RETURN TO THE 1950S: Rachel Cooke’s ‘Her Brilliant Career’ and the novels of Mary Renault and Barbara Pym

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, Rachel Cooke (Virago, 2013)

The Charioteer, Mary Renault ([1953] Virago, 2013)

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym ([1952], Virago, 2009)

By Clare Walker Gore

In the General Election of 1945, servicemen who had not yet returned home were able to vote by proxy. I know this because my grandmother has often talked about the shock her father received when one of her brothers sent home his voting instructions: he wanted to vote Labour. Their father was pained, pointing out that they had always been Conservatives. But his son felt that nothing could be the same after the war, and that’s the point of the story as my Grannie tells it. After his years in the navy, her brother understood that nothing could or should be as it was before, and this long-remembered anecdote about a minor family fracas – resolved, of course, when my Great-Grandfather gritted his teeth, did his duty, and cast his son’s vote for Labour – records the upheaval brought about by the war, on the micro-level of family memory. Even those families lucky enough to have their sons returning to them would be hard-pressed to pretend that nothing had happened, or that things could go back to being the way they were before 1939. The war had not only brought death and destruction on an almost unimaginably terrible scale, but had thrown together men who would ordinarily have been kept apart by class barriers –– an experience which has always been offered as an explanation for my Great Uncle’s break with family tradition at that particular General Election – and transformed the lives of millions of women by forcing (or allowing) them into the workplace.

In light of this, it seems bizarre that the decade after the war – the long 1950s which lasted, as Philip Larkin would have it, until 1963 – should be characterised in popular culture as the most conservative in the twentieth century, a hiatus between the war and the swinging sixties, beloved of the nostalgic and disdained by the radical. So powerful has this stereotype become that phrases such as “it’s all very 1950s,” or “wanting to return to the 1950s” have a strongly political charge; at the “Don’t Turn Back Time” protest against cuts to women’s services, organised by the Fawcett Society in 2011, protesters were encouraged to dress up in 1950s outfits. There could be no clearer example of what Rachel Cooke calls “our idea of Fifties woman – so inflexible, so monolithic, cultural symbol of all that we are most grateful to have sloughed off.” As she goes on to argue, it is palpably absurd to suppose that,

the end of the war [sent] every female hurrying back to the kitchen, just as the feminism of the Sixties did not spring from the minds of women who had spent the last decade in an apron and rubber gloves.

Rachel CookeCorrecting this popular misconception provides the impetus for Cooke’s revisionist group biography of great career women of the 1950s, published by Virago in 2013 and now out in paperback. Happily, readers inspired by Cooke’s work to investigate the forgotten heroines of the decade will not have far to look, as Virago are also in the process of re-publishing the work of two great female novelists of the 1950s, Barbara Pym and Mary Renault. In very different ways, Renault’s The Charioteer (reissued the same year as Her Brilliant Career), and Pym’s Excellent Women (which came out in 2009) are quintessentially of their time, testifying to the struggle to come to terms with the new post-war reality, and to the sense of expanding possibilities that was in the air.

Cooke’s study triumphantly demonstrates that while the 1950s was in some respects a decade of retrenchment, in which a backlash against the upheavals of the war years drove many women out of the workforce and shored up some of the hierarchies shaken in the war, it is very far from being barren of interest for the feminist historian. Certainly, it was not a great period of feminist organising – the women here who did join political organisations seem mainly to have worked for the Labour Party and CND – but individual women were still breaking new ground in public life, and this is the theme of Cooke’s study. She characterises her own approach as “a sly kind of feminism,” offering as “a rallying call to the twenty-first-century battle weary” an account of the lives of ten “role models, inspirational women who make you want to cheer.” Organising the lives of ten exceptional women into seven essays – any one of which could be read independently of the others – Cooke essentially writes seven mini-biographies, all rich in event and anecdote, and told with tremendous gusto. Her subjects are utterly unlike one another, but have in common a determination to pursue their passions in the face of disapproval, prejudice and sometimes outright opposition. Any one of them would be capable of exploding a “monolithic” conception of a “fifties woman.”

Cooke’s first subject, Patience Gray, sets the tone for the book. While Gray was most famous as a cookery writer, author of the splendidly named (and extremely successful) Plat Du Jour, Or, Foreign Food (1957), she doesn’t fit anyone’s notion of a domestic goddess. After studying economics at university, she began her journalistic career while careering about Eastern Europe with her sister having romantic adventures which included, Cooke gleefully recounts, escaping the attentions of an importunate newspaper editor “by fleeing to the Black Sea in a monoplane piloted by a Romanian Prince.” During the war, she fell in love with the designer Thomas Gray, and had three children with him. Despite taking his name, however, she did not marry him, bringing up her children as a single mother after their affair was over. Cooke does not romanticise the loneliness and the practical difficulties of this undertaking; believing herself unable to support three children, Patience decided to have her youngest daughter adopted, only for the baby to fall ill and die soon after. Cooke bleakly notes that, despite having had her daughter returned to her so that she could nurse her through her illness, Patience was not allowed to attend the funeral. Although Patience went on to have a successful career as a journalist in London, she had to keep her family circumstances quiet, at least to some degree. As she herself wryly noted, the narrowness of the range of subjects she was allowed to address as the editor of the women’s pages of the Observer was somewhat ironic:

‘it was not possible to discuss in print the question of how one might bring up two fatherless children and earn a living while contriving to get home at the precise moment they got back from school.’

In the event, Patience did manage to keep the household afloat, and the conclusion to her story is deeply satisfying; after making a happy marriage in the 1960s with the sculptor Norman Mommens, Patience moved to a remote farmhouse in Apulia, and there wrote her classic (if completely impractical) food memoir, Honey From a Weed. The world might not be clamouring for recipes involving edible weeds and fox stew, but it is gratifying to know that this trailblazing woman ultimately got to write the cookery book she had so long planned – in addition to the rather less intimidating Plats Du Jour.

If Patience Gray dispels any illusions the reader might have about “fifties women,” the trio in the next chapter make her look positively conventional. Nancy Spain – journalist, detective novelist, and television personality – her lover Joan Werner Laurie – editor of the groundbreaking women’s magazine She, the first magazine to tackle, in Joan’s words ‘“menstruation, hysterectomy, [and] breast cancer”’ – and her lover Sheila Van Damm — rally-car driver and manager of The Windmill theatre (famous for its nude show Revudeville, which ran throughout the war) — lived together in the late 1950s in a ménage-à-trois of working women, along with Joan’s sons (one of whom, in a further twist, was actually – and secretly – Nancy’s). They are an almost impossibly glamorous trio of trouser-wearing rule-breakers, and the delicious anecdotes pile up: we learn that Nancy was Marlene Dietrich’s lover, that Sheila flew a plane before becoming a racing driver, and on the last night of Revudeville, ordered five hundred bottles of champagne for the party and gave instructions that the curtain should never come down. The chapter itself comes to resemble something of an unstoppable party, until the plane crash that killed Nancy and Joan in 1963 brings it all to a shuddering halt, and Cooke reminds us of the pain Nancy and Joan’s sons felt after their deaths about the deception practiced upon them.

The architect Alison Smithson emerges as a significantly less likeable figure, although Cooke certainly does her best to draw out the contemporary appeal of her brutalist designs, and to defend her against accusations of being “difficult” which, Cooke suggests, should be taken “with a pinch of salt,” given the prevailing sexism of the time. Far easier to warm to is the gardener Margery Fish, who gained fame relatively late in life with her bestselling book, We Made a Garden, published in 1956, when Fish was sixty-four. Margery had worked as a secretary for The Daily Mail and ultimately married its editor upon his retirement; when they moved to the country for the duration of the war, he insisted upon making of their garden “a regimented suburban parade of paths and lawns and dahlias.” It was not until after his death that Margery was able to create her ideal, “a harmonious, informal, frothing sort of garden”, one which led her to write a series of successful books, enabled her to become a popular columnist, and inspired a generation of gardeners. Margery’s “domestic insurrection” in turning over her husband’s tidy garden to “jungle planting,” making it a haven for threatened species, a wild and yet welcoming place for plants and people alike, becomes in Cooke’s account an act of creative rebellion. While Margery’s “insurrection” was clearly a great deal quieter than Nancy Spain’s or Sheila Van Damm’s, there is something heart-warming about her late-flowering talent, and her determination, in her widowhood, to plant her garden the way she wanted.

If Margery Fish had been held back mainly by her marriage, Cooke shows that there were far more formidable barriers to women’s success in many fields than simply their personal relationships. The sexism faced by women in the film industry, for example, was monumental: Muriel Box, director, and Betty Box, producer, were trying to make films in a climate utterly hostile to women who wanted to get behind the camera rather than in front of it, and they were undermined and underpaid at every turn. Both made their way through sheer perseverance: as Cooke puts it, “they ate setbacks for breakfast”, aided by the support of Betty’s brother and Muriel’s husband, Sydney Box, and the opportunities brought about by the war. It was the shortage of male directors in the war years that gave Muriel the chance to move from screenwriting to directing, but it was clearly her personal resilience that enabled her to forge a career as a director afterwards in the face of persistent opposition: even actresses sometimes claimed that they would “respond better” to a male director. In spite of this, Box ultimately managed to make an explicitly feminist film, The Truth About Women (1957), in which an arrogant womaniser realises, in the course of writing his memoir, that he actually understands nothing about women’s lives. Box herself said she had been inspired by her reading of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; later in life, she keenly took part in feminist organising, and was one of the founders of Femina, Britain’s first feminist publishing house.

Not all the women studied here embraced second wave feminism with Box’s conviction. Despite her groundbreaking career as an archaeologist, her unconventional private life and her work for causes including nuclear disarmament and Homosexual Law Reform, Jaquetta Wheeler seems to have repudiated Women’s Liberation as “unfeminine.” There was nothing conventionally “feminine” about her most famous work, however; The Land emerges in Cooke’s account as an intensely erotic engagement with Britain’s ancient past, the author’s passion for its geological and archaeological history “an expression of longing” for escape of a more personal kind. Hawkes’s opening description of herself lying on the earth evokes “a woman on the run from a certain kind of domesticity”, Cooke suggests. Yet the public loved her book; it was embraced by New Romantics and praised by Laurie Lee, but was also a Daily Mail book of the month, genuinely popular with a mass audience.

Perhaps even more surprising is the status achieved by Rose Heilbron, pioneering barrister. One might have expected a woman in her position to have pilloried in the press as well as bullied by threatened members of her profession – but while Heilbron certainly suffered from the prejudice of her colleagues, she was a National Treasure as far as the press and public were concerned. Enormous queues were formed outside her first sitting at Burnley Crown Court as Recorder (making her the first female judge in the land) in 1957. The same paper (the Daily Mail) which had in 1938 published an article decrying the possibility of women ever becoming lawyers – they could not, it had been suggested, even wear the requisite wig without looking ridiculous – was praising Heilbron’s performance in court less than twenty years later.

The war gave Heilbron her chance to forge a career as a criminal barrister; she took silk in 1949, the year her daughter was born, and became a High Court judge in 1965. Her popularity with the papers only seemed to increase over the course of this period: in headlines, she appears as “that girl Rosie,” “our cleverest woman,” even (according to one grateful client) “the greatest lawyer in history.” Clearly, Heilbron’s great personal charm, her apparently conventional family life and her willingness to reassure journalists that she was ‘“a home-lover”’ as well as a career girl contributed to her success, but the fact that she managed to maintain her popularity while openly avowing her feminist principles (and later putting these into practice as a High Court judge) is still staggering.

Mary RenaultCooke chooses not to feature any novelists in her study, but if she had done so, Mary Renault would surely have been an attractive subject. In 1953, when she published The Charioteer, she had emigrated to South Africa and was living openly with her lifelong partner, Julie Mullard. Her novels about love between men were so controversial as to have been censored for some years in the United States. Before turning to historical fiction, she offered in The Charioteer a searing portrayal of both the horror and the liberation of the war years, in a novel which draws extensively on her own time as a hospital nurse. Mostly set in hospital, The Charioteer follows its hero Laurie through his recovery from near-fatal injury at Dunkirk, as he tries to come to terms with his own survival and brings himself to consider what he is going “to do next,” a question which, repeatedly asked by civilians, echoes through the novel. While the central plot-line concerns Laurie’s gradual acceptance of his own homosexuality, and the dilemma he faces when he must choose between the two men he loves, the novel has a wider resonance, testifying to the author’s clear sense that the war has changed things irrevocably, and they must yet change further. Although the novel is set during the war, its real subject is surely the recovery from war, and in this, it can be described as quintessentially 1950s.

The war brings Laurie back into contact with the hero of his schooldays, dashing Ralph Lanyon, expelled for “immorality” when he was Head Boy. At the evacuation of Dunkirk, Laurie is still carrying with him the copy of Plato’s Pheadrus which Ralph gave him before leaving school; while Ralph literally saves his life on this occasion by carrying him off the beach at Dunkirk after he has been shot in the leg, there is also a suggestion that Ralph’s earlier gift has already saved Laurie from despair. Plato’s vision of ideal love between men gives Laurie something to which he can aspire, a standard apart from the prejudice which surrounds him and one which, after much suffering, will enable him to accept his own desires. More than this, however, the war brings Laurie into contact with the Conscientious Objector, Andrew, with whom he falls in love, and whose Quakerism challenges Laurie’s certainties; with the “queer” doctors whose brazen love affairs appal him; with the working-class soldier Reg whom he comes to respect and even love. Some of the most touching scenes in the novel – perhaps because they are more understated than the intensely romantic love scenes – are those between Laurie and Reg, who uncertainly move towards a mutual understanding. Reg never quite manages to acknowledge Laurie’s homosexuality, but he does offer him a roundabout kind of acceptance: ‘“All I want to say – any trouble, any time, don’t make no difference if it’s not my kind of trouble, not to me it don’t… A pal’s a pal the same all the world over”’.

For all its pathos as an account of the suffering caused by homophobia – the pain of repressed desire and fearful self-hatred, the oppressiveness of ignorance and prejudice and the difficulty of forging an identity in the face of what amounts to a conspiracy of silence – The Charioteer is a hopeful novel, shot through with the promise of a more honest and more tolerant time to come. Renault refuses to conform to the tradition of tragic homosexual love stories, ending the novel on a defiantly hopeful note. While Laurie looks to the ancient past to find some kind of blueprint for his identity and his desires, Renault makes it clear that the future belongs to him, and those like him. In this, the novel perfectly illustrates Cooke’s central argument, that the 1950s was as much the prelude to revolutionary social change as it was the calm after the storm of the war.

Virago acquired Renault’s entire back catalogue in 2012 and are mid-way through re-publishing her fourteen novels. The Persian Boy and The Last of the Wine will be appearing later this year, and the increasing interest surrounding Renault’s work – instantiated by the event devoted to her Greek novels at the Hay festival this year – suggests that their attempt to revive her fortunes is enjoying much success. At Virago, Renault joins Barbara Pym, another great but long-overlooked novelist of the 1950s, whose thirteen novels have been reissued over the last ten year. Pym provides a perfect antidote to Renault; reading Excellent Women after The Charioteer is a bracing contrast which yet throws some unexpected parallels between the two highly dissimilar novelists into relief. Where Renault’s romance scenes throb with passionate earnestness and her social comedy – mostly at the expense of the promiscuous and affected “queers” whom Laurie despises – is too bitter to be very funny, Pym treats love lightly, and has an unfailing comic touch. Recognition of the absurdities of those in love usually tempers Pym’s heroine’s wistful desire for a lover of her own, which remains in the realm of bittersweet comedy.

Pym’s “spinsters,” here and elsewhere, are not tragic figures, having too much to be getting on with, and in any case, never being wholly convinced of the desirability of a spouse. Mildred Lathbury is temporarily enamoured of the romantically named Rockingham Napier who moves in with his rackety wife upstairs, and occasionally considers the vicar as a matrimonial prospect (both before and after he is tempted by the attractions of Allegra Gray, the lodger who is “rather too nicely dressed for a clergyman’s widow”). However, her regrets for what might have been are humorously and not unsuccessfully quashed. In the witching hours of the night, she is a heroine who reaches for “comforting bedside reading” rather than crying into her pillow: her early reassurance to the reader that although she may be plain, she is “not at all like Jane Eyre” is borne out by the good sense that never fails her.

If Mildred is very far from being pathetically lovelorn, neither is she a feminist pioneer: she disapproves of Helena Napier’s wild ways, mentally tutting about wives who are “too busy to cook for their husbands”, and it is all too easy to imagine her attitude to Renault’s characters resembling that of the kindly but disapproving Nurse who wishes she had not discovered Laurie and Andrew kissing because “She hadn’t wanted to know. She much preferred everything to be nice.”

Barbara Pym (1)Yet if Pym’s novel is “nice” in a way that Renault’s is not, it, too, records a world of changing social mores, of rising divorce rates, working women and uncertain codes of sexual behaviour. For all the cosiness of its church fêtes and endless afternoon teas, Pym’s is a decidedly post-war world, one of powdered eggs and “badly bombed” churches. In her own quiet way, Mildred Lathbury is a heroine who breaks the mould, unlike Jane Eyre, not only in her resolute understatement but also in her persistent belief that romance is “Not perhaps [her] cup of tea.” Pym’s novels consistently displace marriage from the centre of women’s lives, although the marriage plot remains a rich source of comedy; even in novels such as Jane and Prudence (1953), which centres on a married woman’s attempt to marry off her best friend, Jane’s husband features only peripherally in the narrative, and Prudence’s desire to acquire one is lukewarm at best. Glamorous Prudence enjoys her serial love affairs too much to give them up for the uncertain privilege of becoming someone’s wife. Ultimately, few of Pym’s characters can bring themselves to commit to the marriage plot, even if they nostalgically hanker after it from time to time.

Perhaps this is why Excellent Women strikes a chord with Her Brilliant Career. Despite being resolutely concerned with the lives of the ordinary and the unremarkable, Pym writes about women for whom marriage is not the central point or purpose of life. Where The Charioteer dares to imagine a future in which men’s love for men will not be taboo, Excellent Women slyly prompts its readers to question the desirability – certainly the necessity – of marriage. In this, both novels testify to the changing times which Cooke brings to sparkling life in her lively biographies.

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