Poor Cow tells Joy’s story – a working class girl from south London, we first see her walking home from the hospital with her newborn baby. Her husband, Tom, is a ‘tealeaf’ and soon ends up inside. Joy then takes up with another thief, Dave, and enjoys a short period of bliss, before he too ends up in prison, leaving her to fend for herself and her young son. Joy’s narrative then splits – her thoughts of men and sex, compared with the reality of sleeping with men for money; her dreams of romance, contrasted with the realities of poverty and domesticity.
I can’t abear the thought of all these women in the flats around me – all doing the same things – mopping down the lino, washing their husband’s shirts, changing their babies, doing the shopping, it’s all gone bent on me – the everyday life – the sight of a shopping basket almost turns my guts.
Although it was written in the late 1960s, Poor Cow is still relevant. Working class women are rarely given their own voices, and although Nell Dunn was herself from an upper class background, Joy’s voice seems very authentic. Dunn lived and worked in Battersea and befriended girls like Joy. She knew them intimately and this shows in her writing.
I first read Poor Cow and Up the Junction when I was a Sixties obsessed school girl. I remember trying to quiz my taciturn mother about ‘the Swinging Sixties’ and receiving an extremely disappointing response – “the Swinging Sixties didn’t come to Smethwick.” I think that’s probably true. Reading Poor Cow, you get a sense of the myth of Swinging London seeping into Joy’s dreams, but remaining unattainable for women from a lower class background. Women who are trying to scrape a living, caught up in damaging relationships, ‘getting caught’ and having backstreet abortions, ending up middle-aged and on the game…
It’s quite depressing, but Nell Dunn’s lightness of touch lifts this novel from ‘kitchen sink drama’ by sharing with us Joy’s inner thoughts, which are bright and romantic. Although it was written before I was born, Poor Cow spoke to me of the continued gulf between expectation and reality in the lives of working class women, and seems just as important now as it was in 1967.