A Progenitor of Second-Wave Feminism: On Selina Todd’s “Tastes of Honey”

By Simon LeeAugust 21, 2020

A Progenitor of Second-Wave Feminism: On Selina Todd’s “Tastes of Honey”

Tastes of Honey by Selina Todd

IN A MOMENT when various individuals and corporations fetishize class, there is a greater need for authentic representation. Working-class culture, frequently romanticized as a monolithic set of values and experiences, offers a chimera of stability in a world where stability is in short supply. Regardless, a cultural investment in portrayals of working-class life remains strong, specifically portrayals that extend a sense of comfort through images of resilience and perseverance. Often, cultural reproductions so heavily mediate these portrayals that engineered pathos sweep aside any legible sense of working-class values. As a result, credible and legitimate portrayals of working-class life are hard to come by.

In the 1958 play A Taste of Honey, Jo announces to her surrogate spouse, Geof, “There’s only one of me like there’s only one of you.” Yet, when Geof asks about the mercurial nature of her uninhibited and negligent mother, Jo responds that, “She’s all sorts of woman.” This is a moment of particular interest when considering Selina Todd’s new biography of the play’s author, Shelagh Delaney. In a cultural moment that fetishizes identities like Delaney’s, there is a heightened need for dependable representation. As such, questions emerge as to which is the most authoritative: the life reconstructed in biographical form or the life that persists as part of its cultural legacy?

Todd’s new book on Delaney presents a distinct perspective on a venerated author by adjusting the lens to refocus her influence. Tastes of Honey takes the dearth of information available about the writer — primarily her slender body of work alongside a handful of interviews and news clippings — and introduces a range of new sources, primarily interviews with friends and family members who knew her well. Todd is particularly invested in repositioning Delaney as a paragon of feminism, specifically the second-wave feminism of the 1970s. But the question remains: to what degree is this authentic to Delaney? Todd’s repositioning assumes an authoritative stance because of its biographical form. As a result, Tastes of Honey makes a strong claim about its subject, but the book’s relative success or failure can be gauged by how well Delaney supports that claim.

Delaney is most known for the aforementioned play, A Taste of Honey, which drew significant attention at the time of its release and sustained a notable legacy with assistance from Tony Richardson’s 1961 film adaptation. The play addressed a range of then-controversial social taboos with unflinching candor — prostitution, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, and interracial marriage. But Delaney’s early career also includes a second play, 1960’s The Lion in Love, and 1963’s short story collection Sweetly Sings the Donkey.

In the following decade or so, she went on to write scripts for the BBC’s Z Cars, a screenplay for Lindsay Anderson’s 1967 film The White Bus, and a script for the 1968 comedy Charlie Bubbles. She wrote a BBC series called The House That Jack Built in 1977, the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger, and penned a handful of radio plays in the mid-2000s. While Todd implores us to think of Delaney as more than just the playwright of A Taste of Honey, as the title of her book confirms, it is her magnum opus, largely due to the time and circumstances of its release. Although Tastes of Honey offers an ample overview of Delaney’s early life and career, there are considerable omissions in the coverage of her later life. These omissions are masked by a pugilistic case about Delaney’s brand of feminism.

In 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger transformed the British arts by making space for previously marginalized voices. The moment was particularly dynamic, marked by fundamental changes in culture that augmented the significance of texts produced during this time. Often aligned with “kitchen sink realism” — a term stemming from art critic David Sylvester’s review of paintings by the Beaux Arts Quartet — texts like A Taste of Honey explored topics of social class, taboo, and the way that place informs identity. The movement was also known for its representations of “the angry young man” — a figure loosely structured around what Colin Wilson defined as an existential outsider, one whose frustration with post–World War II Britain was expressed through both active and passive aggression.

In terms of technical proficiency, Delaney’s play was hardly masterful: a rudimentary plot with simple devices and characterization. For the production, Joan Littlewood, the director of London’s Theatre Workshop, chiseled it into a working form with help from the original cast. Yet, despite its naïveté, A Taste of Honey is heralded as one of the pivotal texts of the period alongside Osborne’s play and Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Todd comments that Delaney rarely offered neat solutions or coherent strategies for change in her work, but in the case of A Taste of Honey, such a claim is arguable. Whereas Look Back in Anger articulated a particular problem in society (disenfranchisement), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning weighed possible responses (acquiescence or rebellion), Delaney provided the most viable alternative — a radical queering of social and domestic norms.

While the dynamism that energized the moment was fueled by a number of social disruptions, one of the more prominent events underway at the time of the play’s release was a notable change in gender roles. In fact, “angry young men” were particularly enraged by their perceived displacement in society as women gained access to new forms of employment and traditional domestic roles were challenged. Delaney’s play captured this shift well, although it does not comment on the phenomenon openly. Instead, the impact is understood through the protagonist’s relative independence and her ability to secure work and a flat of her own while pregnant at 16.

Although the “kitchen” from the movement’s moniker refers to the mundane interiors examined in Sylvester’s 1954 essay on the Beaux Arts Quartet, proximity to the kitchen also speaks to the role of the home — especially the home’s role in upholding a sense of working-class cultural pride. Writers like Delaney as well as Nell Dunn (perhaps the only other “active” female writer associated with the movement) offered notably gendered perspectives on domesticity while safeguarding many of the aesthetic and ethical principles that were mainstays of the movement. Texts by and about women often played key roles in effecting tangible social change at the time, and A Taste of Honey articulated new ways of being a working-class woman in a shifting environment.

In Rebel Writers: The Accidental Feminists, Celia Brayfield offers a succinct overview of the author’s life, arguing that women writers like Delaney subversively laid the groundwork for future feminist projects. Despite her proximity to an otherwise androcentric and misogynistic genre, few would ever question that Delaney’s work is anything other than powerfully feminist. Todd, however, argues that “her feminist perspective was either ignored or treated as controversial.” Tastes of Honey takes this notion as its guiding principle, claiming to draw a clear line of affiliation between the author and second-wave politics. Todd’s desire to link Delaney to the second wave via a litany of academic references and parallels with feminist scholars is certainly one consideration, but one might also argue that Delaney’s politics are less institutional, less direct, and more anarchic and irreverent.

In fact, Tastes of Honey supports this very position through interviews with close friends. One friend, Shirley Evans, recalls Delaney as “openly contemptuous of the conservative ideals held out to young women. ‘She would say things to get a reaction.’” And perhaps this is where Tastes of Honey’s argument flounders the most. One might argue that Delaney’s politics are spontaneous and unstructured whereas Todd suggests something much more strategic and methodical. Consideration of this point raises, once more, the question of legitimate portrayal, specifically whether Todd captures an authentic Delaney or whether she recreates her in her own ideological likeness.

Tastes of Honey is structured chronologically, bookended by chapters that highlight Delaney’s legacy. Early chapters tend to her family life as the daughter of a municipal bus driver and factory worker, offering insight into the homes that the family inhabited after her birth. They also highlight the family’s move to a post–World War II council estate, specifically to the house where the young author wrote A Taste of Honey. Early chapters also cover Delaney’s bout with osteomyelitis and her recovery at a children’s convalescent home in Lytham St Annes, a time that Todd frames as instrumental in shaping Delaney’s independent streak. During these school years, her teachers encouraged her to write, enabling her writing to gain traction.

Todd allocates three consecutive chapters to A Taste of Honey, beginning with a chapter outlining the cultural context, Delaney’s penchant for Salford vernacular, and the development of the original script into a successful stage play. The book recounts well-known details about the play’s inception, such as her initial motivation to write from attending a 1958 performance of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme and declaring that she could “do better.” But what works particularly well here is Todd’s analysis of the now-famous letter that Delaney sent to Joan Littlewood in April 1958. The letter reads as though written by a meek ingénue brimming with aspiration and drive. Todd argues that Delaney wrote the letter as an orchestrated deception: “a carefully crafted self-portrait, one that offered Joan a pliable provincial protégée.” Critics have noted how the letter’s claim that “I know so very little about the theatre” reflects the author’s minimal exposure to the medium. But, for Todd, it connotes prudence and calculated planning. While this seems at odds with Delaney’s skill as a young writer, as well as with the submissive persona evident in some of her interviews, it is a fascinating suggestion that certainly offers Todd a viable springboard from which to launch the remainder of her argument.

Similarly, Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop responded by sensationalizing Delaney’s working-class backstory with press materials for A Taste of Honey listing her as a factory worker when, in fact, her work up to that point had been more clerical. While Todd initially refutes claims that Littlewood “fixed” Delaney’s manuscript, the second section allocated to A Taste of Honey outlines a slew of changes the producer made to render the play more commercially viable. This part of the book is particularly fascinating in that Todd cites much of Delaney’s original manuscript, which shows how the author’s original treatment of homosexuality and race was more provocative than the final product. Much of the chapter is dedicated to summarizing a number of the attacks Delaney faced, from both critics and Salford residents who felt that the town was poorly represented. Subsequent chapters offer insight into Delaney’s follow-up play, The Lion in Love, specifically noting its rejection by Littlewood and its relative failure as both play and production. Todd at times agrees with Littlewood and others that the follow-up suffered from serious flaws, but also suggests that its flaws can be blamed on the pressure of having to live up to A Taste of Honey’s success in addition to the kind of limits placed on women and working-class people.

Despite the heavy focus on A Taste of Honey, Todd insists that Delaney was more than just the author of a singularly successful play. Yet, the book’s coverage of her later work is far less thorough, touching on key points but lacking in detail by comparison. For example, one particular chapter attempts to cover her experience in the United States following the development of Tony Richardson’s Broadway production of A Taste of Honey, the development and global reach of the film adaptation, the development of the short story collection, Sweetly Sings the Donkey, as well as her relationship and pregnancy with the then-married comedy writer Harvey Orkin. The vastness of this chapter’s topics covered in such a short space renders some of Delaney’s most significant life events perfunctory.

The penultimate chapter barrels through 30-odd years of Delaney’s life in a similarly deficient manner, with the narrative taken at such speed that events seem entirely disregarded. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the closing section, albeit rushed, is a discussion of the network of female friends that Delaney developed later in life. This coincides with her becoming a grandmother, her ensuing financial struggles, and, inevitably, the cancer diagnosis that would kill her in 2011. In a statement in the closing acknowledgments, Todd notes that Delaney “habitually burned or threw away personal papers and photographs — partly because she was so protective of her privacy, and partly because she found grand gestures cathartic after falling out with relatives, friends or lovers.” It is hard to read Tastes of Honey and not feel like there is still so much of Delaney’s life we do not know about. But her slight output, reclusive persona, and the apparent destruction of her own archives suggests that Todd had little to work with.

Perhaps by way of the fact that no other biography of Delaney exists, Tastes of Honey can be considered definitive and authoritative. John Harding’s Sweetly Sings Delaney from 2014 offers a rich overview of Delaney’s early life as well as close readings of the first decade of her work, but Tastes of Honey presents itself as much more complete. Todd’s research offers a variety of fascinating tidbits about Delaney — some of which have, up until this point, remained unexplored. For instance, the reader is treated to a range of perspectives from old schoolmates and individuals who knew Delaney in her youth. Here, Todd presents a revitalized image of Delaney that seems more playful and impulsive — an image of a young woman who is more than happy to blow her first major royalty check on a sports car that she does not have a license to drive. Todd’s text succeeds in illuminating Delaney’s independent spirit, often highlighting moments in which the author seems particularly acquiescent or submissive and reframing them as a kind of strategic, directed agenda.

Yet, the biography also seems to skimp on biographical necessities because so much effort goes into branding Delaney as a second-wave precursor. It is hard not to wonder if the book would have perhaps worked better as a traditional argument-driven analysis of an author rather than as an authoritative biography. Todd’s through-line is that Delaney should be read not just as a feminist (an irrefutable starting point) but as one linked more to institutional, academic forms of feminist practice. In order to convince her reader of this, Todd floods the biography with citations and references to a slew of feminist scholars and critics often unrelated to Delaney or her work, the insinuation being that their worldviews are sympathetically aligned and, therefore, ideologically commensurate. This approach proves questionable as, far too often, the parallels drawn are arbitrary at best.

For instance, Todd writes,

When The House That Jack Built appeared on the New York stage in 1979, Delaney was there to see it. The production brought her to the attention of a new generation of American feminists, who were like their British counterparts, questioning whether monogamy, and even heterosexuality, could fulfill women. Delaney had no interest in women’s consciousness-raising groups back home, many of which were located in the gentrified London neighborhoods she disliked.

Why would Delaney’s supposed disinterest in gentrified parts of London prevent her from other forms of involvement? None of this is accounted for in the coverage of Delaney’s life, and Todd’s argument falls back on such non sequiturs with a startling frequency. As the result, Tastes of Honey reads a bit like a projection of the author’s own politics, reframing Delaney’s particular feminism as one closer to her own.

While Todd attempts to position Delaney as a programmatic, tactical writer — one to which second-wave feminists owe a debt of gratitude — Delaney’s work and the few interviews that we have of her suggest a much more anarchic, antagonistic approach to the feminist cause. Rather than the institutional form of feminism Todd depicts in the book, Delaney’s feminism seems more likely a precursor to 1970s punk rock through its raw, unencumbered, and largely confrontational tone.

The result is that Todd’s attempts to yoke Delaney to 1970s feminists also come off as forced. As the book concludes, the focus continues to move away from Delaney herself toward a range of divergent figures, many of whom seem to have little connection to Delaney’s life, suggesting once more that this biography has a different agenda in mind. The British academic Carolyn Steedman, for example, makes a series of appearances despite her not appearing to have any meaningful connection to Delaney’s biography. There are also cameos from feminist scholars such as Lorna Sage, Hannah Gavron, Dee Johnson, Lynne Segal, none of whom seem to play a role in Delaney’s life.

Todd also references the British academic Richard Hoggart no fewer than 18 times, often implying that Delaney knew his work and wrote in response. As Sue Owen noted in her essay “Hoggart and Women,” Hoggart’s pioneering work The Uses of Literacy was frequently criticized by second-wave feminists, but the criticism was consistently based on bad-faith interpretations or straw-man fallacies. That is also case of Todd’s treatment of Hoggart in Tastes of Honey. While the decision to include so many disparate voices and questionable approaches is clear — to shackle Delaney to a specific brand of second-wave politics — the effect is rendered insincere, thus detracting from the book’s function and leaving the reader wondering why so much of Delaney’s own life story remains absent.

Tastes of Honey closes with Todd’s acknowledgment of “two feminists who have regularly reminded me why writing about women’s lives matters.” She adds, “The period during which I have written this book has been one of constant attacks on women’s rights.” Todd herself has become somewhat of a lightning rod of controversy as one of the more prominent figures of “gender critical” feminism — otherwise known as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists,” a movement that sprang from 1970s second-wave feminist politics. But the question remains: given the unmitigated queerness of her original play, where might Delaney herself stand on such a topic? While Tastes of Honey tries to make the case that she would be right at home alongside such ideas, Delaney’s irreverence and instinctive writing feels much less programmatic and methodical. The result is a biography that, while frequently fascinating due to its subject, feels disingenuous in its mania to bind a clearly feminist author to an aspect of feminist politics seemingly incommensurate with the values exemplified by her work.


Simon Lee is assistant professor of English at Texas State University.

LARB Contributor

Simon Lee is assistant professor of English at Texas State University. He researches and writes about British literature and culture, specifically on the intersections of space, identity, and working-class culture. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin.


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