What The Confession by Jessie Burton Taught Me About Women’s Emotional Labour

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This blog post is part of a new feature, in which I ask some of the difficult questions provoked by books I’ve read! I’d love to hear what you think, so don’t be shy about dropping a comment below.

The Confession by Jessie Burton Book Cover Image

In 1980, Elise follows her lover Connie from London to LA, where Connie’s novel is being adapted into a major film. Their stormy love affair will leave its mark on the city. Three decades later, Rose is on the trail of the mother who left when she was a baby. The only clue she has is a book by elusive novelist Constance Holden, who may hold the key to why her mother left everything behind.

Women’s emotional labour is a theme that seems especially relevant as we come towards the festive period. All too often, wives, mothers, girlfriends, daughters, and sisters are expected to negotiate the extra emotive charge brought by this time of year – from making sure nobody is missed off the Christmas card list to choosing the perfect gift for relatives-of-relatives who we may hardly know.

The scene I related to most in The Confession is one in which Rose gets into an argument with her boyfriend around Christmas presents. She has spent hours choosing and wrapping presents for his own family members, but when she points out the unfairness of this, he just offers to give her the money for them.

I found a lot of parallels with my own situation. I’m the sibling who always organises cards and presents on behalf of both myself and my brother year-round. I always took it for granted that this is my ‘job’ as the eldest, but having spoken to friends, those whose siblings are the same gender don’t seem to share this dynamic of responsibility. The expectation that I deal with emotional duties must have more to do with my supposed womanly sensibilities than the fact that I’m older by a year and a bit.

Like Rose, I have exploded a couple of times when the effort I put into researching the perfect present, writing a heartfelt card, or painstakingly wrapping an awkwardly shaped package isn’t appreciated as much as I feel it should be! If only our financial outlay is compensated, the sacrifice of time and energy that we also contribute feels completely dismissed. In fairness, my brother is now taking on a more equal share (although I will always do the wrapping – he hasn’t made it that far yet!)

The Confession is a novel that challenges the demand for women’s unpaid, unrecognised emotional labour at every turn. One of the most obvious focal points is the relationship between Rose and Connie. Connie, a stubborn, independent, and solitary writer is initially resentful of her need for paid assistance to finish her next novel, but their relationship eventually flourishes. Rose is compensated not just financially, but through a mutual exchange of support, trust, and ultimately friendship that feels dignified for them both.

The book also tackles the theme of motherhood, refusing throughout to fetishise the mother-as-goddess. After all, most of the novel is spent chasing after a painfully absent maternal figure. I especially loved Rose’s best friend, Kelly, who manages to turn the tables on the expected unpaid labour of mothers with her lucrative parenting blog.

“I wanted a positive portrayal of a woman in her mid-thirties and a positive portrayal of motherhood.”

~ Jessie Burton, interview in The Evening Standard

Jessie Burton has written a novel that embraces all the complexities of women’s work and challenges the invisible burden of emotional labour that so many of us are expected to carry.

Read my full review of The Confession here.

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Have you read The Confession? What did you think of its nuanced portrayal of motherhood and emotional labour? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear from you!


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