Zoë (Ann) Fairbairns 1948–
Fairbairns is a feminist writer whose novels examine from both a historical and a contemporary perspective the inequalities and difficulties women have faced. She has been commended for creating strong characters, male and female, who reflect women's struggles, and for avoiding being didactic or simplistic.
Benefits (1976) is a futuristic story set in the closing years of the twentieth century, when women are subject to compulsory birth control. As an Orwellian government attempts to institutionalize motherhood, selective breeding begins and women's role in society is vastly reduced. Benefits has been praised as a meaningful political fable, and Fairbairns is recognized for her skill in balancing her characters.
Stand We at Last (1983) has been called Fairbairns's most accomplished novel. This work follows five generations of English women through their struggles to gain personal and political freedom. Elizabeth Grossman asserted that Fairbairns tried to cover too many topics and failed to explore the passing time periods in depth, but other critics applauded Fairbairns's historical research and declared that Stand We at Last was a convincing portrait of women's issues over the last hundred years.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)
[Benefits] begins as a brisk tract on the campaigns for abortion on demand and the retentions of child benefits. It then suddenly transforms itself into a zany dystopia, set in the closing years of the 20th century. In part this is a satirical reversal of current arguments against legal abortion, since the woman of the future's right to choose is inhibited by compulsory birth control and she resorts to back-street doctors in order to become pregnant. But there is also an attempt to pursue a serious political hypothesis. A new government begins to pay women substantial salaries for rearing their own children. This seemingly desirable step leads immediately to the exclusion of women from the job-market, and ultimately to a policy of selective breeding. By the end we seem to be back with the old Welfare State, some of its warts and all. As a vision of the future the book suffers from the extreme narrowness of its focus. As an argument it is confused by its author's inability to resist distractions. Zoe Fairbairns writes excellent jokes. But she does need a tighter framework in which to set them. (p. 559)
Nicholas Shrimpton, "A Dash of Kim," in New Statesman, Vol. 98, No. 2534, October 12, 1979, pp. 559-60.
[Benefits] is a feminist novel: it is about the women. It is complex and ambitious, and in some of its aspects has nothing to do with imaginative literature. It is a short novel that is remembered as a long one, because it is jampacked and because it covers a period of thirty years from 1976—ie it is a projection of what could happen to women, and therefore to all society, in the immediate future…. In Benefits, the intimacy of personal stories meshes grindingly with the exposition of ideas. But for all that it should be read.
The central theme emerges only gradually from dialectic, incident, reports of legislation and robust cinematic set-pieces…. Nearly every female type, the home-maker, the uncommitted, the lesbian, the bisexual, the power-hungry, the good, the bad, the boring and the mad, are represented in the course of this thirty years' war; you could make this book mean what you want it to, since everyone can find her own position stated, and without irony, by somebody.
But what it begins to be about—and was about all along, one realises—is the attitude of women to childbearing. Not to be allowed to have a baby is as monstrous as not being allowed to prevent one. The 'Benefit' of the title is the state wage paid to women who have children—a social measure many would now be in favour of. But the post-1984 government find they can control the population by denying Benefit to women...
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Fairbairns' 600-page family saga [Stand We at Last] succeeds admirably in sweeping the reader into its narrative; nor does it at any point read as though written to a formula, despite its explicit intention to present a feminist reworking of the genre….
[The] expectations of the traditional saga are overturned (no direct descendants and no inheritance); and yet there is a legacy, as Fairbairns goes to great lengths to demonstrate—a legacy which works its way down through the suffragette movement to feminism today. Stand We at Last should be read not only by feminists but also by our mothers' generation; it summons a strength through broken spirits and a pride despite apparent imprisonment. Its sadness lies, I think, in its absences—those of youth and the compensation of a rich family and community culture, something not necessarily irreconcilable with the aims of the Women's Movement.
Angela McRobbie, "Dependence," in New Statesman, Vol. 105, No. 2708, February 11, 1983, p. 31.∗
Stand We at Last is billed as a feminist saga and it is: a tale of women of ordinary circumstances whose lives have been bound by convention and the accidents and politics of sex and birth. And although the novel accomplishes what it sets out to, involving us in the fate of its many heroines and occasionally painting a vivid scene, its contrivance hinders its success. It reaches out at too many incidents of history, stretching itself thin to cover so much time and ground. Its landscape is rendered plainly and more convincingly than its dialogue, which is so obviously designed to convey a message. Sprawling over more than a century, Stand We at Last makes its point—sincerely, but not in a particularly original or unusual way. Its plot and characters may well satisfy those fond of the genre, but others may feel time would be better spent with Dickens, Gaskell, or Eliot.
Elizabeth Grossman, "A Feminist 'Thornbirds'?" in Ms., Vol. XI, No. 9, March, 1983, p. 34.
The title introductory poem "The March of Women" and the author's preface all declare that this large novel [Stand We at Last] has a feminist theme and purpose. But those who expect militant propaganda will be surprised by Fairbairns' evenhandedness, good humor and, above all, lively narrative skill with which she devises a large cast of convincing characters, both female and male, and places them within a well-depicted historical framework that extends for over a century.
That history is often harsh, but the fiction is humane. The major characters, mostly lower-middle-class English women from 1855 to 1970, endure and usually prevail against the universal as well as particular privations and troubles of their times and class…. Yet while the laws, institutions and customs are often repressive or demoralizing to these women, blame is almost never placed on their individual lovers, fathers, husbands or even employers. Interestingly, the men characters are often shown as more generous, better tempered than their mates. Moreover, while the women are indeed usually disadvantaged by their society, the author suggests that attainment of independence is ultimately within their grasp.
As this is very much a novel and not a tract, any pattern among these varied lives is only partial; rather, certain designs occasionally repeat: girlish energy and ambition are somehow foiled or burn out; discouragement and depression follow, and then abandonment to often embittered dependence, usually but not always on men.
Audrey C. Foote, in a review of "Stand We at Last," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 6, 1983, p. 4.
The title [Stand We at Last] comes from a Women's Movement hymn which also includes the discouraging line 'Life, strife, these two are one'—an apt enough comment for the central characters of this novel. It is a kind of Women's Lib. family saga…. The five heroines have a terrible time. Illegitimate children, VD, destitution, forced registration as prostitutes, rape, infidelity and desertion by their menfolk, and of course the pains of childbirth—these are only a few of their troubles. The most intrepid of the book's heroines is Sarah, who works her fingers to the bone in Australian exile and finally goes down gloriously in the Titanic; the most irritating is Jackie, who loses her virginity under...
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