30 August, 2008

Middle class women in the mid-twentieth century

The feminine middlebrow novel, 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble was a really interesting look at a lot of books I'm very fond of, including Cold Comfort Farm, The pursuit of love, the Peter Wimsey mysteries and a whole lot of books by (or for) women - she even mentioned the Anotia Forest children's series at one point. Basically, the kind of books that have been reprinted in the Virago Modern Classics series and by Persephone. This was really fun, looking at all sorts of stuff I'm very interested in: class and gender roles, and the retreat into domesticity after the second world war. Obviously these kind of novels mostly deal with very upper middle class women - the sort of women who had the leisure to write books rather than having to run households or work for money.

This led me on to a couple of things - E.M. Delafield's Diary of a provincial lady, which was a very charming fictional diary: a sort of 1930s Bridget Jones, but funnier and a lovely period piece.

More interesting was Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the heart, which was a very odd and unsettling novel, but I'm still trying to put my finger on quite why it was so unsettling. The story is about Portia, an orphaned teenager, who moves in with her half-brother and his wife into their grand, chilly London home. They don't really want her there, and she is desperately lonely, so that in the end she turns to the wastrel Eddie for love and companionship. The reader can see that Eddie is not serious, but nonetheless Portia is devastated by his casual betrayal of her.

Another set of diaries, but not fictional this time, Joan Wyndham's Love lessons and Love is blue, which were wonderful: the first one is her teenage diary, which is precocious and totally sex-obsessed, and the second about her adventures in the WAAF, which mostly involve sleeping her way around Scotland. Fascinating to see how limited women's sexual expectations were at the time: she records her various lovers' pieces of advice about how women are very unlikely to come, and spends a long time having fundamentally unsatisfactory sex and only vaguely wondering whether it might be better somehow. But these were very funny and excellent reading with a hangover.

Finally an interesting book in the form of one of those collections from the Mass Observation Archive, this one a collection of articles written as part of a collaborative correspondence magazine set up between a group of women in the late 1940s. Can any mother help me? is the title, after the letter sent to a magazine by a depressed housewife, asking for suggestions of how to overcome her depression and sense of isolation. The articles are amazing - the women write very frankly about things like childbirth and medical experiences, as well as their marriages, divorces, childcare and career and social successes. The group fairly diverse, although they are all middle-class, and it's very interesting to see how they have a similar dynamic to, say, a talkboard: beginning with anonymity and the freedom of expression that that offers, but eventually becoming close friends - which correspondingly limits, sometimes, the things they feel free to say. I would have like to read some of the less personal articles - through the book they refer to things like 'such and such's article on socialism', but the editor, Jenna Bailey, has pretty much confined her choice of articles to ones on personal experience. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47]

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