Some books are bad. Not in a Mein Kampf sort of way, although there’s plenty of that about. In this case I mean the ‘if my parents catch me reading this trash, some non-specific unholiness will envelope my family and I’ll be ostracised from the community’ way.
In my early teens, these books were generally located on my Gran’s bookshelf.
Flowers In The Attic is one such tale. Despite four well thumbed paperbacks with the evocative keyhole covers taking up significant space on her shelf, she and my mother both claimed to know nothing about them, lapsing into vague mumblings about grown up things and the books ‘not being suitable’ when pressed. Neither had seemed that bothered about my mental wellbeing when I’d been working my way through their James Herbert collection, so I figured these books must be especially grim.
As soon as Mum & Gran went out, I repaired to the bookshelf.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Andrews’ ouvre, specifically the Dollanganger quadrilogy and My Sweet Audrina, have been cited as an influence by Gillian Flynn while talking about a TV adaptation of her first novel, Sharp Objects. I mentioned the article in passing on the Guilty Feminist Twitter feed and was inundated with responses from women for whom the books still evoked strong feelings, some twenty or thirty years after the event. Despite my feverish hopes at the time, I didn’t recall the books being particularly explicit or graphic so decided to reread them to find out what all the fuss was about.
In the early eighties, Andrews’ tale of four children forced to live in confinement by their bereaved mother until she can convince her estranged father that she’s worthy of her inheritance, was panned by critics as ‘deranged swill’. This belief informed my purchase of Flowers In The Attic to such an extent that I contributed an equal amount to a children’s literacy charity, ostensibly in the hope that the current youth would be given proper books and not be forced to seek escape in their Gran’s sordid bookshelf. For my trouble, I was anticipating having to close it with a big sigh and an eye roll two chapters in anyway.
I’m a voracious reader but even I was surprised to have burned through Flowers and sequels Petals On The Wind and If There Be Thorns in four days. As though no time had passed between those sweaty interminable summers crammed in the corner of Gran’s spider infested shed and now. I’d always assumed that I’d consumed the books so voraciously due to fear of discovery but I’m very old now and my psyche is already ruined. Also my Gran has passed away, meaning that the chances of her menacing silhouette appearing in the doorway was limited.
The Flowers quadrilogy is so relatable to pre and pubescent girls because it’s essentially their story. Not the Judy Blume ‘it gets a bit dark but you’ll be fine’ stuff of popular myth (Note: I won’t have a word said against Judy Blume, I love her) but the proper ‘you’ve had a lovely time to this point but now it’s all going to change and it’s gonna be really painful and a bit traumatic’ stuff that only young girls of a certain vintage know about.
Cathy, whose story this is, leaves a happy, carefree, perfect existence behind and is confronted with the stark truth about life. Could there be a fictional setting more patriarchal in tone and structure than the remote, grandiose Foxworth Hall, filled with the trinkets of the super wealthy and controlled by the unseen, oft felt hand of Malcolm Foxworth? Described in sensuous detail we feel first Cathy’s confusion and disgust as she explores the place she is now supposed to exist within – confined, rigid, restrictive, unnatural -the overarching threat of unspoken violence hanging over her every move, the bitter cold and stifling heat almost emerging from the page to envelop you.
Of course Cathy conforms. There’s never a choice. She grows like a plant accommodating to the contours of an immovable object in its path. She feels desire she cannot act upon, pain she cannot resolve, fear at the darkness which seems to exist purely to cloak secrets and the sad fact that sometimes you’re tarnished from birth and you can do nothing about it.
Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse is considered the industry standard when it comes to parental crimes against kids but while factually correct, it merely conveys a truth. Flowers In The Attic and the rest convey the colours and shapes of it. The throbbing dark fear we all experience upon discovering that Mum and Dad aren’t perfect. That we might not always have a choice over who we fall in love with. Or indeed that the life we’ve chosen for ourselves may not be the one we are free to pursue.
That’s why Cathy’s a hero. She understands that she could make the best of the situation and forgive, like her brother Chris. Or break as first her younger brother does, then his twin sister later. Cathy understands that responsibility has to be taken by someone, at some point, in order for the damage not to permeate and pollute the next generation, then the next.
And she finds the strength to do it. Revenge and anger were not traits to be expressed by or encouraged in young women when I was growing up. Neither was female sexual desire, either in itself or worse, used as a weapon in a war where a woman if often otherwise unarmed. Her parents’ mistakes were indeed caused by pressure to conform but Cathy sacrifices her own chance at a version of peace and happiness to try and avenge her losses, which are considerable. It’s a stark choice. You can either be good or you can win. You can’t do both.
Flowers In The Attic and her cousins aren’t tawdry rubbish. Once again our attitude to female voices has precluded us from hearing they’re saying. The books swell with female anger and sexuality. Unapologetic, Cathy’s single minded pursuit of freedom from the restrictive bindings of male sexuality are empowering and remind us of a time when we were young and knew nothing of this dank, dingy half light we’d be forced to exist in, rather than the fairy tales we’d been led to expect. It offered hope when popular culture offered little.
But this isn’t a specifically feminist tract. Cathy’s siblings suffer too as we all do within patriarchal structures. Chris goes on to be a successful doctor but can never free himself from his first love, his sister. Could Andrews have known when writing these books, that the blond, blue eyed, slim hipped, pubescent girl would be the archetypal female boys would lust after, if that’s all they were shown? That sexuality cannot be suppressed? When she wrote the occasional sex scenes, did she mean to convey that the primary sexual experience women could expect was to have something forcibly taken from them?
Things are very different today. #MeToo has enabled many women to at least glimpse the framework within which they’re forced to operate as functional human beings. Most are still confined by it though. Some haven’t seen it at all.
Are we much further forward? Not really. Having reread Flowers In The Attic and the rest, I’d love to find a knackered old copy with the keyhole cover and silently hand it to my twelve year old niece. Perhaps she might read it entirely differently and it won’t matter so much any more because it’s not the eighties anymore.
Her mum would go absolutely bananas though, wouldn’t she?