Last year, I had never heard of the Bechdel Test. Then, sometime in 2016, I came across a comic strip by cartoonist Alison Bechdel; Dykes To Watch Out For. It seemed just the sort of thing I’d love – as a writer who portrays the Somerset Levels in their books I’m always interested in any sort of small watercourse...
Bechdel credits a friend for the idea, and also gives a nod to Virginia Woolf, in particular the 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf says about fictional women…almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. In 1929, that might be expected, but almost one hundred years have now passed…surely things have got considerably better?
Bechdel’s test wasn’t much more than a quip, but it has moved into mainstream, especially being applied to the world of film scripts. To pass the test, a film must contain the following: (1) At least two female characters, preferably named, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than the men in their lives.
For film, the test has narrower goalposts than even I first thought. Let’s take some standard female leads: Clarice Starling, Erin Brochovitch, Catherine Tramell (in Basic Instinct) and both Thelma and Louise. Turns out a lot of the time these strong women are talking to, or about, men. However, some of my favorite films do get a clear pass.
In As Good as it Gets, Helen Hunt’s character Carol has a long, wonderful conversation with her mother about childcare (oops...and about getting a man....), while The Children of Men, as well as featuring the lead male in flip-flops, has a strong female cast (Clare-Hope Ashitey, Julianne Moore and Pam Ferris), who talk about the dystopian issues in hand, rather than their love-lives. Sideways, a great film about wine, has Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen talking about…wine…(for at least 30 seconds before returning to the subject of their men). And I don’t want to leave out Mulholland Drive, where Naomi Watts and Laura Harring spend a lot of time talking about a missing person, and each other.
Surely, in the world of literature, many conversations have been written between women without the slightest whisper of romantic chatter? Way before Woolf, came intellectual giants such as both Bronte sisters, George Sands, Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austin. I could clearly recall both the Bennet and the Dashwood sisters having long, interesting conversations with each other. But Part 3 of the test is the sticking point. When I checked back…yep, they were talking about men. Getting married informed their lives – of course they were talking about it.
In today’s literature, surely, so long as we steer clear of chick lit, we’ll find good pass marks. And we do. Books ranging from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale are passes, as is my recent favourite, The Help.
So now I have to ask myself about The Shaman Mysteries. Does my crime fiction series pass the Bechdel test in its entirety? I am so pleased to announce that it does - all three books. Sabbie Dare actually has very few conversations about her lovelife with other women. Here are three conversations from the three books to prove this:
“How’s work going, now you’re back?” I asked.
“Things are all right. I feel sometimes ‘wobbly’.”
“But you manage.”
Marianne nodded. I wouldn’t have noticed in normal lighting, but in the flickering glow of the candle I could see that her cheeks were covered with a fine layer of perspiration. “I get through the day.”
“Have you heard anything further about the redundancies?”
“Rumours are still flying around the building.” She examined her delicately pinked nails. “I don’t know why I took it that bad. No one else on the list had such a reaction. I did not know how pathetic I could be.”
“Rubbish. You come across as a strong person.”
“No longer. When they re-interview the posts, going off sick like that will count against me.” Marianne sat on the lounger with her hands folded like tidy napkins in her lap. They didn’t fidget, those hands, ever. They exuded utter composure.
“We are going to discover what this is about. Then you can walk into work like the old Marianne and knock ’em flat.”
She shook her head. “I lost my nerve. You should never lose your nerve. At Simpson and Grouche, if you lose your nerve, you are as good as dead.”
“In the water, as they say. Washed up.”
“Marianne, could you describe your office to me?”
She didn’t even blink at my sudden change of direction. She’d got used to my often bizarre questions. “Oh, it
is good. Very light, you know. We grow plants in the windows.”
I beat a tattoo with my pen on the paper. “Remind me who phoned you that afternoon?”
“My line manager. Will Clyde. He is a nice guy. He sent me flowers when I was off.”
“Can you remember his exact words?”
Marianne shook her head. “I can’t remember much about what happened, Sabbie. I sort of…”
“Yes. I remember you saying. You were in shock–”
“Fit. It was like a fit.”
“I could not move. Like Lot’s wife.”
I cast my mind back to my years with Gloria. She’d had a strict Pentecostal upbringing and was always quoting things from the bible. “Like a pillar of salt?” I hazarded. “Like you’d been petrified?”
“Petrified is a good word,” Marianne agreed.
“You don’t recall anything?”
“No. Strange, that is, as I have a good memory.”
I placed the write-up of my last shamanic journey in her lap. “Just look at the words in capital letters.”
She glanced down. Almost instantly, she gave a sort of hiccough, as though forcing back tears.
“Do the words make you feel a particular way?”
“The same.” Her breath was scraping through her throat as if it were closing over. “The very same, Sabbie. The words he used…the list for re-interviewing…that is what he said, more or less.”
“Phones are funny things, sometimes,” I said. “You can’t see the person. It’s easy to muddle voices or mix one turn of phrase with another. In the end, it’s the words that will have an effect.”
She trained her gaze on me. The only indication that I’d rattled her was the way the paper quivered in her hand. “What do you mean, Sabbie?”
“I just want you to consider the possibility that you didn’t have that dreadful reaction because your job was on the line. Maybe, some time in the past, you heard a similar voice, or similar words that really were a threat. To your life, even.”
“But, I know that cannot be so.”
I was sipping away at my boiling tea, as if I wanted to be in sympathetic pain with my client. “It’s not your office, in my shamanic journey. It belongs in the fifties, or even before. I’ve been wondering if the reason you can’t remember these words is because they didn’t happen in this lifetime.”
I watched her mouth fall open in slow motion. I’d waited for her to reject my suggestion out of hand, but she was thinking about it, in her usual unruffled manner.
“You are saying I lost my job in a previous life?”
“No, Marianne. I'm saying that you lost your life.”
“How would I ever know?” she asked. “How would I ever remember such a thing?”
“You don’t remember. Maybe you never will. But if a voice said the exact words to you for a second time, that might have made you feel as dreadful…as petrified…as it did the first time.”
“At that moment,” said Kate, “I had nothing. In England, money goes faster than in Poland.”
“I bet that’s true.”
“I needed food for my child. I needed the fare home.”
I didn’t think there could be much that is more scary that being broke and alone in a foreign country.
Kate shook her head, and her hair swung. She lifted a pale hand and brushed it from her face. The action rang a bell; a thing Rey had told me. The way his DS Gary Abbott had gone a little crazy over that first dead woman’s body.
“Did Gary…did he ever talk to you about the murder, the woman they found in the summer, that turned up in–”
“Yes. Please – I know this. It is this that I want to tell you about.”
I looked at the chestnut shine of her hair. “She reminded him, didn’t she?”
“He had pestered the doctor. The woman who had done the autopsy. What is she called? Path…”
“Pathologist,” I said, wondering where this was taking us.
“The woman’s stomach, it was all opened, when they found her. You know?”
“Sort of. No, I don’t.”
“Gary said…that it wasn’t fishes. He told the woman, but she didn’t listen, I don’t think. Now, he is dead, and another woman is dead!”
“Slashings. The police are looking for a Ripper.”
Her face was as white as paper. Even her lips were white. “I have been reading. Everything in the papers.”
Waves of assumptions suddenly formed into a single solution.
“DS Abbott knew who killed that woman, didn’t he? He knew who was going to kill Kizzy, even before she died.”
“Perhaps. I don’t know. Not a name, or a thing like that. But one thing is sure. The person who killed the girls. They killed Gary. They shot him.”
Neither of us spoke. I shivered, the cold of the open window getting to me. “How do you know?” I asked, at last.
“You? You encountered the murderer?”
“Yes. I encountered. But I didn’t see them. I didn’t see anything much.”
Kate turned from where we were standing beside her table full of cooling Bulgarian food. She closed the kitchen window. She worked at the plastic string and the roller blind cascaded down. It was rose pink, with a scalloped edge, trimmed with lace. She pulled it right to the sill. She moved to the kitchen door, and shut that tight too.
I felt a tremor on my lips. I sucked them in to stop it showing. She shook her head, as if it was too difficult to tell. She wanted me to draw her story out of her. “How did you get away, Kate?”
“Alys and I met at school, did I say? So I know her better that any other friend; better than Brice. Do you follow? I know things Brice does not.”
I gave a nod.
“We were doing our exams when she started seeing this older bloke. A specific older bloke, actually. A teacher.”
“This chap was new in the Humanities department and to be honest, we wouldn’t think of him as old at all now, I guess he was two, three years out of university. He was a fantastic looker and Alys wasn’t the only girl with a crush on him, a gaggle of sixth-formers used to follow him around, on the pretext of their history studies. It was Alys who got him in the end.” Shell smiled. “She wasn’t especially pretty or anything, but back then she had a big, cheeky personality. She knew what she wanted and usually got it.”
“So she got this teacher.”
“It was the worse thing that could have happened. She fell so heavily. It couldn’t end in anything but disaster, could it? She got pregnant and he paid for her to have an abortion in a private clinic, in the hope of keeping it quiet. In fact he put a lot of pressure on her to have the abortion, although I don’t suppose she had many other options. She’d left it late telling him, so by the time she went in, she had to have the drip and everything and it went horribly wrong.The bleeding wouldn’t stop and she was rushed into the general hospital. Naturally, it all came out at school. Alys was sixteen, over the age of consent, but the bloke got the sack. She never heard from him again. She messed up her exams and we didn’t see her all summer holidays because she refused to come out with the rest of us.”
“She was probably depressed,” I said.
“And how. At the start of the sixth form she looked a wreck. That cheeky personality was in bits. The weight had fallen off her and she still wasn’t eating. I was scared for her, Sabbie. I’d been a rubbish friend too; all summer we’d gone off partying and do you know what she’d done? She’d joined a sort of club called the 100 Day Fast.”
For some reason, although I’d never heard the term before, it made my skin go cold.
“For one hundred days, you drink only water.”
“What? That’s crazy. Dangerous.”
“Yes, it was horrible. She was still doing it, and trying re-take her GCSE’s and start her A levels all at the same time. I thought she was going to break down and end up in hospital, but I rallied the gang round and we gentled her back into eating. By the end of the school year, she was okay. Not eating well – to be honest she’s never eaten well since – but she’d put on half a stone.”
“Poor Alys,” I said.
“Why did you mention drugs?”
“Oh, nothing. No reason.”
I feel proud of myself, but not at all surprised. I never intended to concentrate on romance in my books. Yes, there are relationships, but the theme has always been how Sabbie Dare uses her understanding of Shamanism to help solve the villainy she encounters – and she certainly does encounter villainy – make no mistake, she will continue to do so!