In 2012, when New York Review Books Classics began to reissue the best of Kingsley Amis’s books, a writer named Matthew Walther speculated about why the King had been out of print (with the exception of Lucky Jim) for so long. “Academic snobbery,” Walther wrote, “must also be inculpated: the Amis oeuvre tenaciously avoids subsumption into fashionable critical narratives, and Girl, 20 will never appear on an American college syllabus.” Put in plainer terms, the Amis oeuvre contains entirely too much casual sexism, misogyny, bigotry, and xenophobia, and too much not-so-casual drunkenness, for it ever to be allowed on campus. If certain works must come with “trigger warnings,” Amis’s novels call for something like the inscription proposed for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.
Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a novel less sexist or misogynistic, or one more relevant to today’s campus life, than Amis’s Take a Girl Like You (1960). It is a critique and condemnation of misogyny, a mirror held up to the reptilian male sexual appetite that Amis himself embodied. It shows us “mansplaining” avant la lettre (“she had guessed he was the sort who told you things”); manipulativeness fit to inspire the most experienced and noxious pickup artist; and a shocking violation.
The heroine of Take a Girl Like You is Jenny Bunn, a twenty-year-old schoolteacher and virgin. Its villain, the decade-older schoolmaster Patrick Standish, is the sort of “nasty man” who more often serves as the hero of an Amis novel. Yet Amis once masochistically called Patrick “the most unpleasant person I’ve ever written about.” One is reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s remark to Nancy Mitford, who asked him how someone as religious as he could also be so “wicked”: “You can’t imagine how much worse I should be if I were not religious.” Standish shows us by example, perhaps, how wicked Amis would have become without the self-critical apparatus of fiction writing.
The lone driver of the novel’s plot, such as it is, is Patrick’s desire to sleep with Jenny, in the face of her desire to remain a virgin until marriage. The novel alternates between their perspectives, beginning with Jenny’s as she arrives at the lodging-house where she will reside while teaching. Patrick, an acquaintance of Jenny’s landlord Dick Thompson, appears almost immediately, as if he had picked up her scent: “The look on his face was one which she had got used to seeing on men’s faces . . . when they first saw her. . . . Usually they seemed not to know they were giving her any particular kind of look, but this one did seem to know, and not to care much.” The attraction, despite what the reader guesses is Patrick’s alarmingly lupine aspect, is mutual.
But Jenny, of course, is out of her depth. She has come to teach near London following some presumably rather mild romantic trauma back home in the north country; wounded, vulnerable, and naïve, she finds herself in the way of still more aggressive predation. Over the novel’s course she will be pursued not only by the indefatigable Patrick but also by Patrick’s luckless-in-love friend, Graham McClintoch; by a wealthy bon vivant named Julian Ormerod; by Dick Thompson; and by Dick’s other lodger, the insufferable Anna Le Page. Martha, Dick’s wife, never provides Jenny an ounce of maternal succor, electing instead to make resentful insinuations about her sex life. Jenny is regarded chiefly as an object by practically everyone in the book.
In keeping with the sense that Jenny is a trophy, Patrick regards his pursuit of her as a game. It is a game played entirely with language—Patrick more or less lacking the resources to impress women in other ways—and it is sometimes comical, sometimes painful to behold. Even as she falls for Patrick, Jenny is a bit too bright for his shtick:
“Do you write all this stuff out beforehand and learn it off, or does it just come naturally and you make it up as you go along?”
“You see what it is, don’t you?” Patrick said to an invisible third person at their table. “These bloody girls, the ones of this sort of standing, naturally they’re getting the old line shot at them every day and twice on Sundays. So what happens? Of all classes in the community they least believe what they’re told, so when a poor sod comes along and tells them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth he just doesn’t get anywhere at all with them. The market’s been spoilt.”
At this Jenny thinks that “Patrick was cleverer than most in being able to use the idea that they were playing a game as an extra way of playing the game.” She finds Patrick’s strategy amusing, even endearing—but only up to a point. Whenever he is thwarted, Patrick’s blarney shades into lecturing, even hectoring, about how out of step Jenny is with the times and even with her own secret wishes. (“You’re a great one for knowing what people mean better than they do themselves, aren’t you?” she asks Patrick, in a rage.) He becomes cruel. Sometimes, but not always, he apologizes. Amis has this sort of Good Cop, Bad Cop routine down cold. By letting the reader experience it from Jenny’s point of view, Amis demonstrates that he knows how grating, manipulative, even abusive it really is.
Indeed, Patrick seems to consider himself a great one not only for knowing what people mean but for knowing what they want. Take the following attempt at browbeating Jenny into sex:
“There are two sorts of men today, those who do—you know what I mean—and those who don’t. All the ones you’re ever going to really like are the first sort, and all the ones those ideas of yours tell you you ought to have are the second sort. . . . There used to be a third sort, admitted. The sort that could, but didn’t—not with the girl he was going to marry, anyway. You’d have liked him all right, though, and he wouldn’t have given you any trouble trying to get you into bed before the day. The snag about him is he’s dead. He died in 1914 or thereabouts. He isn’t ever going to turn up, Jenny, that bloke with the manners and the respect and the honour and the bunches of flowers and the attraction.”
One suspects that Amis approves of this sentiment but disapproves, at least in principle, of browbeating women one is trying to seduce. He shows again and again how Patrick uses the advent of sexual liberation as a weapon with which to deprive, or to try to deprive, Jenny of free choice. His “you know you want it” rhetoric becomes first embarrassing, then creepy, then worse, with repetition. Today’s feminist would consider him at best “entitled,” at worst “rapey,” though she might find Jenny’s premarital chastity as pointless and off-putting as Patrick himself does. Which is to say that she would find herself, against all odds, in total agreement with the ostensibly boorish, drunken, woman-hating Kingsley Amis.
Take a Girl Like You is plainly not in favor of abstinence. Its epigraph alludes to the proverbial fate of old maids (they “lead apes in hell,” but good luck figuring out what that means). When bitter old Martha asks Jenny, “You don’t seriously mean you’re not sleeping with him, do you?,” she and the novel are implicitly aghast at Jenny for squandering the youth and beauty that the less fortunate would kill to possess. But Amis is very much in favor of Jenny’s self-determination. He presents her inner life in a way that invites precious little ridicule. She thinks hard about the motivations that lie behind her principles, and mistrusts them often enough that we can see she is not blindly cleaving to traditional notions of virtue.
The book is a great act of imaginative empathy. Amis knows what it is like to be a woman among bad men—some would just say men—because he so frequently was a scoundrel himself. He is sharp about how early and often women feel themselves “looked at” in unpleasant ways; about the idiotic lines used on them (“I could have sworn you were French. It’s the way you look.”); and about how their intelligence is belittled by the crude attempts to bully them into acting against their will. And Amis is well aware of the worst of what men do. After spending the bulk of his novel treating Patrick as an intermittently lovable rogue, he shows him to be capable of true and inexcusable brutality. No prizes for guessing how.
At first glance, this scene greatly complicates one’s reading of Take a Girl Like You. What are we to make of a book with so much trademark Amis humor—the colorfully rendered hangovers, the uproarious raillery against work and boredom, the vicious depictions of unbearable people—that ends in such a ghastly way? We are to take it, perhaps, as something relatively uncomplicated: a warning. Men, regardless of their finer points, can be dangerous. When it comes to sex, some of them can give in to baser instincts, just as they have always done in the context of countless other crimes and violence and rapine. It would be nice if this behavior could be bred out of the species, but it seems unlikely.
It is clear, reading old reviews of the novel, that what occurs at its conclusion was not universally understood as a rape. Today, it would be, and this is progress. But a change in perceptions of human behavior will not put an end to that behavior. Are the popular calls to “teach men not to rape” really just wishful thinking? The pessimistic among us may say so, and they may be right. But if the more modest goal is to teach young men to think seriously about how they regard and treat women—and to warn young women that not all men have been so instructed—there is perhaps no better tool than this by turns funny, disturbing, and ultimately heartbreaking book.