A Taste of Honey (1958) centres on teenage Jo and her mother, Helen. They are always falling behind on rent, and, as the story starts, the two have just moved into a rundown flat in a slum in Northern England. To make matters more complicated, Helen is a neglectful mother and an alcoholic. When Jo needs her most, she is never around and prefers to hang out in the local pubs in the company of random men.
Jo is frequently left alone with barely any food nor proper heating. She seems to have little ambition beyond dropping out of high school, finding a job, and moving to a place of her own. “Why don’t you learn from my mistakes?”, Helen asks her, “it takes half your life to learn from your own.”
Helen then goes on to marry Peter (a wealthy, much younger man with a “wallet full of reasons”), moves to his mansion, and leaves Jo all by herself in their old, dirty flat. By then, Jo is already pregnant of a young black sailor, with whom she had had a one-night stand, before he went away to the sea (and never came back). “It’s your life”, Helen tells Jo, “ruin it your own way.” There is nothing like a ruin of one’s own, is there?
Meanwhile, Jo’s best friend, Geoffrey, an art student, has just been evicted from his lodgings, after the landlady caught him with his boyfriend. Jo invites him to live with her in her shabby flat (as roommates), and he gladly accepts. He offers to take care of her and her baby and proposes a sexless marriage.
When Geoffrey asks Jo whether she still loves her sailor, she replies: “I don’t know much about love. I’ve never been too familiar with it.” It is the first time that Jo experiences being taken care of: “I used to try to hold my mother’s hands”, she tells Geoffrey, “but she always used to pull them away.” To make matters more complicated, Jo resents motherhood, but also rejects an abortion: “I don’t want this baby”, she confesses to Geoffrey, “I don’t want to be a mother”.
Geoffrey then makes the mistake of telling Helen about the pregnancy, and Jo’s mother comes back to disturb their peace (and, possibly, to dislodge Geoffrey, whom she may or may not be jealous of). As it turns out, Helen’s marriage may be at the tail end: Peter has become sour and abusive (and alcoholic). When Helen comes back, she may not be thinking of her daughter. To make matters worse, Helen and Peter are deeply racist and homophobic, and are very vocal about it.
Single motherhood, racism, sex, working class poverty, out of wedlock pregnancy, abortion, homophobia – there is no 1950’s taboo this play has not more or less tackled. But your wry, slightly morbid sense of humour cuts through the story’s underlying melodrama. And your ironic references to Shakespeare’s Othello and Ibsen’s Ghosts add a finishing touch to it.
The narrative is carried through by Helen and Jo’s sustained verbal confrontations: they are messy, bordering on co-dependency, full of resentment – and affection. When Geoffrey asks Jo what sort of woman Helen is, the girl answers: “She’s all sorts of woman”. Jo and Helen’s mutual insults seem to be like a bizarre love code only the two can understand (or pull through).
The play covers the brief interval where both women were happy – the period of respite when they had their “taste of honey”. And the fact that Helen and Jo never expected it to last is what makes the narrative interesting. They take what they can get and have a cruel laugh at it all.
The play ends where it had begun, but on a slightly bleaker note. Jo has taken her mother in; Helen is leaving the flat yet again to go for a drink; and Jo may be about to go into labour. There is a hint of a new beginning, but also a claustrophobic sense of endless repetition. Joy and despair, hope and hopelessness – touching hands.
“I can’t stand people who laugh at other people. They’d get a bigger laugh if they laughed at themselves.” ―
“We’re all at the steering wheel of our own destiny. Careering along like drunken drivers.” ―
About the book
- Grove Press, 1994, 96 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1958
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: Classics Spin #25
- The play was made into a film (IMDb), in 1961, directed by Tony Richardson.
- Paul McCartney’s song “Your Mother Should Know” (1967) was titled after a line from A Taste of Honey.
- In an interview for the NME in 1986, Morrissey said: “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 percent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.” He borrowed many lines from A Taste of Honey to write the lyrics for the song “This Night Has Opened My Eyes”.
- Morrissey used photographs of Delaney on the covers of the Smiths’ album Louder Than Bombs, as well as on the single Girlfriend In A Coma.
- Here is the Criterion playlist of Morrissey’s references to A Taste of Honey: