Bestselling U.K. novelist Gill Hornby, author of The Hive and younger sister of Nick (High Fidelity) Hornby, is the hipster housewife's mischievous, experienced big sister. Her Twitter account (@GillHornby) overflows with domestic porn: a cat recovering from giving birth, a mountain of strawberries from her garden (soon to be preserved in mason jars)—and yes, the eggs in that homemade Pavlova ("berries from our hedge") were laid by one of Hornby’s 10 chickens.
This isn’t a radical homemaker blog or a glossy Nigella close-up. It’s seductive because it’s the real unself-conscious thing—though viewing that table of cakes destined for a local fundraiser does remind me of the fateful bake sale endured by Rachel, The Hive’s gimlet-eyed narrator.
Hornby's debut novel about queen-bee moms and their all-too-human sidekicks will be released tomorrow in the U.S. It’s been out in Britain for three months, where it’s already a hit; The Guardian recently long-listed it for its prestigious First Book award.
A movie deal with NBCUniversal's Focus Features, inked last fall, will soon transplant Hornby's middle-class comedy—which takes place at St. Ambrose, a "desirable" state primary school in small town England—to an undisclosed U.S. location. Anxiety over private versus state (or public) schooling turns out to be a theme that travels well: The Hive is being published in 10 countries, including Brazil and South Korea.
At the heart of The Hive, which opens on the first day of school, is a contest between two moms. Deborah who can afford to send her "exceptional child" to a "nice toffee-nosed f**king academy" where you only have to "flash your wad about," decides instead to enroll her kids at St. Ambrose and bankrolls a costly Christmas ball to raise money for the school library. Thanks, in part, to some cunning female sabotage, the ball is an expensive disaster. Beatrice, the incumbent queen bee, is the intended beneficiary.
The Hive is deliciously frank about class and cash in Britain, but do not mistake Gill Hornby (who once wrote a weekly column at the Telegraph) for a Tory. In a phone interview, Hornby told me that Kate Middleton's middle-class upbringing is "the salvation" of the Windsor dynasty, because Prince William—child of "two powerful warring parents"—has tasted “normal, middle class, it's-your-turn-to-stack-the-dishwasher domestic life, and seems to prefer it."
That a member of the royal family "has married someone whose parents are still together and whose parents brought them up, and whose parents worked for the money themselves in order to bring them up,” she said, is “such a revolution."
And then there was her recent piece in The Sunday Times of London, in which she thumbed her nose at David Cameron (citing his "blab-it-out first, work-it-out later manner") and criticized the U.K. equalities minister Maria Miller for urging women to help "increase GDP" by staying in the labor market.
"It's a lot of 'leaning in'," Hornby told me, aghast at the "revolting notion" that "all Cameron represents is people who are incredibly aspirational." Hornby said she's "the sort of person who would run from corporate life," quickly adding: "How marvelous that Sheryl Sandberg is in it. Her book has sold a lot, and all credit to her, but what she's doing is quite alien to me."
A former television producer, Hornby left her job 20 years ago to raise four children—two boys, two girls—in a Berkshire village with her husband, Robert Harris, a prolific book author and journalist. She gave birth to her oldest child 23 years ago at St. Mary's, the same London hospital where the royal baby George was born this past summer "in exactly the same sort of weather." ("I was in an NHS bed, Kate was in the private wing, but you can see why," Hornby said. "The crowds were extraordinary.")
Any regrets about opting out for the mommy life? "There are lots of things I could have been doing if we had stayed in London and I had carried on working in the media, but I would never, ever have written The Hive," she said. Occasional writing assignments and her weekly column, begun in 2005, "didn't feel like going out to work," and she was surprised.
One autobiographical passage in The Hive concerns Georgie, a full-time mother who abandoned her lawyer gig. "She has found it so stimulating—read more books, listened to more music, and thought more thoughts. That was what I discovered," Hornby said.
She began writing The Hive two years ago, partly inspired by Rosalind Wiseman's parenting guide, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Hornby finds archetypes from girlhood resurfacing whenever women are pushed together by geography, work, or motherhood.
"Wiseman talks a lot about the similarity between the bee and the human female," she said. "When you look inside a beehive at the tight social organization, it's quite amazing."
On the first day of school at St. Ambrose, Beatrice Stuart's entourage of mothers is reconnecting after summer vacation, wary of Deborah, the new blonde. Another new mom, wearing ballet flats, flips her brunette hair in the distance: a "promising newbie" with "nicely denimed" legs.
Bea takes her queen-bee status for granted, bringing to mind another Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, who was eliminated in 1587 by members of Queen Elizabeth's posse.
If you're partial to the high stakes and long skirts of Edith Wharton or the slapstick confessions of Bridget Jones, Hornby's characters might seem too modern or too quiet at first, but you need not be a mom to recognize their machinations in your own life, to find yourself pulled in and taking sides.
Hornby's belief that "One bee is no bee"—especially for women, including the lone wolves—resonates throughout The Hive. The results are dark and droll, down to earth—and her timing is enviable, for this is clearly the year of the honeybee. Hanging out with bees is all the rage: On the catwalk during Paris Fashion Week, London-based design house Alexander McQueen set the tone for 2013 with beekeeper veils and honeycomb torsos. In Markus Imhoof’s recent documentary, More Than Honey, bees are the endangered pawns of factory farming. Bill McKibben, in his new book, Oil and Honey, out this month, follows a Vermont honey crop's annual cycle. And Emily Matchar says she interviewed "at least a dozen people who kept bees" while writing Homeword Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.
To get a better understanding of her fictional housewives, Hornby contacted the local beekeeper association and spent her Sunday mornings looking into hives.
"The queen lives between eight months and three years," she said. "It's a democratically elected monarchy. If they don't like her, they will get rid of her and elect a new queen."
Are bees the new bonobos? Evo-psychology isn't going away, but apes and chimps are so 20th-century.
Nature isn't all tooth and claw these days. It's deceptively sweet. Orderly and deadly, like some hives. If you're trying to reach teenage girls, "Queen Bee" is a popular song title. In the Camp Gyno's extended anthem and in Rochelle Diamante's YouTube video, the queen overwhelms her male admirers.
Hornby's sharp eye is needed here, for the viral is often superficial, and these songs "miss the point," she says. "The awesome power of the queen bee is over other females, rather than males. Yes, males fall for her, too, but the really interesting thing about her is the way she controls her sisters. That's what makes her the queen."
That, perhaps, is why men—despite an irreverent yet satisfying romantic subplot—are mostly offstage in this novel.
There once was a time when middle-class housewives formed hivelike groups to analyze and overcome a shared sense of oppression. Forty years ago, the oppressor was a man in your life, men in general or, if you didn't want your politics to get too personal, a male-dominated power structure. Men were excluded from these groups for the same reason that factory bosses aren't invited to trade union meetings.
Here's one startling takeaway from The Hive: If a middle-class housewife feels second class in 2013, her oppressor is more likely to be another woman—quite possibly the local queen bee or the queen's ambitious minions.
Men are excluded for different reasons now. A queen bee's power is exaggerated when her subjects are cut off from men and from the larger world. She might be the bossy friend who pressures you to forgo vaccinating your kids. Or the hostess who gets her kicks excluding you from her spa party.
Proponents of career-centered feminism, such as Leslie Bennetts, often stress the financial and other dangers of leaving the workplace. What happens to your negotiating abilities? Do political antennae grow dull? For that answer, look no further than Gill Hornby (who, for the record, has "absolutely no view" on how other women should live) and yet who has, after "a good 16, 17 years of not going out there," produced a sophisticated commercial novel about what she knows that is deeply plugged in to our zeitgeist.
Click here to read an excerpt from The Hive or hear a delightful preview of the audio book.