"I want a life that is full and interesting. I should like to work at something which had a purpose beyond mere money-making. I should like to mix with people who would make my life fuller. I want to live with or near a man I love and who would love me, and I think I'd like to have a child, but I don't want that in squalor and misery. As jam for it all, I'd like to live part of the time in London and part in a lovely place [...] I would try to do things to help other women."
Etta Morison is a plucky Edwardian heroine from a dull seaside town who wants more from life than providing companionship to her narrrow-minded parents and possibly marrying one of the boring young men local society finds acceptable. Supported by her suffragette friend Vera, she manages to learn typing and shorthand and - by denying herself new clothes and books - saves enough to run away to lodgings in London, where she begins the dispiriting business of trying to find a job. Her first success, working at an export company, is achieved not because of her skill but because of her good looks: the manager Mr Drayton picks her out of a line-up of young female job-hunters. When Mr Drayton's interest in her becomes more (or less) than professional, Etta resigns, but is rescued from penury by Ada Lawson, another suffrage campaigner she has met through Vera. Living as secretary at Ada's London house and at her beautiful country retreat, Dymcott, Etta gets to know Ada's nephew Ralph, and the two fall in love in the summer of 1914. The war will affect their relationship - and Etta's aspirations for the future - in unexpected ways.
As the quote above suggests, Etta is a forward-thinking young woman, who rejects the tie of marriage and the tiresome constraints of respectability in pursuit of her own life, a pursuit that takes her through war work, a disastrous retreat to a farm, motherhood, and into the dubious world of business. Richard Aldington is best known for the First World War novel Death of a Hero, which exposed the effect of war on a male protagonist: here he shows how women - especially successful war-workers like Etta, who were criticised for profiting from the war - were maimed and altered by conflict. The novel has a lot in common with books like Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp, Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street and E M Delafield's The Heel of Achilles, all novels in which middle-class girls seek some other sort of life than that of a traditional wife and mother Aldington's novel differs in that he sees his heroine through the war and the twenties, and also in the greater sexual frankness that he has Etta express. The focus on sexuality also suggests a revisioning of Wells's Ann Veronica, and indeed one contemporary reviewer makes that exact comparison, not to Aldington's advantage. None of the reviews I found seemed bothered by the sexually explicit content, even though there had been a row over the censorship of Death of a Hero when published in 1929.
The theme that struck me when I thought back over the book was how much Etta is helped out by women, often feminist women. Ada Lawson gives her a job; a friend in later life, Kitty Mendip, helps Etta to get into the world of advertising; and the indefatigable Vera not only helps Etta to set out on her independent life but props her up throughout, particularly during their futile experiment at 'real living' on a smallholding. Etta often reaches rock bottom, but it is invariably a female hand that is held out to lift her up again. The conclusion of the book, in which Etta gets what she wants in some ways, but is compromised in many others, makes a rather ironic mockery of all this sisterly support, especially if we think on to what Etta's life might be like after the novel closes. I think you could read the novel as a prequel to Delafield's Faster! Faster! and those of you who've done so (or who don't mind being spoilered by my review) will know how well things turn out for Delafield's hard-working heroine.
Etta is sometimes attractive, sometimes infuriating, sometimes sympathetic, and generally well-rounded. Some of the minor characters are a little two-dimensional, although Vera and Ada Lawson do achieve a fuller characterisation - Ada in particular is often defined by what she doesn't do or say, in a strangely effective way - and I also liked the characterisation of stuffy Mr Morison, Etta's father.
Aldington is known as a modernist but the prose style in this novel is straightforward, the timescale in standard chronology, with only the occasional bit of stream-of-consciousness to hint at a modernist approach. I found the narrative voice, which points out when Etta is deceived or deceiving herself with some emphasis, rather like Hardy but without Hardy's sustained ironic tone. I'm now interested to try Death of a Hero for a point of comparison. Women Must Work is out of print and there are no electronic copies around, although second-hand ones are available.