While many people will be familiar with the name Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of The Profumo Affair, plenty of those born after the 70s will not be. Despite her role at the centre of a major scandal in 20th-century British politics, I myself hadn’t heard of Keeler until I was asked by the artist Fionn Wilson to partake in ‘Dear Christine,’ an exhibition aiming to reframe and reclaim Christine Keeler.
Keeler was just nineteen when she embarked on an affair with John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. In a pattern we have seen time and again, Keeler, having been essentially groomed and manipulated by some of the most powerful men in the world, was publicly shamed, mocked and ridiculed, particularly by the press. Much like Bill Clinton and Monika Lewinsky, Profumo was able to rebuild his reputation, while Keeler’s name has been synonymous with scandal ever since the affair. She was institutionally scapegoated as a result of her gender and dirt-poor background, an issue women still contend with today.
Since exploring her life and sculpting a few poems for the event, I have become fascinated by Keeler, by the public’s treatment of her, particularly as she aged, and by the lack of any conceivable change in cultural attitude even sixty years later.
While Pearl and Bone was initially conceived as a poetry collection focused on early motherhood and the female experience, Keeler continued to play on my mind, particularly amidst the #MeToo movement, and the ongoing politic battle surrounding reproductive rights in the USA. Naturally, sexual violence, violence against women, and reclaiming the voices of marginalised female figures began to sneak in to Pearl and Bone, and consequently, a series of poems in the collection are dedicated to Christine Keeler. These poems explore her adolescence, late-term abortion at sixteen, her role at the centre of The Profumo Affair, and her experience in the public eye afterwards. Throughout the collection, Keeler’s story interweaves with my own, as well as with the stories of countless other women – in the throes of labour, Mary paces the stable; postpartum, Mary Wollstonecraft succumbs to a fever, leaving behind her infant daughter; while above us, the moon laments the number of feet that have stormed her surface.
In this collection, Keeler becomes emblematic of the women world-over who have unduly suffered due to the media, the state, the government, public perception and cultural attitudes.
For more information on Christine Keeler, including the groundbreaking campaign for her pardon, see here.
Flash (Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair, 1963)
A sunless studio in Soho. Smoke curling
____________the stairwell. Trumpet creeping like vines
______from the ground floor. Flash. I did as I was told.
Stood stripped and bare as a newborn foal. Straddled
____________the chair. Leant into its unyielding grain.
______Fizzed at its rigid geometry. The way it cinched the waist,
shielding the softest parts of me. The powdery folds
____________of my belly. Glared at the camera lens like a lover.
______Unabashed. In twenty-nine frames he captured every
fragment – my upper lip bowed like a harp. The small crease
____________between my eyebrows like the pleat of a sheet.
______Defiant wrinkle pressed to my nose. Later,
they listed all the men I’d taken to bed. Asked,
____________are there any you actually loved?
__________________Are there any who loved you?