Rural Wairarapa, NZ. Image: Getty Images.

Remembering the sensational, ‘filthy’ first novel by Fiona Kidman

Last week, Dame Fiona Kidman won the 2019 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for her eleventh novel. Her first, A Breed of Women, was published 40 years ago in 1979. Here, you can read the opening chapter. 

A Breed of Women is a frank portrayal of what it was like to be a woman in small-town New Zealand. It sold its socks off after being deemed too raunchy by libraries and schools and Kidman was dubbed “filthy Fiona Kidman”. Overwhelming, she told Judy Bailey last year: “I felt embarrassed for my family. The aunts and uncles were deeply shocked. It was very painful. It was as if I’d let the family down.” 

HARRIET WOKE THAT morning full of fantasies, because the sun was shining. It was an unexpected gift — the worst had been promised for the day, sleet, hail, southerly winds, yet here it was amazingly shining and bright. This is the day I stop drinking, she told herself, today I shall lose weight, be better understood by my lover and by my husband; today I shall undertake something new and significant in my life.

And then the wind turned, and the cold began again; there were deep blue shadows on the hills soon after noon, and it had to be acknowledged that it was indeed winter. She was sad. The summer had been so splendid, one of the best she had known in years, but somehow autumn had dissipated all its promise. It would have been good to resurrect something of the season, just to save some passing joy that one could look back on, and say that was the autumn of 1978. But it would not be so.

She felt absurdly naive and gauche all of a sudden; the day before, she had spoken to Michael on the phone, and he often made her feel like this. When they were in a restaurant together she would feel suddenly clumsy, as if she might make a mistake with the cutlery, or do something silly and embarrassing. She had never had trouble with her knives and forks before.

But then she had never had a young lover either. She was clever with older men. For years they had been grateful that a younger woman would take trouble over them and she had flattered them by her presence. Often she had told herself that she would never have a younger man — they were silly and immature. Now she was grateful and yearning and obsessed, and this had reduced her to a tender helplessness; she longed to ask him if she pleased him, but her pride stopped her.

Image: Getty Images.

Yesterday’s phone call had again made her vulnerable and awkward. He had phoned her. It was good to be able to say that he had phoned, because it reinstated her. The truth was that she had rung him first, but he’d been busy; there were always people around him. He had asked if he could ring back in half an hour and when she had said yes, she had waited by the phone. It had rung on the half hour, for he was punctilious, courteous and totally reliable about the things he said he would do. It was just that now he said less often that he would do anything at all. She would tell whoever was interested that he had rung her to say goodbye, that he wouldn’t be able to see her before he went abroad, and that she should take very good care of herself while he was away; it would be some months before he would be able to see her.

But she knew, she knew, that she had made the first move once again. Girls telephoned her son; it seemed that all the girls rang the boys nowadays and it was quite the teen, and pre-teen, thing. Her generation would never have done it.

She did, though. She rang Michael on absurd pretexts, and waited, sick, for his voice, passing through his firm’s switchboard, through his secretary’s cool and measured tones. She said ‘Hullo, Michael, it’s me, Harriet’, and he would sound pleased, warm, but moderate, and she would find herself being sarcastic and cooler, indifferent and harsh. He rings me, she said, and I’m cruel to him, I don’t know why. But she did know. It was because she had behaved like her teenage children, and rung him, and he had had to ring back, and she had thought of the summer, when he used to ring her on his own initiative. That was how she came to feel so silly.

This time had been different, though, because he really was going to be away all winter. She really had said goodbye to him, and there was no knowing whether she would see him again in the spring, or the summer to follow. He had said that she would, and because he was reliable she believed him, but there was still the winter to get through on her own.

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As she lay awake in the darkness on the night before the sun, her husband woke beside her and said, ‘I’ll always look after you.’ She was at once cold with fear, and she lay there wondering what to say to him, certain that he must know something of the dark inner life she contained within herself. Had he heard her talking to Michael? Could someone have told him? She lay by his side, hands clenched in panic, certain that some frightening and committing conversation was about to ensue. But he rolled over and began to snore; whatever dream had awakened him seemed to have receded.

When the day dawned with cloudless skies and not a breath of wind, she was thankful and thought, this is a rebirth. I am about to begin again. When he returns I will be different, self-contained, able to cope as I have always done.

The cold struck, she poured a sherry and watched the sky grow dark.

Extracted from A Breed of Women by Fiona Kidman, published by Random House NZ. 


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