The title of a novel usually comes right at the end of the creative process for me, but when I was writing Unbecoming, I knew the title very early on. I loved the fact the word had so many meanings. I wrote some of them on a postcard and stuck it above my desk. When writing was hard, it brought me great pleasure that at least something about the book was certain!

Most dictionaries have two simple definitions. The first relates to being “unattractive” and the second to being “inappropriate”. Synonyms include: amiss, incorrect, indecent, indecorous, inept, improper, perverse, plain, tasteless, unacceptable, unbefitting, undignified, unflattering, unseemly, unsightly, unsuitable and wrong.

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

When the word is applied to a man it typically refers to the misconduct of high-ranking officials or political indiscretion. When applied to a woman it most often describes her appearance, but is also used to indicate female behaviour that would not be considered objectionable when coming from a male – asserting a strongly held opinion, for instance.

An “unbecoming” female violates acceptable standards, flouts good manners, doesn’t conform, lacks deference, breaks rules and generally offends and transgresses.

Jenny Downham

I never plot a book in advance. I start with themes or relationships, sometimes a voice or a triggering event. I write thousands of words, approaching the work from many angles. Most of it goes in the bin, but I find I return again and again to the things that preoccupy me.

An elderly woman called Mary appeared very quickly as I began this third book. I liked her a lot – she had great zest for life and kept making me laugh. A little triangle of a family came next: 17-year-old Katie and her younger brother, Chris, and their very controlling mother, Caroline. I put them in a new town where they knew no one and gave them all a few problems to deal with and then I threw Mary in as the long lost grandmother who needed somewhere to stay because she had Alzheimer’s and could no longer cope alone and suddenly, the story began to buzz.

The themes began to sing out at me too. This would be a story exploring the societal, familial and self-imposed limits placed on girls and young women. It was at this point that I stuck the postcard with the word ‘unbecoming’ above my desk!

Katie says of her grandmother:

Mary knew that young women in nineteen-fifties England were supposed to be modest, self-deprecating and demure. They should not have too much self-confidence, not assert their sexuality or independence and never express their appetite or desire. They should be restrained, make sacrifices and put others first. Mary knew it, but she thought it was poppycock. Baloney, she thought, what a load of nonsense

Teenage Mary dared to revel in her sexuality. She determined not to play the role assigned to her. I knew she would be a wonderful teacher to her granddaughter Katie, who describes herself as “rubbish at being brave”.

At the book’s start, Katie is choosing to suppress her sexual feelings. She worries she will offend or disappoint. Her role model has always been her mum, Caroline – a “good” wife and mother who plays by the rules. When Mary arrives, Katie has a new role model – a woman who breaks rules, who puts herself first, who seems not to care what people think.

Every morning Mary runs away. She’s desperate to find something, says it’s imperative, but when questioned can’t be more specific. Katie wants to know what Mary’s looking for. She also wants to know why her mother seems to detest Mary. What was the nature of their original estrangement? It makes Katie question everything she thought was true about her family.

So – three women at different stages of life bound together by a web of lies that only the youngest can untangle.

The word ‘unbecoming’ has a meaning not found in dictionaries when used in reference to Alzheimer’s disease – it describes the “deterioration of self”. The word holds a sense of dissipation and decay as the person with the disease unravels and loses memories.

What does it mean to “lose” oneself? Does it mean we lose all qualities that uniquely define us? If so – who do we become?

My own mum had Alzheimer’s and died from the disease while I was writing this book. I spent many months considering the notion of self as she was robbed of her memories. I hated it when people suggested that those with dementia become “empty”. My mum used personal pronouns until she lost speech completely. She could talk about her own attributes and had a clear identity during social interactions. In fact, I sometimes think that dementia exposed more of her layers, the ones she’d kept hidden all her life. She swore, flirted outrageously and cared far less about her appearance or what the neighbours might think than she’d ever done before. Social niceties were swept away. She became “improper” and “unseemly”.

Of course, there was decline in various components of self – role identity, self-identity, autobiographical memory – but she didn’t erode so completely that only emptiness remained. She didn’t become “nothing”. She was never “no one”.

I hope readers will recognise how hard this disease is for those who have it and those who care for them. But I also hope readers will be less afraid of dementia after reading the book and will perhaps recognise that even when confronting difficult things there can be a lot of love and laughter to be found.

Finally, ‘unbecoming’ means something else to me – it describes how my protagonists unveil themselves through the course of the narrative. At the book’s start they are hiding their identities. These are some of the questions I explored with them: Who are you if you don’t dare to be your true self? Or if you’ve forgotten what’s important? Or if you’ve reinterpreted the past? Or if you’re surrounded by secrets?

By the end of the book, all three women have “unbecome” in a philosophical sense – they’ve stopped being their old “stuck” selves and passed into a new state. I often thought of the life-cycle of the butterfly and how many stages it must go through.

Mary, Caroline and Katie slough off versions of themselves and make new choices about who to trust and what to reveal. They are wiser and stronger and closer as a result, but their metamorphosis isn’t finished.

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

They are works in progress. Constantly “unbecoming.”

I can’t think of a better thing for them to be.