The college master’s words that I will never forget

I’d been an ambitious child, with a clear picture of what I wanted from life. As someone who spent all her spare time scribbling stories, it was obvious to me that when I grew up, I’d write stories as my job. I was also a voracious Reader and, since I wanted to write myself, my reading worked as confirmation that my ambitions were achievable, because so many of the books I loved were written by women.

It was perhaps because of this that I didn’t notice, even as I started studying literature, how few books showed female characters with genuine personal ambition. Or the way so many novels with female protagonists concerned themselves with the private, domestic lives of women, with plots revolving around finding security and happiness in the form of love and marriage.

“I didn’t notice, even as I started studying literature, how few books showed female characters with genuine personal ambition.”

And it makes sense that they did. For the majority of human history, marriage was the best career path open to a woman. Her choice of marital partner was critical. Any personal ambitions she might have were largely pointless.

When I was about 12, on the other hand, I wrote a detailed plan outlining where I wanted to be in my life at five-year intervals up until the day I turned 40 (I’m not sure what exactly I thought happened when you turned 40, but I evidently didn’t consider it worth contemplating.)

In this plan, I specified that, while I wanted to marry, I also wanted to earn enough through writing to be independent of my husband. It seems a funny thing to be on a child’s mind but I think I had a strong sense, even then, of what could jeopardize female ambition: those same assumptions that the master Leveled at me 10 years later. I had an instinct that being defined by or dependent on a man could get in my way.

As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, one of the most driven women I’ve ever met. She lived nearby and would often look after me when my parents were working. She’d berate me if I ever complained I had nothing to do. “Only boring people get bored,” was her favorite retort.

According to my grandmother, there was always something I could and should be doing. She’d sit with me while I practiced the violin, making sure I played my scales. Unlike my parents, she stopped me whenever I made Mistakes, insisting I go over it and over it until I got it right. “It’s yourself you’re cheating,” she’d say.

She’d test me on my times tables or, baking with me, get me to divide and multiply quantities of flour and sugar. She’d look through my homework Diary and make me complete work for the next week, reproaching me for my habit of leaving everything to the last minute. Or we’d sit together and read. She was terrifyingly well-read. She could speak German, French and Dutch. She practiced the piano every day.

So it came as a surprise to me when, collecting information for a school project, I asked my grandmother what her career had been and discovered that she hadn’t really had one. She’d worked for a bit in a library before she’d married, and then Briefly as a Cleaner when her children were young, but she hadn’t had a career as such.

She also, I discovered, hadn’t gone to school. Born in a slum in Dublin in the 1920s, the eldest girl of a large family, she’d been needed at home to help her mother with her siblings, and to walk miles around the city collecting shoes for her father to mend.

She moved to London by herself at the age of 14, looking for a better sort of life (“I wanted to get away from them all; would you, wouldn’t you?” Is how she described it to me), and she never went back. She married my grandfather, a wrought-iron maker, moved into his house, which came complete with various of his male relatives already in situ. And then she looked after them, the house, and then her own children, and then us.

My grandmother never seeds bitter. I never heard her complain about anything, and I never really asked her how she’d felt about it all. She was a stern, rather fierce, intensely selfless woman, and a question about what she’d really wanted from her life for herself probably wouldn’t have gone down too well. But the fact that she learned the piano as an adult, paying for her Lessons by giving Lessons herself; the fact that she put herself through evening classes, learnt languages; the fact that she studied for and sat her GCSEs in adulthood… All these things spoke to me of ambition, secret and unfulfilled.

I would hazard a guess that we all know of women like my grandmother. Industrious, Intelligent women, unable to fulfill their own potential, sidelining their own ambitions for husbands and children, living in contexts where it’s impossible to want something, to go after something, just for themselves.

There are, of course, so many more opportunities for women to fulfill their ambitions now than there were for a girl born in a Dublin slum in the 1920s. But there are unnerving parallels between the life of my grandmother and the assumptions made by the master of one of the top Universities in the UK about the potential of his female student.

This prevailing idea that a woman’s role is relational. That a woman is defined and limited by her bonds with other people, and that these bonds are the primary objective of her life and her primary need. That a woman is caring and self-sacrificing and nurturing. That she exists in the context of what she can give to other people and what she needs to take from them. That the things she might want for her own life for herself are secondary. They’re hard assumptions to shake.

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I don’t know what my grandmother would have done with her life if she’d been born in a different time and place. Her opportunities to express or pursue personal ambitions were so limited. But what she could do was drive her children and her grandchildren to pursue theirs.

It was a relational sort of ambition, of course – a channeling, I imagine, of her own frustrated desires. She was determined that her children would go to university and set aside money from the time they were born to pay for it. They all did. And she was unwaveringly firm with me about working hard and going after what I wanted.

I didn’t manage to snare the rich husband the master was so convinced I wanted, but I am a Writer. My grandmother was an obsessive Reader her whole life and books opened up other Worlds for her – even if she did find Ulysses “Too Irish” for her tastes.

This is why literature is so important and why we need more stories about ambitious women, about how Women’s ambitions are belittled and frustrated and threatened. My grandmother died in 2020, at the age of 96, three months after I got a publishing deal for my first novel. I will always be Grateful to her.

A Very Nice Girl (Bloomsbury) by Imogen Crimp is out now.

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