Francesca Beauman, writer, comedian, mother, is sitting in an Islington gastropub, eating goat’s cheese salad and explaining the etiquette of group sex.
“You mustn’t hog the best-looking person,” she explains in penetrating tones. “And you have to make sure everyone feels included. If you don’t fancy someone who approaches you, what you say is, ‘We’re OK, thanks.’”
I can feel myself getting slightly hot under the collar, but luckily the yummy mummies at the next table don’t seem to have heard. Or perhaps they simply agree with her, because according to Beauman, this sort of thing is part and parcel of the social scene nowadays.
Knowing exactly how to behave when, at a dinner party, the guests are expected to get very friendly (the accepted phrase is apparently a subtle “How about it?”) is just one of the nuggets of vital information to be gleaned from Beauman’s latest work, The Woman’s Book, an eclectic and entertaining collection of useful and not so useful facts – from the techniques for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and putting up a tent in the dark, to an analysis of Kate Moss’s hairdos over the years.
What you won’t find in here are the stock ingredients for a women’s style guide, as epitomised by the recent How to Walk in High Heels and The Goddess Guide. There is precious little about make-up or fashion, and nothing about keeping your man happy (unless you count the group sex).
“I just think those books are depressing,” Beauman confesses of her rivals. “They’re terribly aspirational, but they make women feel inadequate. And they’re a bit snobby; they assume all women can afford to blow £500 on a pair of Manolos. Even if you could afford to, why would you want to? Why wouldn’t you buy a beehive instead? Women aren’t just interested in bras and boyfriends.”
So her advice for brides-to-be is to be inspired by Marie Curie rather than Posh Spice in their choice of wedding dress – Curie got hitched in dark blue and then wore her dress to work in her labs until it gave up the ghost, she reveals.
In fact, what’s really interesting about Beauman’s book is what it says about the changing aspirations of young women. For nothing is quite so revelatory about an era’s zeitgeist as its style guide.
In the Mrs Beeton era, women aspired to thrift, efficiency and being able to whip up calf’s head au maître d’hôtel at a moment’s notice. By the roaring Twenties, with flappers flapping their hardest, Emily Post’s preoccupations were all about etiquette and the minutiae of party manners. In the austere Fifties, women returned to the home and learnt, in their manuals of housewifery, to scrub the floor all day, then put on their make-up and mix a Martini for the head of the house in the evenings. Then Shirley Conran invented the Superwoman (rallying cry: “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”), who had it all both domestically and professionally, even if she cut a few corners along the way.
More recently, two contrasting strands have emerged: the Domestic Goddess school of thought, with its emphasis on the joys of household management; and the glamour-focused guides for her single sisters. The Woman’s Book, by contrast, suggests that the twentysomething Heat generation may be rather more intelligent and socially aware than one might have previously believed.
Alongside Kinder, Kirche, Küche (here embodied in a mathematical formula Beauman has devised to work out whether you should marry your beloved or not, a guide to making a flat homely in 45 minutes using a daffodil in a milk bottle, and a fool-proof recipe for roast hedgehog), there are exhortations on one’s duty to vote, explanations of the main strands of Western philosophy and dire warnings about climate change. The book even tells you how to survive a nuclear attack – and makes it sound surprisingly easy.
“So much is expected of women today, more than at any other point in history,” explains the vivacious Beauman. “We’re expected to be able to discuss the intricacies of Barack Obama’s healthcare policy and wrestle an alligator to the ground and clean a pearl necklace, ideally in a pair of stilettos...