Tastes of Honey

Selina Todd

Chatto & Windus, £18.99

Nineteen-fifties Britain had barely recovered from the seismic upheaval of the Angry Young Men when it was hit with the aftershock of A Taste of Honey, the debut play by a 19-year-old from Salford named Shelagh Delaney.

Focused on the frustrations of working-class men, writers like Osborne, Braine and Sillitoe had barely considered the viewpoints of women. But, in Honey, Delaney put women’s concerns centre stage, challenging the accepted wisdom that marriage and motherhood was every woman’s idea of fulfilment.

A bus driver’s daughter from the neighbourhood of Ordsall (the model for Coronation Street’s Weatherfield), she was quick-witted, sceptical of authority, acerbic but warm, possessed of a great ear for dialogue and she wanted more out of life than marriage would provide. She pursued things which were denied her, and portrayed characters who felt the same way, “but showed they paid a heavy price for doing so”.

A hit show that would eventually become a set text in schools, A Taste of Honey also depicted aspects of working-class communities that other writers had passed over, like teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, homosexuality and mixed-race relationships. Theatre critics and traditional audiences were appalled, disgusted that such people should be portrayed on the stage and often doubtful that they existed in the first place.

Delaney was a private woman who gave little away about herself, preferring to live outside the limelight; she frequently destroyed her personal papers. But one doesn’t feel shortchanged by Todd’s book for a lack of intrusive, intimate detail. Tastes of Honey is as much social history as it is biography, and, having read it, it’s impossible to imagine approaching Delaney any other way. Her story can’t be disentangled from the culture and politics of post-war Britain, and her plays are an astute commentary on women’s place in it.

Todd relates how she anticipated the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s by many years, writing plays in which women are the hard-headed realists but nevertheless “have much more radical dreams”. Having decided early on she would never marry, she stuck to her guns, sparking predictable outrage when she had an illegitimate daughter in 1964. Throughout her life, she drew strength instead from supportive networks of close female friends, and her final trilogy of plays, completed shortly before her death in 2011 at the age of 72, follows ageing women tied together by deep and long-lasting bonds.

A Taste of Honey remained her defining play, and although she admitted to laziness and valuing her leisure time, she never stopped writing, a late highlight being the screenplay for Dance with a Stranger, which she considered one of her best.

As Morrissey did in the 1980s, Selina Todd has reaffirmed Shelagh Delaney as “an icon of working-class culture”, a writer of incalculable influence who refused to allow the script of her life to be dictated to her. The one discordant note in this otherwise inspirational book is sounded by writers and actors expressing how hard it is, even now, for working-class women to get their voices heard.