New Humanist | The Sex Lives of English Women by Wendy Jones

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In the early 20th century, the mechanical peep-show was invented so voyeurs could enjoy the thrill of seeing women in their unwitting naked candour. Of course, the peep-shows were a lie: the pictures were staged, there was no real privacy to invade. But the promise that women can be revealed as they “really are” has always been an exciting one. Wendy Jones starts her book with a version of the peep-show promise that also places The Sex Lives of English Women firmly in the context of feminism: “This book is not about how to be a woman; it’s about how women are,” she writes, presumably angling a dig in the direction of Caitlin Moran’s blockbuster polemic How To Be a Woman.

What we are about to see, it is implied, is raw womanhood. Jones presents us with 24 pseudonymous interviews representing the gamut of the English female, aged from 19 to 94. There are women from Buddhist, Muslim and Catholic backgrounds; black, white and Asian women; lesbians, straight women and somewhere-in-between women. Each one occupies her own chapter, written up as a monologue so it appears that we have unmediated access to her inner self. Like the peep-show photographer who keeps all evidence of himself outside the frame, Jones effaces herself. We are never told what questions she asked in order to elicit these answers.

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New Humanist | The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Between the saucy carnival of the Georgians and the splintered genius of the moderns, the Victorians seem like a marble slab of respectability. Very fine and very deathly. The Essex Serpent is not about those marble Victorians. Sarah Perry’s second novel – a follow-up to her eerie 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood – contains many things that are unlikely, edging toward supernatural. There is early open heart surgery, hypnotism, contagious hysteria, and of course, the serpent of the title (which may or may not be ravaging the Essex shoreline). But the characters who inhabit Perry’s historical fiction are fundamentally like the Victorians of life rather than the ones of myth: a mix of the curious, the crankish, the sceptical and the devout, the upstanding and the down-low.

Read the full review at the New Humanist