With her new novel, When We Lost Our Heads, Heather O’Neill explores “femininity as an agent of terror”
A great novel can be an escape from real events that aren’t great. It can also be a lens through which to see them. The new novel by Montreal author Heather O’Neill, When we lost our minds, does both. It is about friendship and love between women, but also about revolution: oppressed women from the lower classes rise up.
Set in late 19th century Montreal to begin with, the novel was conceived in the MeToo/TimesUp era, written in part during the pandemic, and published in early February, when a different kind of social unrest was raging a few hours later. late. road to Ottawa.
“He was definitely enlightened by this idea of young women coming together and forming this collective voice and this entity that suddenly became very powerful and terrifying,” O’Neill said, in a recent interview from Montreal. Terrifying, she says, for some men.
It’s a novel full of women, where men only play peripheral roles. It would pass the Bechdel test, which tracks the portrayal of women in fiction: how many are characters in themselves, with real names, as opposed to the appendages of the main male characters – girlfriends, wives, hired helpers.
“I had this idea of writing this novel – and I didn’t even know how it would be – if there were no men. If no men entered the picture and how their lives would kind of unfold and how full they could be,” O’Neill says.
The novel centers on two women who form a deep and important friendship, which sours after a devastating event – and then turns into something else. They are raised in a neighborhood called the Golden Mile, based on Montreal’s historic Golden Square Mile, with its mansions at the foot of Mount Royal. Composed by O’Neill for this book is a name for its riverside counterpart where the lower classes live in filthy poverty: the Squalid Mile.
Marie Antoine is the beautiful blonde daughter of a wealthy sugar magnate. His silhouette appears on sacks of sugar produced in the family factory, where poorly paid workers – including children – are known to lose fingers to Industrial Revolution-era machinery. Her dead mother, Marie is raised by her adored father and a revolving door of maids.
Sadie Arnett is the unloved daughter of a politically ambitious but financially troubled family. Her mother is indifferent to her, her brother despises her, her father is only interested in her political career. Sadie gets lost in the books – reading them, writing them.
Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett: Marie Antoinette and a Marquise de Sade.
Sadie would become famous as an adult by writing erotica. Marie will find infamy, having inherited the factory from her father. Determined to prove herself in business, she does not improve the deplorable conditions of her workers.
“She kind of shows everything that’s wrong with this skinny feminism,” O’Neill says, of Marie. “You just act like a guy. … Aren’t you supposed to destroy the patriarchy and make things better?
Other main characters include Mary Robespierre, the poor daughter of an Antoine family maid. And George, an androgynous woman of unknown parentage, who lives in the brothel where Sadie takes refuge and writes a successful pornographic novel. Also Jeanne-Pauline, a pharmacist who helps women cope with difficulties – such as abusive husbands – through medicine.
“I looked at femininity as an agent of terror,” O’Neill says. “Girls being girls.”
In this novel, women do things for themselves – and for other women. Throughout are poignant and quietly feminist contemplations and exchanges.
“I read The Lady of ShalottSadie tells Marie when they first meet in a park. “It’s really ridiculous what women do for men.”
O’Neill wasn’t quite a teenager when she had her first exposure to erotica. In the building where she lived with her father, another tenant was a book hoarder. He often left Victorian pornography on the building’s stairs.
“I didn’t have any guides on what to read, so I read whatever I found,” says O’Neill, who was 11 or 12 at the time. “So I came across this Victorian pornography, which I confused with Victorian novels and I was like, whoa, look at this. And I brought it home and of course I became obsessed with it. And I was like, I can’t believe you can read and reading excites you.
In her research for this novel, O’Neill dug deep into the lives of Victorian women and found a few doozies. She reports learning that in Victorian England a man who cheated on his wife could be charged with adultery. A wife who cheated on her husband could be charged with adultery – and treason.
In Montreal at this time, young girls were in demand for factory work – not only because they could be paid less than others (even less than boys), but they served another purpose. “Because little girls are so nimble and small, they would be able to jump between machines and fix them,” O’Neill says. “They took that exquisite quality that little girls have – it’s so beautiful to see them move – and then exploited it for capitalism.”
O’Neill’s research helped her pin down the details of women’s lives at that time: how they went to the bathroom, managed their periods. But she also discovered horrors. In some of Montreal’s poorest neighborhoods, the infant mortality rate reached a staggering 50%.
This caused O’Neill to reflect on what motherhood would have meant at the time: the possibility of loss so widespread that maternal experience became another kind of animal; one where it could just be about pregnancy, childbirth, and bereavement.
“You wanted to have a baby, but you didn’t really know if it was going to grow,” O’Neill says. “It may well exist entirely in this small, temporary experience of the world.”
O’Neill is the award-winning author of four previous works of fiction, beginning with Lullabies for petty criminalswhich was published in 2006. In the complex fictional worlds created by O’Neill, including in When we lost our mindsmothers are largely absent.
It’s a plot detail straight out of O’Neill’s own life. O’Neill, 48, was raised by her father after her mother left when she was 7.
“I just have this weird thing about mothers,” O’Neill says. “I remember when I returned Hotel of the Lonely Hearts, [editor] Jennifer Lambert was like ‘oh I see; another book with characters without mothers. And I was like, oh my God I forgot; I always forget that they should have mothers.
O’Neill had her daughter, Arizona, when she was just 20. They are very close. But she says she found motherhood to be a traumatic experience.
“I just couldn’t believe what it was like to be a mother in society, how difficult it was and the type of sacrifice. So I’ve always viewed motherhood as something horrible that happens to a woman’s agency and autonomy.
It’s a question explored in the book: how motherhood changes everything, not necessarily for the better. Another detail that struck O’Neill in his research: sex workers at the time were in better health, had a better quality of life and a better life expectancy than their peers who had children.
“The mothers were at the bottom of the barrel; having children would completely exhaust you. It was such an interesting detail for me. It was like wow if anything if you live in the Squalid Mile there’s just no way to have a child and do it in a way that doesn’t completely consume you and you trapped in this poverty.
One way to bring about change, the book seems to suggest, is for women to team up. Early on, the smart Sadie told Marie that she didn’t think she could have a friend until she started hanging out with Marie. “It makes me think more creatively.”
During our talk, O’Neill and I talked about society’s lack of emphasis and attention to what is truly a crucial and central life experience: our friendships.
“It’s just something you’re supposed to do as a kid until the men come along. And then there’s so much information: how do you find a man and how do you get him to stay?” O’Neill said. “Oh my God; why not worry about our friends? These friendships are so based on similar interests and passions.
When the novel was published in early February, car horns were blaring and flags were flying in the capital; demonstrators who claim. Not women demanding equal pay or an end to physical abuse or the ability to vote – but the so-called Freedom Convoy demanding an end to vaccine passports, with their hot tubs, bouncy castles and big devices.
My nose in O’Neill’s book, reading stories of women fighting for basic life and death rights that were denied to them, it was easy to dismiss what was happening in real time as less important. But also – it became possible to forget about it.
I thanked O’Neill for that, for providing me with a different world to escape to – even if that world itself was flawed, wicked and awful.
She said that’s one of the things she finds interesting about reading fiction. “It kind of subverts this groupthink that goes on. Because you get into novels and it’s this other kind of unique space that doesn’t necessarily talk about the topic of the day and just repeats the tagline of the day,” she said. “And it just reminds us of larger issues and that we are individuals – and we can think for ourselves.”
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