Steeped in post-World War II English culture, Jean Marsh’s third novel, Iris, is a straightforward, smart tale of a working class woman trying to survive — if not happily, then at least somewhat comfortably.
In 1952, Iris is a 17-year-old who is not an escort in the strictest sense — since she does not have sex with anyone that she goes out with — but gay men in London don’t mind using her as visible company when they go out to clubs. Occasionally, older straight men just want to be seen having lunch with her. Among all these men are some with ties to organized crime, and having a pretty face available is effective advertising for their restaurants and clubs. She enjoys the chance to go out, have drinks, dinner, and to feel valued, albeit in a naïve way.
When men give her cab fare home, she takes the bus instead and uses the change to help out her parents. Her mother is a headstrong woman, and though Iris is quite close to him, her father either drinks away his wages or owes them to a loan shark down Chancery Lane. Her younger brother, Sam, is mostly baffled by her frequent nights out.
Marsh draws from much of her own background, having grown up working class — “a scrubber” — in Islington and various other North London haunts, and she was also expected to leave school and earn a living at age 14. She would have been a year older than Iris in 1952, but she worked as a dancer and had just started acting, an experience reflected when Iris gets a part through one of her dates:
The set was absolutely enormous and quite nice. Lots of columns and arches and big cushions, most likely for lolling, and long tables and large candles and through the biggest arch were the baths, which were like a cross between the Turkish baths at the Dorchester Hotel and East Finchley swimming pool. As the girls weren’t friendly she tried standing next to some Roman gentlemen to see if she could find out anything. All she learned, apart from the fact that the canteen was cheap but awful, was that this was a party scene, which she’d already guessed. Then an assistant was moving her around as if she was deaf and dumb and on skates. Someone was shouting instructions, and people got into positions.
Iris spends much of her time trying to learn about politics, social customs, and the club scene, so that she has something to talk about with the people with whom she spends time. She reads poetry, but learns not to quote it in casual conversation. She admires Bébé, a woman who attends many of the same parties, but pities the desperation of hostesses who fruitlessly flirt with “the poofs.”
Her entire world is steeped in sex and secrets, but she has no desire to go bed with any of these men. She’s fond of her friend Nick, but he isn’t interested in women, and he is busy with politics. Within this environment of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, more than anything she craves a sense of belonging, yet she doesn’t quite know how to achieve it.
The band was playing some songs from South Pacific. Maybe they’d play her favourite, one of her top favourites of all time, ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ That’s how she knew she would fall in love with a stranger across the room. It would needs be a small room on account of her dodgy eyes, and the stranger wouldn’t fall for her if she was wearing glasses.
Marsh was also very near-sighted (until surgery later in life), and it’s that and other little details — like someone commenting on how much Iris resembles Audrey Hepburn, with her thick brows and small chest — that make it difficult for a knowledgeable reader to parse author from character. And that’s an irritating thing for a writer, I know, since while we draw from our lives while writing fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily make one’s tales autobiographical.
Considering that, when Iris encounters a group of manipulative, drunken men out on a stag do, her half-façade of naivety meets a crushing end, and the protective side of myself wants to believe that what happens is based off the knowledge of other women’s stories, and not drawn on personal experience.
Marsh’s writing examines the competition between the internal and external — the performances we give others, and how it feels to be in one’s own body. The body, the occasional crudeness of physicality, and how that affects a woman’s inner monologue is constantly at play throughout the story. Iris is strong all throughout her learning about herself, but while she may not show it to others, she’s quite in touch with her insecurity. She resents her initial lack of educational opportunity, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop learning to spite herself. When it comes to sex and men’s desires, she learns what is within her control.
The fear and shame of touching herself had been instilled by her mother. ‘Always keep it clean.’ It. As if it was a pet mouse kept in a cage like Sam once had. […] She touched now, carefully. It was swollen and tender like a giant bruise. The whole area was swollen. Her fingers gently pressing back the sore flesh couldn’t find the bones. The tender skin was torn in places, and as she examined her fingers, was, she could see, bleeding. The official word for it was vagina. She knew that from the dictionary.
I have a few minor quibbles on an editorial level — not enough dialogue tags, a few typos that slipped through, unnecessary head-hopping to another character's perspective — but I have no issue with the story itself. The jarring instances of racism and homophobia are reflective of their time period, and one gets the feeling that Iris is learning how to rise above any prejudice surrounding her. She learns how to be less of a sponge and more of a conduit for change in her own life. Iris is a wonderful, sometimes thematically-difficult book, and perhaps an ill-appreciated gem from the late ‘90s.