Today in Literary History – June 9, 1936 -British writer Nell Dunn is born

Nell Dunn, the British writer, was born on June 9, 1936.

Dunn’s fame comes from three controversial early books, Up the Junction, a book of short stories published in 1963, Talking to Women (1965), a book of conversations with women from “heiresses to factory workers” (both of which Dunn was) which is now a feminist classic, and Poor Cow a novel about a single mother published in 1967.

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I first came across Poor Cow in a used book shop a few years ago and have been a big fan of Dunn’s writing ever since.

Dunn’s characters are mostly female denizens of London’s underclass, struggling with economic insecurity and gendered oppression. Dunn portrays them with dignity, understanding, warmth, and humour.

Despite her lifelong immersion in the lives of working class women, Dunn’s own heritage is decidedly upper class.

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Her father, Sir Philip Dunn, was an eccentric aristocrat straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. On the one hand he wasn’t keen on educating girls (Dunn wasn’t taught to read or write until she was 9 years old) but on the other hand he believed that his daughter should discover and be able to pursue her own talents naturally on her own, without judgement.

Dunn’s grandfather, the Earl of Rosslyn, was the high stakes gambler who became famous as “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.” Dunn is also a descendant of King Charles II by his mistress Nell Gwyn.

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As a young woman Dunn left her comfortable, if unconventional, life and moved to a working class London neighbourhood and got a job in a factory. Originally, her move was just to live an “ordinary” life. She had no thought of “doing research” or looking for inspiration for writing. It was an organic development of her own interests. There is no hint that Dunn was “slumming.”

Her writing is nuanced and compassionate. Dunn is subtly political, but her storylines particularly the novel Poor Cow, with its heroine, Joy, a single mom with a husband in prison, are always based on personal lives as experienced in modern society.

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Dunn can write very humorously and directly from the perspectives of her characters and their choices (from back street abortions to romances with dodgy men) but she is never condescending and is always tender and true to her characters experieces of their world.

In the end, Dunn is both political and personal.

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