Lifting the lace curtain
INTERVIEW:It was due to a dearth of information about sex from the female perspective that, 30 years ago, Shirley Conran wrote her bestseller ‘Lace’, she tells ANNA CAREY
EVER UNDERESTIMATE the power of a sensational bestseller. That’s a lesson Shirley Conran learned in boarding school in the 1940s, when she and her classmates would furtively pass around a copy of Kathleen Winsor’s scandalous blockbuster Forever Amber in a brown paper wrapper.
“One day the history mistress asked, ‘Has anybody here read Forever Amber?’ and of course not one hand went up,” says Conran. “And she said, ‘Well, you all should, it’s got very good 17th-century historical detail.’ ” Several decades later, Conran would use fiction to teach teenage girls a different sort of lesson. By the 1970s, she was editor of the women’s pages at the Daily Mail and was dismayed by some of the letters she received from readers.
“It was quite clear that women felt uninformed about sex from a woman’s point of view,” she says. “And to remedy that, you go to young women and make sure they know from the beginning what it’s all about. So I decided to write a sex book for teenage girls.” As part of her research, she visited the country’s most celebrated sexologists, whose cluelessness dismayed her even further – one famous female “expert” informed her that women pee through the clitoris.
“That made me even more determined,” says Conran. “I just thought, what a sad situation.” But as she went on, she found herself wanting to share her knowledge in fictional form instead. She was already the author of several best-selling non-fiction books, but “all professional writers want to write a novel some day”.
And she was inspired by her memories of sharing that copy of Forever Amber: “I really wanted to write a book that would get to young girls. And I did.” The result was Lace, which was published in 1982 and – in a summer gripped by a very different kind of bonkbuster – it has just been re-released to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The publisher paid Conran what was, at the time, the biggest ever European advance for a debut novel, and with good reason – Lace became a huge international hit and, just as its author had hoped, was soon a schoolgirl staple. Thousands of us who hit our teens in the 1980s were entranced by the impossibly glamorous Maxine, Pagan, Kate and Judy, whose triumphs and heartbreaks were documented in a book that is, 30 years on, as entertaining and gripping as ever.
It’s impossible to grudge Conran her success – her early life had not been easy. She grew up in a privileged world, but her father was a very difficult man. “He was an alcoholic and he was violent when he was drunk,” she says. “Though there was a lot to be said for him when he wasn’t drunk. He was very generous.”
Conran went to art college, became a textile designer and soon met and married a fellow young designer, Habitat founder Terence Conran. She worked with him at Habitat, and they had two sons, Sebastian and Jasper, who are both now successful designers.
But when the marriage collapsed acrimoniously, Conran lost her job. She started working as a designer at the Mail, and began her successful transition to journalism. In the late 1960s, however, she developed the debilitating condition ME, which she has been living with ever since. Unable to work, she realised she needed help with mastering housework.
“I thought I should buy a book on housework but couldn’t find a good book. They were all deeply boring and stuffy and they were all cribbed from the book before, right back to Mrs Beeton.” So she wrote one herself – and it was utterly original. Witty and sensible (“You have to be efficient if you want to be lazy,” she wrote in the introduction), Superwoman, published in 1975, was aimed at busy women, especially mothers who worked outside the home and had no interest in slaving over housework all evening. It instantly struck a chord with readers, thousands of whom wrote to Conran after its publication.
“I think something like an illness, which is often seen as misfortune, often has a silver lining, and one of the linings for me has been success as a writer,” she says. “And of course the money.”
This wasn’t the first time Conran turned misfortune into triumph. She says that she would never have become a writer if her marriage hadn’t collapsed. “I would have have stayed a fabric designer,” she says. “I was forced into independence and then I found the joys of independence.”
Her mother, she says, was unable to leave her alcoholic husband because she had no earnings of her own, and economic independence is at the heart of Conran’s feminism. “I believe it all boils down to money,” she says. “You want to be paid the same as the guy at the next desk doing the same job.”
Lace has been claimed as a feminist blockbuster – its heroines are independent and care about their careers and personal passions as well as their lovers and families. This was important to Conran. “It was a book of empowerment about sex and also about careers,” she says. “I didn’t see it as a feminist book when I was writing it but of course I am a feminist – every woman is a feminist, but not all of them realise it.”
Unlike the queen bitches of some 1980s blockbusters, the characters in Lace support each other. This reflects Conran’s own experiences.
“It’s very heartwarming to have women say ‘you really changed my life and you really helped me’,” says Conran, who has been thanked by grateful readers for decades. “I think that stemmed from my divorce because I found, in a way that many women will understand, that somehow when I got married I didn’t see my friends anymore but I saw his friends. ‘Our’ friends were in fact his friends, but when I split from Terence all my friends came back and forgave me. They were extremely helpful and very supportive. And since then I have always thought it was my job to help women.”
So how does she think women are doing today? She’s not a fan of what many of them are reading this summer, but dismisses the claims that the success of 50 Shades of Grey means that we all want to be dominated. “I cannot believe that the women of the western world really want their own little torture chambers,” she says. “What they do want is erotica and this huge success means that women need something, they are looking for something. Sexual information is much too controlled by men, so you’re always getting it from the man’s point of view. I am on a one-woman mission to inform men about the clitoris.”
But in general she’s optimistic about the future. “Sometimes us old warhorses get a bit depressed about the fact there’s still a 17 per cent pay gap, 40 years after we manned the barricades,” she says. “Things haven’t changed that much. But I think it goes up in zig-zags. Every time it zigs down, it zags up again – and it goes up a bit further.”
Lace is published by Canongate (£7.99)