Marlene organizes a Saturday-night party in a London restaurant to celebrate her promotion at the Top Girls’ Employment Agency. She invites a group of women drawn from history, legend, literature, and art, who tell their stories as Marlene orders food and drink. The stories overlap and compete with one another; the women sometimes listen, sometimes editorialize, and often talk at the same time. Isabella Bird and Lady Nijo are the earliest arrivals. Bird’s story is about her problems with illness, which make her unable to deal with the life expected of a clergyman’s daughter (Bird does not seem to make this connection). Her problems led to travel, a marriage proposal from mountain man Jim Nugent—“a man any woman might love but none could marry”—and a return to Scotland after her sister Hennie’s death. Because of her need to atone, given Hennie’s goodness and that of the doctor who cared for her through her last illness, Isabella married the doctor and devoted herself to caring for him through his long last illness. After his death and her own charitable work, she experienced a return of her own nervous illness, the result of trying “very hard to cope with the ordinary drudgery of life.”
Interwoven with Bird’s story is Lady Nijo’s account of being raised to become a courtesan of the emperor. She enjoyed the beautiful clothes and status while she was the emperor’s favorite; later she took lovers and lost a daughter to one of these lovers, whose wife raised the girl to follow in Nijo’s footsteps. When she lost favor with the emperor, she became a Buddhist nun and now wanders the countryside.
Pope Joan enters next and tells her tale, which begins when as a precocious fourteen-year-old disguised as a boy she left home and traveled with a male friend who was also her lover. They studied theology together until his death. Her intelligence attracted attention, and she rose rapidly, becoming a cardinal and then pope. As pope, she discreetly took a lover and became pregnant without realizing it. When she interrupted a religious process to deliver her baby on the side of a road, she was stoned to death.
Everyone at Marlene’s party is by that time quite drunk and giggling at Joan’s description of the pierced chair that subsequent popes are required to sit on to prove that they are men. They are getting ready for dessert when Patient Griselda enters. Marlene tells the others, “Griselda’s in Boccaccio and Petrarch and Chaucer because of her extraordinary marriage,” which Marlene characterizes as “like a fairy story, except it starts with marrying the prince.” Griselda reminds Marlene that her husband is “only a marquis.” All the guests listen when Griselda tells how her husband set the wedding day before telling anyone who the bride would be. Griselda, a peasant girl, was surprised when the nobleman came to ask her father for her hand. The only requirement was that if Griselda agreed to the marriage, she would have to obey her husband in everything. When the guests question her willingness to agree to this condition, she replies, “I’d rather obey the Marquis than a boy from the village.”
Griselda recounts the things to which she was asked to agree over the years: She had to give up her six-week-old daughter to what she believed was certain death; six years later, she gave up her two-year-old son; she returned to her father twelve years after the loss of her son so that her husband could marry a young girl; she helped her husband prepare for this new marriage because only she knew “how to arrange things the way he liked them.” Her reward, the “fairy-tale” ending, was the restoration of her children (her daughter was the supposed new bride). Griselda forgave her husband and stayed with him because he had “suffered so much all those years.”
Griselda’s tale releases angry emotions in the other guests. Nijo tells the story of the concubines beating the emperor in retaliation for their own beatings at the hands of his attendants during a fertility ceremony. Joan recites a thematically important passage from Lucretius on how sweet it is to observe the struggles of others from a safe remove. At this point, Dull Gret, who says little, tells the story of her march with other peasant women through the mouth of hell, where most of them fought with the devils, although some were distracted by wealth. For Gret, it was going to the source of the evil that cost her two children. The party ends with Nijo crying, Joan vomiting, and Isabella finishing her tale of searching at the age of seventy for a “lasting chance of joy.”
At the agency on Monday morning, Marlene interviews a young woman looking for a better job. She emphasizes the necessity for choosing—or appearing to choose—between career and family, as she herself did.
In Joyce’s backyard in Suffolk on the previous Sunday afternoon, Kit and Angie’s play focused on Angie’s attempt to intimidate the younger child. Joyce forced Angie to clean her room; Angie returned in a dress too small for her, saying she put it on to kill her mother.
Back at the agency on Monday morning, Angie shows up, to Marlene’s frustration. They are interrupted by Win, the wife of the man who expected to get Marlene’s promotion, who now suggests that Marlene give up the new job. Several interviews conclude with Win talking to Angie, who has no skills. Showing no emotion, Marlene tells Win, “She’s not going to make it.”
In Joyce’s kitchen one year earlier, Angie had called Marlene, who had not visited her family for six years, telling her that Joyce wanted to see her. When Marlene arrived, the sisters argued about Marlene abandoning her daughter, the rest of her family, and ultimately the working class from which she came. Angie, who heard some of the discussion, came to Marlene, calling her “Mum.” Marlene insisted, “It’s Aunty Marlene.” Angie responded, “Frightening.”