor Boys Club. My Nan was a woman and she worked several jobs and did everything on her own because her husband had died before she was thirty and there was no-one else to do it. The head teacher at my primary school was a woman. The prime minister was a woman, and, although no-one said a good word about her in my house, you couldn’t deny that she got shit done, and had the courage of her convictions to boot.
I have a vivid memory of reading a line in Dodie Smith’s The One Hundred and One Dalmations where the prime minister is described as a ‘he’ and balking.
‘But Mum!’ I said, outraged, ‘the prime minister is a woman.’
‘Not usually, Kate. It’s usually a man.’
I was horrified. Whose doing was this? Who had allowed the men to be in charge of things? Men were there for decoration, surely – or annoyance, or to poke at broken electrical appliances with screwdrivers and then give up and buy a new one.
Here are some of the men I knew as a child: my uncle Paul, who sometimes had too much to drink and stripped naked at the Christmas dinner table; the school keeper, who lived in a ramshackle little cottage on the school grounds and who moved so slowly that you sometimes heard his wife call him an imbecile to his face; this bloke called Martin who my Dad played cricket with and who put my new kitten inside his mouth – the whole kitten, right inside – when he was invited over one time, for a quiet night in.
But still, I found it hard to entirely dismiss the messages I was receiving via folklore and literature, which is why I was petrified of old women – and why, against all my better instincts, I trusted my father to take me through the haunted house at Alton Towers, in the belief he would protect me from the terrifying plaster moulds of haggard, menacing witches, rather than dangle me gleefully in front of them.
And, indeed, some of the messages from fairy tales are worth absorbing. Such as the one about how names are important, for instance. In Rumpelstiltskin, the little goblin’s name was the source of his power and giving it away, in a fit of self-satisfied jubilation, led to an inevitable catastrophe – he was no longer entitled to the Queen’s baby, and his foot was wedged into the floor (possibly for eternity, I don’t quite remember).
I never told strangers my name, even when I was seventeen and trying to pull them in nightclubs. Your name was who you were, an intimate fact that you could choose to make public: your name was the form of the shape of yourself in words; the thing that mutual acquaintances might use to call you forth, as an imagery, when you weren’t there.
So as a child it was upsetting to me that women – strong important women like my mum and my nan and the prime minister – changed their names after the event of marriage. They just gave up the form of who they were, to become someone new, someone more like the man they’d married, and less like the person they had to face everyday in the mirror, even when they’d done terrible things, or were heartbroken and covered in acne and quite, quite sure that they’d made all the worst life choices. My mum and my nan and the other newly-named women had to look in the mirror and, underneath it all, that familiar, comforting shape of themselves no longer remained, as it otherwise might have, permanent, solid, unchanging.
And I know, now that I’m all grown up (lol), that you don’t have to change your name when you get married. Although an alarming number of people do choose to. Which is fair enough, I suppose, if that makes them happy – even if it does cause me a certain amount of bafflement. But staying single, of course (unless you’re undergoing some massive identity crisis or another), means you don’t have to make any name-altering decisions at all. Which is one more reason to recommend it.
*The sinister image that accompanies this post is “Green Witch Like Creature In Swamp” by Victor Habbick, from, as ever freedigitalphotos.net.