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The Feminism of FEN

Two women dressed as children sit on the floor - one is coloring, one is pouting. A woman sits in a chair above them, and she is seated across from an older woman wearing a bandana. This woman and the older woman are in conversation.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Morgan Lavenstein, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, and Elizabeth Laidlaw by Michael Brosilow.

The ending of Fen seems to come out of nowhere. Called “an explosion of the feminine pressure cooker” by Director Vanessa Stalling, at first glance, the play’s conclusion seems to be a dramatic non-sequitur. Look a little closer, however, and you see it makes complete sense. It is the combination of feminine embodied labor, the intersection of gender and economics, motherhood, and community. It is the culmination of an intricate, incisive story; a story with its roots (excuse the pun) in Mary Chamberlain’s seminal work, Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village

Fenwomen is an oral history of the women laborers of East Anglia, the region of the Fens. The first book to be published by the feminist press, Virago, this work chronicled the history of the land and the women who worked it. Speaking of its publication in 1975, Chamberlain explains, “Women’s history was starting to be a new field, so there were very few conventional sources that you could use; one of the ways that history could be found, of course, was in memories.” Connecting with the women of this community and giving them a chance to share their stories, their memories, and their lived experiences “was all part of the feminist project of reclaiming women’s lives and giving voice to those who’d been historically disenfranchised.” 

The stories that emerged were striking. Severe economic hardship, limited opportunity, and hard labor existed alongside joy, love, intricate networks of support, and tight community ties. Just as Chamberlain shares these insights in her book, Caryl Churchill echoes identical themes in Fen. We see how the pressures of gender shape and distort personhood. We see how the exploitation of the land mirrors the exploitation of its laborers. And we see the resulting distrust of outside forces and institutions.

In the play (as in Chamberlain’s book, and as in life), these are people who are dead set on protecting their land and their community – sometimes to a fault. As dramaturg Derek Matson explains, “The community itself was described in so many of the women’s accounts [in Fenwomen] as a force that can sometimes protect them when they were in moments of desperation, sometimes even starvation. They would get help from their neighbors and, on the other hand, it’s sometimes a really repressive force, this community. It surveils them and it wants to police their behavior.” 

In Churchill’s Fen, this is most obvious in the character of Val. Throughout the course of the production, we understand her strong ties to the community alongside her desperate need to break free of it. For Val, as for real-life fenwomen, there’s no guarantee that life outside of the Fens will be any more satisfying or lucrative. These are women who have a very specific set of skills and a very specific network, neither of which is easily transferable to a new context. As such, the pressures keeping Val in the Fens are just as real as her reasons to leave, exposing the intersecting and compounding impacts of labor, community, and opportunity. 

These impacts can feel hopeless or paralyzing, without question. However, to characterize them solely as such is doing the women of this community a disservice. It erases their agency, reduces their relentless pursuit of a better life to a fruitless exercise, when this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To quote Mary Chamberlain: “We have to remember that people do survive, people are resilient. The resourcefulness, the camaraderie, the fact that it was these women who kept these communities going. We need to remember that, and acknowledge that…It’s women who do this, who support our society, who are the bedrock of our society. The kinds of worlds that women inhabit, create, and perpetuate – they may not be perfect, but they are perpetuating. ”

When you step into the world of Fen, you’re stepping into one of these worlds, as imperfect and beautiful as it may be. Welcome. 

Mary Chamberlain is a novelist, historian, and author of the international bestseller, The Dressmaker of Dachau (UK)/ The Dressmaker’s War (US). Chamberlain’s first book, the highly acclaimed Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village was the first to be published by Virago Press in 1975, and was an inspiration for Caryl Churchill’s award-winning play Fen. Chamberlain holds degrees from the University of Edinburgh, the London School of Economics and Royal Holloway, University of London, as well as an honorary D. Litt from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in the UK and the Caribbean, is Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has been a member of a range of academic, editorial and government advisory boards. She now lives in London.

Posted on January 9, 2023 in Productions

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