Being a very forthright, down-to-earth woman I very much doubt my nam gave a second thought to the lasting consequences of her actions when she threw a shocking pink copy of Valley of the Dolls at my prone, sickbed-encased body when I was 13. More than likely she had forgotten half the plot and was concerned about how to keep me occupied and stop my constant overdramatic moaning from interrupting her furiously busy day.
My mother had always encouraged me and my older sisters' voracious reading appetites. When I had reached the lofty echelons of "Senior" Infants she'd meet me at the school gates every Friday with a new Ladybird Read-it-Yourself book which I took very seriously and would study then parrot it back to her as she stood peeling potatoes in the kitchen sink. Our small house was crammed full of books and unlike telly, which had a clear watershed (being marched up to bed to the theme tune of The Bill on weeknights and Casualty on a Saturday are indelible memories). With reading my mother had a more casual attitude, happy that we were engaging with books at all, she didn't really mind the subject. Which meant that although you couldn't get away with watching some saucy foreign film late night on Channel 4 you could probably chance reading the book on which it was based.
This led to my pre-teen obsession with the Manson family after discovering an errant copy of Murder Casebook in the house. This morbid fascination took an unexpectedly dramatic turn when a librarian decided I was too young to borrow Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter – my mother stormed into Ringsend library to extinguish their reservations about loaning 11-year-old me the book, arguing that I was "well able" for its content.
My relationship with Valley of the Dolls reaches further than its cinematic Manson connection (Sharon Tate starred as Jennifer North in the film version) – it's a book I own multiple copies of, that I leave in various places "for safety". It's the book that I reach for when I feel at my most distressed or anxious – knowing I can escape my deep sadness and find calm and comfort in Jacqueline Susann's familiar, brash prose. There is something romantically gritty and weirdly triumphant about Susann's blockbuster tale of three wildly varying women attempting to baldly grasp some kind of agency in the unforgiving masculine landscape of America from the late 1940s onwards.
Valley of the Dolls was one of the very first books that was written by a woman about women's intimate lives that had a real impact on me
Valley of the Dolls was one of the very first books that was written by a woman about women's intimate lives that had a real impact on me. Of course, there was the intense melodrama of Virginia Andrews' strangely steamy series, Flowers in the Attic and Heaven, that were split up into digestible segments and passed around between school friends like a sexy Terry's Chocolate Orange. Although those characters were just an outline for hormonal, imaginative girls to project their fantasies on to, the novels acted like a sophisticated version of what older brothers' Playboy collections were for basic teenage boys.
The period pains and teen angst of Judy Bloom had passed me by completely (I mistakenly dismissed Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret as American Christian propaganda) I was too absorbed in the junior Alan Partridge antics of Sue Townsend's genius Adrian Mole to take notice. It wasn't until I got lost in the cruel world that united Anne, Neely and Jennifer that the concept of women telling their stories, describing their fate in a full-blooded way became exciting. Awash with fast-paced ribald conversations and sex scenes that I didn't completely comprehend for years, it ushered me into the secret behaviour and codes of womanhood that couldn't be captured in fiction written by men.
It’s a story that centres around a trio of ambitious women who were spilling out at the seams attempting to be themselves, ready to live their own lives. Their dreams were vast and for some didn’t include the assumed biological narrative of children or the drudgery of being a housewife.
The ladylike Anne flees her small-town and the future expected of her, throwing herself into her work because leading the life of her authentic self depends on her success. Neely, the scrappy Judy Garland/Lindsay Lohan of the bunch is unwieldy and out of control but eventually comes to understand that it is her talent (not love or a partnership) that gives her a reason to power through the depths of despair and the divine Jennifer whose body is not her own, whose self worth is derived from being ogled, shows the pain and struggle of being the object of the male gaze as she is carved up and cast aside. This is no saccharine fairy-tale – it’s the drooping wigs and flagging false eyelashes behind the glamour of show business. The men, when featured at all, are bullies, bastards or weak-souled distractions who wear the heroines down or prevent them from achieving their goals.
It's not a worthy tome in the feminist canon, it's not full of longing or stifling repression like Jane Eyre or radical and modernist like A Room of One's Own – it's a sizzling, soapy Jackie Collins-esque slice of popular fiction. What almost makes it more important, Valley of The Dolls is egalitarian, its readers are everyone from grannies to goodtime gals, it's not an elite circle.
It's not a taxing, serious or a "difficult" read – which makes it easy to dismiss or demean as part of the genre of "women's fiction" that is looked down upon for being far too enjoyable. The book is repeatedly described as "trash" – which is snobbish, sexist shorthand for women writing about sex and relationships in a brazen, unabashed fashion. Gore Vidal famously quipped that Susann "doesn't write, she types" but Valley of the Dolls possesses all the unvarnished truth of Mary McCarthy's The Group without receiving its revisionist reverence.
When I was in college, surrounded by privately educated book-worms whose sneezes even managed to sound posh and who parped their overcooked notions about Joyce's Dubliners, I yearned to write about the salty, silly, campy glamorous nonsense of Susann's romp. It was part of my own private canon of books that kept me sane throughout unending diatribes about the death of civilization or the masculine allure within the works of Henry Miller. This secret collection of stories I stored were like stepping stones taking me back to my true self when I was engulfed by insecurities or self-doubt. Susann had been a catalyst, a jumping off point into a journey of discovery, soon my favourite books, (the ones that I now treasure) were all written by women.
There was Plath's masterwork, The Bell Jar, whose descriptions of the ceaseless juggling act of a modern woman's life rang out clear and true. Her unflinching depiction of Esther's vulnerability and her eventual descent into mental illness, the point when the mask slips and the surface rush of life slips from her tight grasp is groundbreaking. She captures the submergence into oblivion but still with the awareness of the role of dutiful daughter and would-be wife and mother, which is heartbreakingly summarised after her initial bout of shock treatment when she professes: "I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done."
To read about a woman battling with the notion of the self and also what society expected of her was nothing short of revolutionary. There is a raw honesty in Plath’s portrayal of this bone-quaking, naked fragility that is breathtaking and almost terrifying such is its blazing truth.
Nell Dunn's Up the Junction was a hard-hitting jumble of tales that told the stories of girls I grew up with and the girl I was. It portrayed the behind-the-counter, on-the-bus existences of faceless, nameless, invisible working class women that populate everyday life. Later when I found Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit I clung to it like a life-raft. Frank, funny, and truly magical, it's a queer, religious, working-class fever dream with the most well-drawn characters this side of Dickens from the formidable religious mother to the gentle, wrestling obsessed father to the poor put-upon family dog. Drawn from her childhood memories, the tiny streets and bricked-up backyards were like that of my own house, the colloquialisms and jokes of northern England akin to the peculiarly mocking vernacular of Dublin. As the Jeanette of the book stumbled her way through her oppressive childhood, an awkward comical girl who was chastised for being precocious and "fanciful" and who often retreated into fantasy when real life was too much to bear, I felt a true closeness in Winterson's words like they were my own lost diary entries.
The power of books written by women about women can never be underestimated. They shout loudly – reassuring us that our interior lives are important, our stories are not trivial and that they deserve to be heard. They are women that are more than just a silent muse, a sexual fantasy, a death to be examined as they so often are reduced to in novels written by men. They are the friends that you can conjure up when weak in crisis that nourish you and renew your strength. Without Valley of the Dolls being thrown into my lap I would have never drawn the dots from Susann to Plath to the powerful words of Joan Didion. Without the voices of these women that echo back through the ages I would never have found my own.