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Essex Girls: For profane and opinionated women everywhere, by Sarah Perry

27 November 2020

These ‘Essex girls’ are far from submissive, says Cally Hammond

AS AN Essex girl born and bred, and proud of it, I’m glad to be recommending a book by another Essex girl, about our supposedly unique subset of the human species. Readers might boggle at the elasticity of Sarah Perry’s (Features, 6 November) definition of an Essex girl. But she persuades them to take the Essex girl out of Essex, and to define her not by location, but instead by other people’s mockery of her taste and sexual morality, and her own complete indifference to their scorn.

This is a fun read: it is not a lazy collection of clapped-out jokes, but a creative glance into the history of “profane and opinionated women”. The writing is humorous, but not snide. It sketches the life stories of women selected for their lack of feminine modesty, and their refusal to be cowed by lectures about a woman’s place. Instead of icons of female activism, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Fry, less famous names appear, underlining the fallacy of equating fame with stature.

Probably, a similar narrative could be woven out of the lives of women from counties other than Essex, who have resisted religious oppression — such as Rose Allin, from Great Bentley — or sexist stereotyping — such as Anne Knight, from Chelmsford.

According to Perry, the women of Essex transcend the bounds of mere geography to embrace the likes of Grayson Perry and Kim Kardashian. If they (which is to say “we”) still have joke status in a world in which most other sneers about people’s origins have become unacceptable, the beauty of them (us) is that they (we) do not care a straw for it.


The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.


Essex Girls: For profane and opinionated women everywhere
Sarah Perry
Serpent’s Tail £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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