“Let me put in a plea, not just, as is sometimes necessary with Fantasy and Science Fiction, for a suspension of disbelief, but for a suspension of strictly labelled parameters.” (1)
Thus Josephine Saxton prefaced her collection The Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories. What she didn’t say at that point was that she herself doesn’t exactly suspend disbelief. Saxton’s novels frequently take wild flights of fancy yet treat this in a thoroughly realist manner.
Both Jane Saint and Magdalene Hayward, the eponymous Queen of the States partake in Gothic quests through their subconscious and the Collective Unconscious looking at the real from within.
Magdalene explains it to her psychiatrist Dr Murgatroyd at one point:
“As a doctor I can’t really encourage you in what are clearly fantasies.”
“Not fantasies, modes of existence. I move from one existence to another, on several planes at the same time. I am a traveller in time and space. I suppose the nearest you could get to it in your ideas would be to call it a metaphor.” He looked alert and scribbled.
“A metaphor is not an actuality.”
“To me it is. I’m very intense you know, it makes everything more real.” (2)
There’s a knowingness there that, as well as stressing the real, stresses the meaning. Magdalene is in a psychiatric hospital, Jane has been brainwashed as punishment. Magdalene may have been kidnapped by aliens, Jane may be exploring a blank landscape. They are, at this point, both the madwoman in the attic placed there by men.
Gwyneth Jones notes that Saxton (along with Angela Carter and Tanith Lee) ‘build their fantasies in full recognition and acceptance of male/female, masculine/feminine archetypes’ (3) but Saxton explicitly states her use of Jungian archetypes reacts against his idea of a ‘completely different canon of symbology for the interior psychological landscapes of a woman from those of a man.’ (4) So Jane progresses through the Collective Unconscious with new friends, including Simone de Beauvoir and Joan of Arc, archetypes carefully selected to challenge the Anima/Animus divisions. Saxton makes her points further when Jane meets a philosopher’s dog called Merleau-Ponty. Jane comments on the name and finds her own name queried back for its implications of ‘the mate of an apeish type in the jungle.’ The charm of these encounters is a layering of unsubtle satire and deep allusion and nuance. Witty, pacey dialogue and introspection and analysis entwine comically as the down to earth, determined and intelligent red haired Jane completely fails to match the stereotype helpless ‘dumb blonde with enormous titties.’ She is a mother of three grown children, that rare middle aged SF heroine, and very much her own woman seeking to improve the lot of women but not representative of all. As she develops awareness she expands on this “Maybe if she met the right archetypes she could do something about overthrowing the oligarchy.”
Magdalene too is questing as a woman, though at least superficially hers is a personal question of self-identity as she translates through states of being defined by others, Dr Murgatroyd, her haplessly unfaithful husband Clive, the aliens and others. There’s an element of Housewife SF in Magdalene, albeit 70s middle class housewife. I’ve noted before that she is best imagined as Wendy Craig’s character Ria in the sitcom Butterflies rather than a working class heroine of the revolution. Magdalene has no children but like Jane she is a middle-aged woman, a challenge to existing SF characterisation of women. Both women ultimately reject their definition by men to assert theirselves.
Virginia Woolf famously said a woman needed ‘A Room Of Her Own.’ Josephine Saxton has taken two women shoved into an attic metaphorically by men and allowed both to make from that not just their own space, but crucially expanding on Woolf, a room of their own devising. Perhaps the strictly labelled parameters she said she wanted suspended were not merely of genres, but of genders and roles. Certainly this is an area explored when Jane returns in Jane Saint and the Backlash. Now Jane has a boyfriend, a ‘New man’ and is drifting, until she realises the battle and the quest aren’t done yet and returns to The Collective Unconscious for more travels and travails. Progress doesn’t have an end point and Jane must regroup and strive on. Again she meets significant archetypes, including the return of Mr Rochester the cat and Agatha Hardcastle the witch of Heptonstall. It is Agatha who in the end openly disputes the necessity of male/female attributes.
“Without male and female there can be no Alchemy.”
“So bleedin’ wot. I’ve been practicing Alchemy for thousands of years and where has it got me.” (5)
There’s a great comic streak throughout these short novels again despite Saxton referring in an introduction to ‘how funny women were viewed.’ It’s as though she’s exploring and challenging the assumptions of society, SF, philosophy and psychiatry all in one glorious free wheeling romp, and yet inside is a careful, thoughtful, analytical structured approach. Fantasy rooted deeply in the reality of our minds. “Time, unlike truth, appeared to be relative.” Jane thinks. Truth is the realism here, the fantasy highlights that.
1 The Travails of Jane Saint and Other Stories, The Women’s Press 1986 preface
2 Queen of the States, The Women’s Press 1985 p88
3 Deconstructing the Starships, Liverpool University Press 1999 p124
4 Jane Saint and the Backlash, The Women’s Press 1989 p2
5 Jane Saint and the Backlash p163-4