Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

“Ah, these continentals.”

It’s the swinging 60s when twenty-year-old teacher Jenny Bunn moves to London from the North of England, leaving behind her family and an ex-boyfriend who laid siege to her virginity and failed. It’s a fresh start that Jenny is after, but while the location has changed and the men have different faces, the focus is the same. Think poor little innocent Jenny Bunn (and what a great name that is) flailing in the treacherous waters of London while circled by a number of sharkish predatory males all determined to strip Jenny of her virginity. They each have their own M.O., some are more successful than others, but arguably the most practiced, and the most vigorous male in pursuit of Jenny is Patrick Standish.

take a girlJenny rooms in a home owned by Mr and Mrs. Thompson and the other young woman who lives there, the French Anna le Page, is Patrick’s most recent lover, and add to that drama the fact that while Mr Thompson is clueless, there’s definitely some amorous vibes headed towards Patrick from the waspish Mrs Thompson. Meanwhile, the high-maintenance (in Patrick’s opinion) Anna le Page seems to be launching into an experimental phase when she grabs Jenny and kisses her on the lips. Poor Jenny takes her dating tips from the outmoded Woman’s Domain which is sadly amusing if you think about it. This is the stuff of sexual farce, and while parts of the book are very funny indeed, I’ve never found the losing of virginity a subject of interest or of fun, and in the case of Jenny, a lamb thrown to the wolves, it’s occasionally painful to read of the way she fights off various assaults. The girl needs to carry a taser.

Ideas about her, she had had to learn, were liable to be got by any man she might nowadays meet. She considered she had led a fairly normal life until she was fifteen or so. She had had friends who were girls and friends who were boys, and she had known quite a few older, married people of both sexes, most of whom were nice to her in the ordinary way. And then quite suddenly, just over the weekend as it were, the whole set-up had changed. All at once there were men everywhere. Men turned up in large numbers on public transport, especially after dark–there were always more of them then; they fairly thronged the streets; they served and waited to be served in shops; the cinemas were packed out with them; they came to the front door selling brushes and encyclopedias; some of them had even penetrated into the Training College. Men had begun not only to get ideas about her in passing, but in a fair number of cases to stay on the spot and get going on putting those ideas into practice, A fair number of the fair number of cases had been rather surprising ones by reason of the age, married status, or general dignity of the man concerned. At least they had surprised Jenny to start with.

A good example of it all had been when she was coming home from school one day and the bus-conductor had tried hard to hold her hand instead of giving her change.

Here’s one of the funniest parts in the book when Jenny meets Patrick for the first time and he thinks she’s a friend of Anna le Page because, to him, Jenny ‘looks French.’

‘Well, I’m not,’ Jenny said positively, ‘I’m English.’ She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or–once each–Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had even been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her, and on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: ‘I’m awfully sorry, I thought you were French’ What could it be like to actually live in France?

While the male characters are a sorry, sex-mad bunch, Patrick is arguably the sleaziest of the lot. He grasps the fact that Jenny is not the sort of girl who can handle a quick, non-committal fumble under the sheets and yet he can’t help himself, plying her with alcohol, and guiding her into his flat in case she tries to “make a break for it.” While the novel includes a few female predatory characters, it’s the males who are seen in the most unpleasant light, so there are plenty of sexist discussions amongst the male characters that are guaranteed to offend (and occasionally bludgeon) a modern audience. The sexism of the male characters who acknowledge they prefer their females “docile” is not necessarily a charge I’d lay at the author’s feet. Amis seems rather fond of Jenny Bunn, and certainly she’s recognized as a wonderful character.

Getting through Take a Girl Like You was a bit of a slog due to several sluggish sections and its dated themes. A lot of the book’s humour comes from Jenny’s innocence and sweetness when it’s contrasted with those who surround her, but this humour only works when naiveté works as a protective sheaf, and while this is definitely true for a great deal of the novel, the humour doesn’t work when Jenny just doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, is plied with drinks, and on more than one occasion lands into a series of sticky situations. Of course, Take a Girl Like You was published in 1960, when attitudes towards women, the treatment of women, sexuality and sexual consent were vastly different–and that’s putting it mildly. So while the book was being read for the first time, it must have seemed to be “incendiary stuff,” to quote the Observer. Now the book seems dated and at some points offensive–particularly for its disappointing ending.  For a modern audience, it’s very difficult to imagine the dating scene of the swinging 60s, what was ok and what wasn’t, but I worked with someone years ago who was married with children when the 60s hit. He told me that when he was a young man, you dated someone and then if it worked, you married them–with his family background, premarital sex was never on the table. When the 60s hit, he said it was like someone ‘threw open the door to the candy store.’ There’s that sense in Take a Girl Like You–the doors are wide open, but Jenny, in a world where love is hopelessly tangled with sex, isn’t ready to move through those doors. She’s hanging onto her principles of waiting for marriage before having sex.

At one point, Patrick in a rare moment of insight chews over his actions against a “humble, defenceless little thing like Jenny,” while feeling amazed that he is the same man who mooned over a girl “fifteen or sixteen years ago” hoping that she’d just look his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Amis views his characters as they approach the disillusionments of middle age in the sequel Difficulties with Girls.

 

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17 Comments

Filed under Amis, Kingsley, Fiction

17 responses to “Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

  1. An excellent review and well done for getting past the stodge to give us a feel of Jenny’s innocence.

  2. Great idea to look back on those supposed risqué books from today’s vantage point. Makes me wonder how The L-shaped Room would stand the test of time

  3. Great review, Guy. I recall reading this novel in the mid-eighties, and it felt dated then. Very much of its time I think.

  4. This does indeed sound dated

    It sounds like it would be of interest as historical and sociological view of the past.

    Interesting that the author wrote a sequel years later. Sometimes that does work very well.

  5. I don’t think the loss of virginity is that funny and it sounds dated.Not the first of his novels I would pick. Those prejudices regardning countries haven’t changed all that much though.

  6. I’ve read a couple by Kingsley, and he can be funny in a very unreconstructed way. I don’t think he’s one you can take a blanket approach to though: you have to be choosy.

    • I had planned to read everything I could be Kingsley Amis, and even though I struggled with this one at times, I’ll have to read the sequel in order to see what the author does with Jenny.

  7. Alfie (the film) holds up well in part because it’s a study of loneliness and because Alfie is ultimately so self-destructive. This does sound dated, and the obsession with virginity a bit creepy. I’ll be interested to see how you see the sequel.

    What is interesting is it does sound like his sympathies are decidedly with Jenny, so it doesn’t sound like it’s objectifying her. More holding a mirror up to many of his own readers as to how their behaviour toward women might look from outside.

    • I see a lot of comments/reviews about Amis’s sexism and yet at the same time, as you say, the author’s sympathies are with Jenny. Patrick knows better but plunges ahead away justifying what he does even though he’s cognizant of the fact that Jenny is something special. That’s why I want to read the sequel as I want to see if there’s any growth whatsoever from Patrick.

  8. I remember being absolutely revolted when I read this. You may be a bit optimistic about Kinger’s capacity for insight into the true vileness of his male characters, given his subsequent books. But I do remember a very astute remark in this one by Graham, the unattractive admirer Jenny tries to set up with an unattractive girl. thinking she’s being kind to both. He says something like, “Plain men want beautiful girls just like handsome men do.”

    And he did give us Lucky Jim, after all.

  9. I don’t know why, but I missed this review and just retrieved it from the bottom of my mail box.

    Now I wonder, how does someone “look French”?

    That said, two French expressions come to my mind when I read your description of Jenny : Sainte-Nitouche and Vierge effarouchée. According to the dictionary it would be “goody-two-shoes” for the first one and the other one doesn’t have an exact translation but could be “frightened virgin” except that in French it’s ironic)

    Too bad it sounds dated now, Amis has a wonderful sense of humour.
    I guess nowadays, Patrick would be a who would convince Jenny to throw away her virginity for experimenting kinky stuff. Pff. Do we have to be pleased with this change?
    At least Amis has style.

    • Well the girl looked French enough that Patrick thought he could take liberties which raises even more questions. He might have assumed she was French since she was living in the same house as a French lodger.

      Anyway this one was a disappointment. Many readers saw Patrick’s behaviour as a manifestation of Amis’s sexism, but I don’t agree. Amis realises that jenny is too fine a human being for Patrick. I will read the sequel.

      PS I think you’re right about how Jenny would be portrayed these days. Fifty Shades of whatnot.

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