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Children first, books second, lovers third

Drabble in 1959. Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

“Books or babies?” It’s a choice that has presented itself to female novelists for centuries, says Margaret Drabble in UnHerd. And for a long time the answer, mostly, was books: great writers from Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës to Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf all chose the pen over the pram. But there have always been those who managed to buck the trend. And as a female novelist and mother, I have long delighted in collecting their tips and tricks.

Elizabeth Gaskell, who raised four children, wrote to a friend that the secret to being a successful woman writer was to “soak the washing overnight”, as it reduced the time you’d have to spend on it in the morning (“though I assume she had servants to help her”). George Sand said she put her children first, her books second, and her lovers third. “That seemed to me an admirable attitude.” But it’s striking just how far this dilemma is from the experience of our male counterparts. For all Joseph Conrad moaned about his “lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world”, he was still having food put before him, and his life made easy, by his “tireless” wife. Henry James, who dreamed of a “Great Good Place” where invisible hands would wait upon him in a “kind of country house or club”, was in his ordinary life served “three coddled eggs for breakfast”. I can’t help but wonder: “Would I have written more and better if somebody had coddled me?”