Her Own Terms

It might be assumed that a bright young poet, who from childhood has been miserably alone in a working-class suburb of London, will find happiness when she wins a scholarship to the University of Oxford, where people are valued for their intelligence. Judith Grossman’s first novel, Her Own Terms, demonstrates that for a woman in the rarefied atmosphere of an English university, acceptance does not come so easily. Certainly class and cultural handicaps can be surmounted at Oxford, but the very men who can overlook the lower-class backgrounds of other men will never forget the fact that a woman is a woman, however intelligent she may be. In this novel, the protagonist discovers that in the university world she must pay a price for companionship. The price is no less than her willingness to serve the men who dominate that world.

Appropriately, Her Own Terms begins with Irene Tanner’s defiance of her sexuality: “I’ve never felt less like a woman—it’s terribly exciting. This absolute no.” After finishing her three years at Oxford, Irene is on a train en route to an abortionist in London. Because of her examinations, she has delayed the abortion until the fourth month of her pregnancy; because of her limited funds, she must risk a backroom abortionist. Her fear of death, however, is less than her fear of enslavement to men. Even when the personable Oxford professor John Singleton, whom she encounters on the train, warns her of the emotional results of an abortion and offers her a room and a job while she has her baby, Irene does not seriously reconsider her decision. With her new wisdom, she can see the hook beneath the bait. Although he certainly means to be kind to Irene, Singleton is noted for his womanizing while maintaining a comfortable married condition. If she depends once more on a lord of the universe, Irene knows that she will only postpone the attainment of independence. Thus, the first episode of the novel establishes the theme: an intelligent woman’s difficulty in learning to live on “her own terms.”

The frame of Grossman’s novel is the abortion. In the initial scene on the train, Irene is presented with Singleton’s alternative. Midway through the book, she visits the abortionist, who performs the painful procedure and assures her that she will lose the fetus in a period of hours. In the final chapter, Irene is back at Oxford among her women friends, who support her during the anxious hours when she waits for contractions and help her as she finally expels the fetus. At this point, Irene feels a pang which she had not anticipated: Looking at the dead fetus, she recognizes some similarities to her lover. As the book ends, Irene realizes that Singleton was right, that she will never forget what she has done, but that she too was right in making her decision, for she could not have trusted Singleton, or any other man, to value her rather than use her.

The passages which involve the abortion, the only passages which are set in the present, are brief in proportion to the total length of the book. It is this incident, however, which causes Irene to reevaluate her life. Significantly, the long section in which she recalls her childhood and her final escape to Oxford comes before she visits the abortionist. The second long section comes after the procedure. Thus, it is after the irreversible action has been taken and she is on her way back to her college that Irene relives her years at Oxford, as if by understanding what has been done to her there she can better endure the physical pain which is soon to come and the emotional pain which will last a lifetime.

In the section called “35 Agathon Way,” for Irene’s home address in a working-class area of London, the author traces her protagonist’s development as a girl. Infatuated with her mother, Irene yearns for some demonstration of her mother’s love, which in wartime seems as tightly rationed as everything else. In fact, her mother’s nervousness and exhaustion are not surprising. With her husband in service, and periods of bombing alternating with periods of evacuation, Hilda Tanner has all she can do to deal with two squabbling girls and two babies. The fact that by nature Hilda is reserved and distant, however, leaves the affectionate Irene convinced that her mother does not love her, and her childhood becomes a desperate search for some way to merit the love for which she yearns. Affection from her father might have helped, but when he returns from the war, he is present only in body. Convinced...

(The entire section is 1860 words.)


Booklist. LXXXIV, January 1, 1988, p. 749.

Chicago Tribune. February 7, 1988, XIV, p. 7.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, November 15, 1987, p. 1596.

Library Journal. CXIII, January, 1988, p. 98.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 7, 1988, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 24, 1988, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, November 13, 1987, p. 60.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, January 3, 1988, p. 7.