My Friend Annie by Jane Duncan

Published 1961     chapter 6   set about 1925

The clientele of this place, apparently, was entirely female, and ladies such as I had never seen before, who had a strange uniformity about them. They had faces that were neither young nor old, but all bearing a queer, indescribable resemblance to one another, and there was, too, a uniformity about their style of dress. They all wore the same pattern of coat, with a long, rolled collar of light-coloured fur, into which was pinned an artificial flower. They all had small hats, high-heeled shoes and large handbags. They all had painted faces and they were all smoking cigarettes. Actresses off duty, I wondered. No. That could not be. I myself had just come from the theatre and the players could not yet have had time to change their clothes, while, from the evidence of the used cups in front of them and full ash-trays on the tables, these ladies had been here some time.

observations: In an earlier entry on Jane Duncan I explained that these books were the archetypal novels for a girls’ school library in the 1960s and 70s, so it is all the more surprising that the women in this passage (not, it is only fair to say, in the photo) are prostitutes. It is one of the many surprises about these books – they are virtuous and priggish a lot of the time, then suddenly burst into some crashingly modern bit about sex. The real shock in this one is not the prostitutes, it’s that dreary goody goody heroine Janet lives with a man without marrying him.

The series, although forgotten now, certainly did appeal to people at the time of publication, they were bestsellers, and it is true they make for easy reading – but only if you skim through some of the more cringe-making passages. Writer Jane/Narrator Janet (and yes, you are plainly supposed to confuse them) frequently sinks into an embarrassingly faux-self-deprecating style: silly old me, I always thought that…[insert piece of random alleged common sense, coming to her from crofting childhood surrounded by truly wonderful adults]. You end up rooting for the people Jane/t hates quite often, and boy is she a good hater – she sounds vile, and completely up herself. And yet…nothing is making me re-read them all, but I am working my way through them.

One of her former schoolmates turns out to be a prostitute in this section, but there is never the slightest attempt to understand why that should be, the character is completely flat and really, close to non-existent. That might not matter so much except - she is the eponymous Annie… She does make a completely splendid appearance near the end of the book in white satin and diamonds. I’d have loved to know a lot less of Janet’s thoughts and a lot more of Annie’s.

There have been two previous entries on the blog from this series.

The photo (and again I must stress, perfectly respectable women) is of an American women’s jazz band (very Some Like it Hot) visiting Australia in the 1920s. It was taken by Sam Hood, whose collection at the State Library of New South Wales is a wonder.


  1. Moira - I think it's so interesting how tastes have changed over the decades. We look back now at books like this and yes, cringe at some of the passages. But it's interesting how popular and well-regarded they were. Imagine thinking living with a man without marriage was somehow more reprehensible than being a prostitute...It's just interesting.

    1. I'm always commenting on changed opinions and beliefs, often making a joke of it, but that is because I find the whole thing fascinating - the way moral stances can completely change or turn around within quite a short space of time.

  2. Sooooo fascinating. And then there seems to be official amnesia about the whole thing. Novels are an unofficial history of attitudes to sex.

    1. Of course you're right: perhaps that's what compelling me through these Jane Duncan books - sociological and historical interest....


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