I don’t believe in New Year resolutions, but I do believe in becoming so fed up with doing – or not doing – something that you realise something has to give, whatever the date. It just so happened that this came to me on 2 January, when I realised I’d been researching a long-planned book for (the dates on the files do not lie, as much as I wish they did) 14 years. As a teenager, I dreamed of growing up to be like Dorothea from Middlemarch, all spark and goodness, but it turns out I am actually Casaubon, her creaky husband, who rots away as he spends decades researching his magnum opus, The Key To All Mythologies.
I have spent a frankly bizarre portion of my life researching early 20th-century Poland and France (hey, we all get our kicks somewhere). But when I went through my crate of notes last week, I discovered something rather unsettling. I hadn’t just been researching for 14 years, I’d been researching the same things for 14 years. Like an archaeologist digging through strata, I went through my files going back over a decade, and the same information kept recurring: this fact, that figure, these statistics. I wasn’t Casaubon, after all; I was Jack in The Shining, allegedly writing a book, but actually just recording the same things again and again.
The truth is, I realised, I hadn’t been researching – I’d been waiting: waiting for someone to give me permission to start writing, perhaps via a coded message in one of the books I now know far too well, with titles such as On The Edge Of Destruction: Jews Of Poland Between The Two World Wars (and you won’t find any positive messages in that book, I can tell you). Until that permission came, I trod water.
I have spent so much of my life waiting for permission – to try this, to risk that. After all, when you don’t take yourself seriously, when instead of having a firm internal scaffold, you are underpinned by self-doubt and anxiety, how can you ever know if you’re good enough unless someone else tells you? Instead, I would turn to my girlfriends: “Will I be enough?” “Did I do OK?” “What do you think?” And they didn’t mind, because they did the same to me.
I don’t know if this is a specifically female quality, but I have yet to meet a man who has worried he’s not good enough for a job he’s been offered, whereas I have yet to meet a woman who hasn’t. It is, for example, impossible to imagine a female Toby Young: perennially mediocre, untouchably arrogant, and eternally gifted with opportunity and protection by the establishment. It also seems a safe bet that the similarly hapless Boris Johnson doesn’t agonise for a decade about whether he’s good enough before tossing off another biography.
I’ve often heard that Young and Johnson’s arrogance is less a product of their gender than of having gone to Oxford. Well, I also went to Oxford and, no question, I watched a lot of men there being rewarded for their laziness and confidence, bullishly knocking out essays at the last minute and getting firsts. But the women I knew reacted differently. Instead of becoming more arrogant, they became more certain they didn’t deserve to be there; so they grew more diligent, more cautious and, as a result, less garlanded. While my male friends from university charged off to achieve their dreams, my female friends hung back in the shadows, taking a decade at least to get to the starting block.
And who can blame them? While this self-doubt rings within, it doesn’t originate there. After all, we still live in a world in which Lily Cole is sneered at for being “a supermodel”, when she was invited this month to be a creative partner in the Brontë Society, even though she got a double first from Cambridge. By contrast, no one has ever complained about the various opportunities thrown at Stephen Fry, from being invited to deliver the 2015 Oscar Wilde lecture to receiving various honorary doctorates, even though, for the record, Fry got a 2:1 from Cambridge.
Similarly, senator Kirsten Gillibrand is one of the Democrats’ few hopes, yet she is already being dismissed as a potential presidential candidate because she is, apparently, “too transparently opportunistic” – words no one used about a male politician, ever.
No matter how much progress is made by #MeToo campaigns and the like, a woman will always be too young, too old, too this, too that, in the eyes of others. But my hope for the next generation is that young women stop internalising these messages, and stop holding themselves back. The time to tread water is over.