Now this was an interesting read. She May Not Leave is by British writer Fay Weldon. In it Weldon tells the story of a young unmarried professional British couple Hattie and Martyn and their new baby Kitty. The narrator is Frances Watt, Hattie’s grandmother who she tells the story of what unfolds when Hattie decides she must go back to work before her year’s mat leave is over and against Martyn’s wishes hires an au pair to care for Kitty.
Soon Agniewska arrives and domestic order is restored to the household. Kitty adores Agniewska, the house is beautifully cared for, and dinner is served on time. The money that Hattie brings in as an editor in a publishing house gives her a sense of well being and self-confidence and eases the financial burden on Martyn. Although she loves Kitty and Martyn, domesticity is a form of imprisonment for Hattie.
Martyn, who works as a writer at a political magazine, doesn’t quite make enough money to support the family which adds significant stress to their lifestyle. Martyn also harbours political aspirations and along with Hattie holds many ‘politically correct views of the day’ including reservations regarding hiring ‘foreign labour’or an au pair.Although outwardly he embraces women’s right to work and equal opportunity he secretly wants Hattie to embrace domestic life and feels betrayed by her desire to bring a stranger into their small home. The domestic bliss that he secretly longs for, however, is quickly restored by Agniewska’s domestic prowess. She performs her domestic duties so well that soon Martyn and Hattie can’t imagine life without her.
Slowly both of their previously held moral objections are eroded as their desire to ‘have everything’overcomes them. Agniewska will stay at any cost even when it becomes apparent that she is not exactly whom she claims to be. When Hattie decided that Martyn should marry her in order to prevent her deportation he agrees and it quickly becomes apparent that perhaps this is exactly what Agnieska had planned all along.
Throughout the narrative Frances Watt threads the story of her own life through Hattie and Martyn’s tale. She and her sisters are raised by their strong-willed mother through the 50’s and 60’s. As a single parent family, their life is precarious and they ultimately spiral down the economic scale. Although Frances and Serena live very full sexually adventurous lives, it’s clear that it’s through marriage, however imperfect they are, that they find security and stability.Those who are left single, much like their mother, are the ones that are left to struggle to raise and care for their children and are often looked to, to take on unwanted familial responsibility.
This is an interesting reflection on the role of marriage in modern times. It seems to me that Weldon uses Frances as a device to comment on the role of marriage then and now. Although marriage offers no easy salve to personal happiness the rules of engagement at the very least appear to be very clear in earlier times. In both generations, however, marriage and domestic life are an arrangement that women must negotiate to ensure a certain type of stability and therefore must be be played on some level. The book at first glance seems deceptively simple but I realized as I was reading it that Weldon presents the complexities of women’s lives and relationships throughout generations quite expertly. She May Not Leave really gives food for thought and is an intriguing read.