There was once this woman. She was in her thirties. She was quite famous, in a way. She hadn't really meant to be famous; it had just happened to her, without very much effort on her part.
So begins Margaret Drabble's story, 'A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman', in the story collection of the same name (2011). The stories were written between 1967 and 2000, and are a representation of her short fiction written over the years (I, like many people assumed she was only a novelist).
You probably know women like Jenny Jamieson, the protagonist of 'Smiling Woman'. Perhaps you are one. A woman with an interesting job, who sits on committees, looks after her family, and has no time to look after herself. She does too much. She's efficient at multi-tasking. A list-maker.
...she read the lists of things to be done that lay on her bedside table. There were several lists, old and new, and it was never safe to read the newest one only. Some of the words on the lists were about shopping: haricot beans, it said at one point; Polish sausage, at another; then vitamin pills; shoelaces for Mark; raw carrots(?); Clive Jenkins; look up octroi. It would be hard to tell whether these notes were a sign of extreme organisation or of panic. She could not tell herself.
She is woman who spends too much energy smiling and being pleasant to people.
Then one night she snaps, and the next morning things do not seem the same. She sees people differently.
There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well meaning people. And it's broken, it won't twist any more.
An 'exceptionally healthy woman', she's been having unexplained bleeds, and that day she finds herself at her hospital appointment. She faces the prospect of death ( but we are told that she didn't, after all, die from this), and fears for her children's lives without her. But despite this spiritual crisis she carries on regardless, taking herself dutifully to a school where she is an honoured guest speaker. She gets up and makes a confident, optimistic speech as her boots gradually fill with blood.
For twenty minutes, she spoke and bled.
What Drabble is particularly good at is in observing the ambiguity in people's lives; the accommodations they make in order to make life bearable. And how appropriate is it that Jenny's body is making known its discomfort in a way only a woman's body can, by a disruption of the hormonal system.
This story was written in 1973, in the early days of the women's movement. Even now in my opinion women smile too much, make themselves amenable. It is expected of us. We expect it of ourselves. Would it hurt you just to be nice?
Sometimes instead of being a smiling woman I become a snarling woman - that's a trap as well. Smiling too much or snarling too much - you're letting other people set your agenda.
You need to be a thoughtful woman; an aware woman, a woman who won't be pushed around.