Review: Tastes of Honey: The Making of Shelagh Delaney and a Cultural Revolution by Selina Todd.Chatto, 304 pp., £18.99, August 2019, 978 1 78474 082 5

Selina Todd is a gifted historian, and her books are well worth reading. Tastes of Honey is no exception. The book is essentially a biography of the working-class female writer Shelagh Delaney.Delaney was 19 when she wrote her greatest work, A Taste of Honey. Todd respects and even admires Delaney. She describes Delaney as being one of the first writers to show that women “had minds and desires of their own… She develops this point further by saying, “more than a decade before the Women’s Liberation Movement emerged in Britain”, her work “challenged the assumption that women found fulfilment in marriage and motherhood”. They “openly longed for a taste of honey, craving love, creativity, adventure and escape”.

Like the former Communist Party historian E. P Thompson, Todd would like to rescue people from the condescension of history, and she does precisely that with Delaney. Delaney, it is true, does need to have all the dead dogs cleared from on top of her. The book is extensively researched, and Todd was given access to what little papers were left to her daughter by Delaney.Delaney was a complex figure, and despite writing some very good stuff, she found writing difficult, a point echoed by the director Lindsay Anderson, who said, “She finds it difficult to turn the stuff out”.Delaney was part of a generation of working-class writers that had to fight every inch of the way to get recognition and reach a wider audience. On a personal note, I and probably a lot of my generation were influenced by the books of Delaney and other authors Like Alan Sillitoe, who wrote among other books Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Late Night on Watling Street by Bill Naughton, The ballad of a Sad Café by Carson McCullers . However, last but not least, A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. These books were on the list of every Comprehensive school’s English class when I was growing up. I shudder to think what is on there now.

Like I said in the opening to this review, Todd is a very good historian and is a very good writer. I have no qualms over her portrayal of Delaney. But Todd has an agenda and presents a distinct perspective on Delaney.As Simon Lee put it, “Todd is particularly invested in repositioning Delaney as a paragon of feminism, specifically the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. But the question remains: to what degree is this authentic to Delaney? Todd’s repositioning assumes an authoritative stance because of its biographical form.

As a result, Tastes of Honey makes a strong claim about its subject, but the book’s relative success or failure can be gauged by how well Delaney supports that claim”.Todd’s feminist agenda has been emboldened by the new Me too movement that originated in the United States and is now a Global Phenomena. As David Walsh points out the “The ostensible aim of this ongoing movement is to combat sexual harassment and assault, i.e., to bring about some measure of social progress. However, the repressive, regressive means resorted to—including unsubstantiated and often anonymous denunciations and sustained attacks on the presumption of innocence and due process—give the lie to the campaign’s “progressive” claims. Such methods are the hallmark of an anti-democratic, authoritarian movement, and one, moreover, that deliberately seeks to divert attention from social inequality, attacks on the working class, the threat of war and the other great social and political issues of the day”.

While it is important to rescue figures like Delaney, whose work is still relevant and tackles issues still with us today, trying to portray Delaney as a feminist icon has more to do with Todd’s politics than Delaney’s actual legacy.As Lee again writes, “Todd herself has become somewhat of a lightning rod of controversy as one of the more prominent figures of “gender critical” feminism — otherwise known as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists,” a movement that sprang from 1970s second-wave feminist politics”.In the section entitled policy and politics on her website, Todd outlines her political views. She writes, “If we are to create an alternative to dog-eat-dog capitalism, then we can only do so collectively through socialism. I have written for the Guardian and other media on the need for comprehensive, non-selective, free education for everyone, at whatever stage of their lives. I am also a feminist who believes that sex and gender are different. I believe that boys and girls should be able to do exactly what they want to do and do not have an innate gendered identity, based on my historical research, which shows that as expectations of boys’ and girls’ behaviours change, so do their actions and ambitions.There is no innate ‘feeling’ that defines womanhood, as some organisations such as Stonewall suggest. My research leads me to believe that women are and have been treated as different and inferior to men on the basis of our biological sex and our potential and actual role as mothers. As such, sex needs to be taken very seriously in understanding the discrimination women face. I also believe in the right to evidence-based debate about women’s rights. As such, I am proud to be involved in the women’s rights group Woman’s Place UK”.

Todd’s socialism is, at best, a watered-down form of reformism. At worst, her support for a feminist solution to female working-class emancipation, no doubt how sincere, will lead to the pitting of female workers against their male counterparts. She does not believe in revolution, and she is certainly against a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism which is the only way female emancipation will come about. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said, “Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone, but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat”.

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