The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland: Brilliantly researched, thought-provoking, and written straight from the heart, this is undoubtedly Butland’s best book yet. - book review -

The Woman in the Photograph
The Woman in the Photograph

Stephanie Butland, an author from the north-east of England who has made her name with a string of beautifully written, exquisitely offbeat and intensely moving novels, turns her sharp eye and keen intellect to an emotionally fierce tale which aims to kick-start a new way of looking at feminism.

Every picture tells a story… and sometimes one picture can change a life.

Stephanie Butland, an author from the north-east of England who has made her name with a string of beautifully written, exquisitely offbeat and intensely moving novels, turns her sharp eye and keen intellect to an emotionally fierce tale which aims to kick-start a new way of looking at feminism.

The Woman in the Photograph is her profoundly personal and passionate paean to women, and their ongoing struggle for true equality in a world in which some may mistakenly believe that the feminist battle has, to all intents and purposes, been won.

Using photography as her lens in which to view the history of feminism from the ‘second wave’ dungaree-wearing activists of the 1960s and 70s right through to the 21st century’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, Butland’s unflinching novel lets women tell their stories ‘in an unapologetic way.’

And in a break with the conventional trope that ‘the camera never lies,’ this superbly structured and eye-opening exploration of feminism focuses on the secrets that a simple snapshot can hide, and the mystery behind a photograph which was so reviled at its unveiling that it ended the burgeoning career of a female photographer.

In 1968 – the year the groundbreaking Abortion Act came into effect and the Apollo 8 spacecraft was orbiting the moon – 20-year-old Veronica Moon is a junior photographer on a local paper in Colchester in Essex but is frustrated by her male colleagues’ failure to take her seriously.

Denied all the most interesting assignments, she decides to visit the picket line at the Dagenham Ford Factory and take her own pictures of the women machinists who are on strike in protest at being paid less than their male counterparts, and is immediately struck by ‘the possibility that is offered here, for all women.’

On the noisy but good-humoured front line, she meets Leonie Barratt, a privileged, almost fanatical, and angry young activist, ahead of her time and prepared to fight for equality with everything she has. Veronica is captivated by her bravado and the ‘unapologetic’ way she goes about her business.

It’s a life-changing meeting for Veronica who breaks off her engagement to fiancé Barry and moves to London with Leonie to begin a free life, a new career as a photographer, and a tumultuous, passionate and exciting friendship.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone and 70-year-old Veronica is a recluse with a crippling illness which has left ‘holes’ in her memory and no recall of her years with Leonie. For a while, Veronica was heralded as a pioneer, leading the charge for women everywhere but her career was shockingly and abruptly ended by one of the most notorious photographs of the 20th century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece, 38-year-old Erica, a married, part-time university lecturer who, even in 2018, feels that ‘motherhood has made her mediocre’ and is fighting for her own recognition.

After 30 years out of the public eye, Veronica’s newly exhibited gallery of photographs start to release the long-repressed memories of her extraordinary life and rollercoaster friendship with Leonie.

At last it’s time to break her silence and step back into the light, and she will no longer hide from the truth about that dark time…

The Woman in the Photograph is a powerful and empowering appeal to women to trumpet their achievements, and to keep on calling out sexism and inequality, in a modern world that has probably not changed as much as those second wave Women’s Libbers had hoped for.

The exhilarating relationship between the strident, radical Leonie and her feminist apprentice Veronica, whose flourishing career and success starts to turn their friendship more toxic than intoxicating, forms the central core of a story brimming with raw emotion and uncompromising honesty.

Butland’s innovative use of narrative devices like news bulletins taking us through historic events past and present, Leonie’s vitriolic magazine columns, and powerfully descriptive exhibition notes on Veronica’s photographs, display the changing attitudes to feminism and roots the story firmly in its different time zones.

Brilliantly researched, thought-provoking, and written straight from the heart, this is undoubtedly Butland’s best book yet.

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)