Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Friday, 1 March 2013

Elsie and Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson

Despite reading endless books about women workers during the First World War, I'd never heard of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, household names in their day and the most photographed women of the War.  This is probably because their story is so exceptional.  Elsie, a trained nurse and midwife, and eighteen-year-old Mairi, formed part of an ambulance corps which went out to Belgium in the early days of the war; they became the only women to work permanently within shouting distance of the front line at their first aid post in the little Belgian town of Pervyse.  Working independently, outside military organisations, their experience of the war was probably unique among women.

Elsie and Mairi had met before the war through their shared passion for motorcycling, and it was Mairi's ability on her bike that brought her to the attention of Dr Hector Munro when he was selecting members of his ambulance corps.  Mairi recommended Elsie to him, and the two women would work together for the rest of the war.  Elsie is an impressive character: she divorced her first husband for his violence and infidelity - no mean thing in Edwardian England - and trained as a midwife in the East End of London.  A strong-minded and determined woman, she helped develop medical understanding of how to treat war casualties, insisting that they be given proper rest and first aid before they were transported to a hospital, saving many lives and giving great comfort to those who would not have survived the journey.  She also brooked no suggestion that the Belgian front line was no place for a couple of women to work, either defying or ignoring orders to leave that came from various military authorities.

Mairi is no less impressive, a young woman dealing stoutly with scenes of death and devastation from her first days in Belgium, and enduring the privations of war service from their first aid post, a series of cellars in the bombed-out houses of Pervyse.  She had defied her mother to come to Belgium, although her father had encouraged her and for a short while joined the women, taking on the job of servicing their ambulances.  Both women made regular fund-raising trips back to Britain, speaking to large audiences and appearing alongside the music-hall stars of the day; Mairi's old school was very proud of their alumna and raised a great deal of money to support the women's work, which was entirely dependent on donations.  As well as caring for the wounded and joshing with the German troops dug in only a hundred yards or so from their post, the two women formed a little social centre for Belgian and British soldiers; Elsie eventually married a Belgian officer, changing her name from the memorable Knocker to the impressive if awkward Baroness de T'Serclaes. 

Diane Atkinson's book brings their remarkable story to light, giving a vivid impression of the hardship and effort they endured in Pervyse, and finishes the story by telling of their later lives.  Both women also entered war service during the Second World War and both were repeatedly honoured for their work.  As well as writing their story, Diane Atkinson is also campaigning for a statue of Elsie and Mairi to be erected in London.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson

Subtitled Women's Lives during the Second World War, this book - like Singled Out - draws on a vast range of personal accounts of the experiences of British women.  Virginia Nicholson uses interviews, diaries, Mass Observation records as well as published sources to construct a sense of how women lived their lives during the war.  As she points out, relatively few women entered the uniformed services during the war, with most continuing to keep house and look after their children through the privations of wartime, and the book seeks especially to tell the story of that Home Front.

While she succeeds in this - and with diarists like Nella Last at hand, she has plenty of good sources among the women who struggled with rationing and did their bit as volunteers in the WVS or similar - one of the problems with accounts of quiet, stoical endurance is that they may not always be terribly exciting.  But the book also includes plenty of accounts of women who ventured a bit further, and whose bravery and heroism makes for a little more drama such as Mary Cornish, who survived the wrecking of a ship taking evacuated children to Canada, and Aileen "Mike" Morris, who served in Malta and North Africa with the WAAFs; a fluent German speaker, she listened to and interpreted their radio messages.

Throughout the book, Nicholson considers where feminism is in all this activity, whether women were motivated by patriotism, the desire to defeat fascism or a wish to extend women's social role.  Particularly interesting are the chapters on the years immediately after the war, when many women went back, with some relief, to home-making and child-rearing.  The impact of prolonged separation from their husbands and the independence this enforced affected even the most devoted housewife, however; Nicholson tells of returning husbands whose need to reassert their masculine authority marked the end of the marriage.  For other women, the end of the war was a time of frustration; sidelined out of their jobs to make room for returning heroes, they felt unvalued, no longer of use to their country.  But many women, as Nicholson points out, were entirely identified with the idea of home; home was, as she says "who they were", and the chance to return there meant self-fulfilment and expression rather than constraint.

Perhaps this position partly has its roots in the type of war service women undertook; as Nicholson explains, most women's wartime roles were ancillary, supportive of the front-line war service of men, and kept that way deliberately by the wartime administration; anything else was far too challenging to the notion of woman as man's helpmeet and women with an idea of themselves as equal to men were, in any case, few and far between.  To the modern feminist reader this can, as Nicholson acknowledges, be frustrating, but she is always fair and balanced in her approach, seeking to understand their position and its origins rather than to criticise.  The whole book is deeply empathic; Nicholson's fellow feeling for the women she writes about means that their stories are moving and engaging, although even Nicholson couldn't make me empathise with Barbara Cartland.  My one minor criticism is that, although there is quite a lot of material on women's sexual lives during the war, lesbianism only seems to be mentioned in terms of predation.  There are several published memoirs of lesbian life in wartime that could have amplified this - the book It's Not Unusual has a chapter on the Second World War, if you are interested in finding out more.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Anything Goes by Lucy Moore

My knowledge of 1920s America is based almost entirely on a youthful enthusiasm for the work of Dorothy Parker and repeated viewings of Some Like It Hot.  Lucy Moore's "biography" proved to be an entertaining way to expand my limited awareness beyond the Algonquin Round Table and fictional cross-dressing jazz musicians.  Moore's biography is chronological, but she does not attempt to squeeze in every aspect of such a potentially vast topic.  Instead, she focuses on characteristic events, trends and individuals, constructing a profile of the age rather than an exhaustive history.  Key themes include jazz, organised crime, modernisers and modernisms, the automotive and entertainment industries, and economics.  Each chapter has a thematic focus but constructs a narrative around that focus, telling the story and drawing out the broader historical implications.

Some of the people Moore writes about are hugely famous - Al Capone, Warren Harding, Bessie Smith, Lindbergh - but she is also good at working the stories of background characters into her text.  The chapter on the New Yorker focuses much less on its starry writers than on Robert Ross, the "homely" editor whose first wife said of him "he'd have to be good with that face and figure".  The chapter on Lindbergh, which includes a marvellous evocation of his solo flight across the Atlantic, tells us about the Californian plane builders who constructed Spirit of St Louis, working unpaid overtime to do so.  Moore is particularly good on showing how "business" and its methods acquired an almost religious significance, with the salesman the evangelising means by which consumption could be stimulated and profits increased.  Religion itself co-opted business language through the publication of The Man Nobody Knows, which apparently depicts Jesus as a successful chief executive who picked twelve go-ahead types to join his senior management team.  A recurring theme is the way in which notions of American-ness were promoted by the new mass media, particularly the cinema.

There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the impact of free-market economics and unregulated banking on the present economy, and the early roots of American thinking on this can be traced here.  Andrew Mellon, the Treasury Secretary throughout the 1920s, was committed to the free market and to the reduction of taxation, particularly for the rich.  "By the time Mellon's new tax system came into effect in 1927 a few people were starting to worry about the effects of over-speculation and the over-extension of credit, but neither Mellon nor [President] Coolidge would countenance an interest-rate rise: they believed the market should be self-regulating.   This would have grave implications in the coming years" (160).  All depressingly familiar.

Despite the title, Moore also looks at some of the more reactionary elements of American society, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-Darwinist legislation passed by various states.  Even the conservatives in this book seem to have a definite sense of being modern - while reading, I began to wonder if a sense of our own modernity is something we have lost now that nostalgia is almost a way of life, at least in the UK.

This is not a footnote-laden text, although there are suggestions of further reading for each chapter and an extensive bibliography.  I slightly missed having footnotes - there is usually something juicy hidden there - but I think the book succeeds on its own terms as what Lucy Moore calls a "subjective survey" and as a stimulating introduction to a fascinating time.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

To The River by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's book is a love-letter to the river Ouse in Sussex, a poetic blend of travel narrative, history and memoir.  After a personal crisis, Olivia sets out to walk the Ouse from the source to the sea, her backpack stuffed with cheese and oatcakes, on a journey of healing and discovery.  Her narrative takes in the history of Sussex around the Ouse.  We meet the amateur geologist Gideon Mantell, a doctor in Lewes in the early nineteenth who discovered the iguanadon; Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes; Richard Dawson who gave us the Piltdown Man hoax; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  Laing also ponders those who have loved rivers, and been endlessly drawn to them, like Kenneth Grahame, and the effect of rivers on the landscape, and of humankind on those rivers.

Laing's style is reflective, turning over for the reader her thoughts and wonderings about the landscape and the characters who populate it.  We are privy to her indecisions and confusions, which makes for an intimate, confiding text.  Her knowledge is demonstrated lightly and the stories and histories she relates make the narrative digressive and meandering, much like the Ouse itself.  I was faintly surprised by the depth of her botanical knowledge - she can spot a dozen species in a hedgerow - until I read on the back of the dustjacket that she used to be a medical herbalist.  She is also a fearless swimmer; I would not swim in the wide, grey, tidal Ouse at Southease, even without the awful example of Virginia Woolf before me.

Laing writes a lot about both Woolfs, looking particularly at the representation of water in Virginia Woolf's writings, and unpicking the notion that her suicide by drowning is foretold in her novels and diaries, extracting alternate readings of texts that have been read as sinister or portentous, like the diary account of Virginia wading into a flooded Ouse that covered the fields around Rodmell, unworried about getting wet because she was wearing Leonard's corduroy trousers.  But Woolf is an object lesson of the unpredictability of the river, which will take you, if you surrender yourself to it, but may not return you.

This book was particularly resonant for me because I've also walked the length of the Ouse, along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way which Olivia Laing also follows for the most part.  I can still see vividly the places she describes.  But the book has amplified  the memory of my walk by connecting it to history, geology and to Laing's own experience of the Ouse.  Above all, Laing's book celebrates the pleasures of walking alone in the landscape: "There wasn't a soul in sight, though I knew there were hordes of people beyond each ridge [...] I was nonetheless as purely happy as I've ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of the sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side [...] I felt untethered, almost weightless."  Like Waterlog, this book will make you want to stuff your swimsuit - and perhaps some cheese and oatcakes - into a backpack and set off into the fields towards the river.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Dreamers of a New Day by Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham's history of women's activism  covers the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, and her dreamers and visionaries are drawn from both sides of the Atlantic.  This makes her book extremely comprehensive in scope and allows her to tell us about a large number of women, some still well known, others new to me at least, who worked to effect social change and, in doing so, changed the position of women in society forever.  It also plainly shows how an idea needs the right context and conditions to flourish: campaigns and initiatives that worked in America failed in England, and vice versa; issues that seemed crucial in one country could be trivial or invisible in the other.

Rowbotham's approach is thematic, and covers topics such as sex, gender, work, domesticity, consumption and politics; she takes in the work of radical minorities and more mainstream campaigners, allowing us to grasp the range and complexity of ideas and arguments about these issues.  There are detailed analyses of the development (or lack of it) of sex education for young women and of the growth of consumer power.  The stories of consumer boycotts, organised and sustained by women, to reduce prices were particularly eye-opening, as one of them led to the kosher meat riots of 1917 in New York, in which women attacked butchers physically to register their protest about rising prices:  one Mrs Teibel Shimberg was seen "beating a peddler's head with her shopping bag".

Possibly my favourite dreamer in this book is Sarah Lees, a liberal suffragist from Edwardian Oldham.  Infuriated by the failure of Oldham council to address the housing needs of its citizens, she "formed a co-operative building society among the better-paid mill workers.  Within six years, they had built a garden suburb of 150 three-bedroomed houses, each with a bathroom, offered at rents which were affordable to working-class families." Like Sarah Lees, many of Rowbotham's dreamers had a strong pragmatic streak which allowed them to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of those around them.

Rowbotham's transatlantic approach allows us to see the differences between the needs of women in the UK and America.  Many activists proposed a communal approach to reduce the burden of domestic labour, and set up communal kitchens and laundries as a result.  Communal kitchens were relatively popular in America, but failed in the UK, because they were too much like the hated and feared workhouse.  Notions of communality of this sort have all but died away in current society, now that individual homes have (allegedly) labour-saving devices installed, although are perhaps being revived by community garden schemes in parts of the UK.  Another advantage of the focus on American campaigners is that it includes the work of black women in the wider history of women's activism.  Often separated by racial prejudice from white reform workers, black women established radical and innovative means of effecting social change.  Entrepreneurs like Maggie Lena Walker, who established a women's insurance company and a department store before revitalising a friendly society, show how purchasing power helped support the black community and resist the effects of institutionalised bigotry. 

My one criticism of this book is that it does, occasionally, become a list of remarkable women, and it can be hard to keep track of them as they disappear and reappear from the narrative.  Some sort of genealogical chart, along the lines of Rock Family Trees, would have been much appreciated.  But this is a minor issue: the book is an enlightening read, and encourages both reflection on the achievements of "our adventurous foremothers" and speculation as to what today's dreamers might achieve.

For those who would like to know more about this book, here is a thoughtful and enthusiastic review by Kirsty of Other Stories, guest-blogging for the F-Word.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Thirties: an intimate history by Juliet Gardiner

This vast book gives an overview of the political and social history and at the same time reaches deep into the authentic voices of the 1930s, drawing on diaries, letters, and forgotten published texts.  In her preface, Juliet Gardiner acknowledges the various and partial ways in which the decade has been depicted: the long decline towards world war, the effects of the great Depression, the inexorable march of progress and modernity.  Her history seeks to recognise the validity of all these accounts and to explore all of them in great detail, and in this she undoubtedly succeeds.  If there is anything you would like to know about 1930s Britain - and one of the advantages of this book is that it is definitely a history of Britain, not of England - it is probably in here somewhere.

The scope of her project, and the level of detail she seeks to include, sometimes make the book an unwieldy read; at nearly a thousand pages, the hardback is literally unwieldy.  Consequently I read this book rather slowly, the odd chapter here and there, and probably missed some of the narrative drive as a result.  However, Gardiner's achievement is extraordinary and the place she gives to the authentic voices of the period provides a refreshing and, as intended, intimate view of this fascinating period which has so many parallels with our own.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Long Week-End by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Anyone who has read histories of the interwar period in Britain will have come across references to this book.  Published in 1941, the book's stated purpose is "to serve as a reliable record of what took place, of a forgettable sort, during the twenty-one year interval between two great European wars".  Structured in thematic but chronological chapters, this approach allows Graves and Hodge to cover all sorts of ephemera alongside a thorough outline of the political upheaval of the period, as well as some excellent jokes.  The overall tone of the book, however, is both rather cynical and quite conservative.  Social and political campaigns are often attributed to the workings of fashion rather than conviction: feminism, for example, can be a threat, a joke or a force for good, depending on context.  Writing on demobilisation after the First World War, they note that "A million men found that their old jobs had either disappeared or were held by someone else - usually a woman, or a man who had escaped conscription", which is a familiar presentation of the employment position at that time, if not entirely borne out in other accounts.  A few pages later, however, women war workers are being described rather differently:  "The women who only a year or so earlier had been acclaimed as patriots, giving up easy lives at home to work for their Country, were now represented as vampires who deprived men of their rightful jobs.  By Trade Union pressure they were dismissed from engineering, printing and transport work, though cheap and efficient workers, and from the factories where they had worked on munitions." Possibly it is the opportunity for a bit of union-bashing that accounts for this change of heart.

There is a vast amount of detail in this book, particularly of the sort of domestic matters that often escape other histories, and accounts of the way the trends and events of the period actually affected day to day life.  The authors also have an unexpected familiarity with women's fashions - I wondered if one of them sat down with a huge stack of Vogue magazines to furnish the details of hemlines and hats.  The chapter titles can be idiosyncratic; "The Days of the Loch Ness Monster" covers press reporting of the Monster, press sensationalism in general, yo-yos, mechanisation, the music-hall and literary trends.  This variety, and the entertaining and witty style of the text, makes it an engaging read, however the reader feels about its political positioning.  It is also invaluable to the scholar of the period, giving a sense not only of what happened, by of how it was presented by the media of the day, and the influence of newspapers and broadcasting on social attitudes.  The Long Week-End seems to be out of print, but there are a lot of cheap second-hand copies around.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson's book surveys the development of university education for women in England, from its earliest origins in the 18th century until the start of World War II.  Robinson focuses mainly on the period from the late 19th century onwards, and includes an account of development of formal school education for girls, which led in turn to a demand for the opportunity to study at a higher level.  She goes on to describe the founding of the Oxbridge colleges for women, the opening of provincial universities with no gender bar, and the gradual infiltration of women into institutions that were not always ready or willing to receive them.  All of this is illuminated by personal accounts, memoirs and diaries of the women who studied and taught in these institutions; these are usually inspiring, sometimes rather tragic, and often extremely funny.  I particularly liked the nervous sixth-former, arriving at at St Hilda's expecting a rigorous interview, only to find herself making shadow-puppets in the firelight with the English tutor.  Clearly she was good at it, as St Hilda's offered her a place.

Robinson is very good on the arcane rules of institutions, getting under the skin of what can seem like gratuitous regulation so that the reader understands the rationale, and gives a wonderful sense of what daily life could be like for the female undergraduate in the first half of the twentieth century.  The resistance to women students from institutions (particularly Cambridge) and families (one enterprising father offered his daughter a pony if only she would give up her idea of going to college) is also well-described, including the wider establishment's antipathy to the female scholar, who, it was thought, would damage her chances of producing healthy stock by keeping her nose in a book.  I was also interested to find how socially mixed interwar university students could be, with scholarships, contributions from schoolteachers, and occasional quiet waiving of fees all helping to get girls from poorer backgrounds into higher education.

Now women outnumber men in higher education in England and Wales, at least on undergraduate programmes, and there is no need to struggle to be taken seriously as an applicant because of your gender, except perhaps in some subject areas. Parents are much more likely to expect their daughters to go to university than to oppose such a plan.  It's good to remember the pioneers who bucked convention on our behalf, so that university education for women became a norm, not an exception, and Jane Robinson's book celebrates them in great style.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

In The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson sets out to describe the two years following the Armistice in the terms of the cyclical sequence of emotions that accompany grief and mourning.  In chapters headed Wound, Shock, Denial, Release, Resignation and so on, she draws on personal and establishment archives, diaries and letters to bring us the authentic voices of the times.  The social and political uncertainty, and sometimes unrest, of the era is also clearly narrated.  Through this dense and detailed account, forgotten stories of this period are retrieved and celebrated.

As in her previous book, the highly enjoyable A Perfect Summer, Nicolson draws on the writings of the celebrated and eminent, and also on those of the obscure, so we get a range of voices and opinions from the most powerful - the King and Queen - to the least, in the form of the memories of those who were small children at the time.  Often Nicolson uses key figures - T E Lawrence and Nancy Astor are good examples - to exemplify the ways in which a wounded society sought to repair and rehabilitate itself through establishing heroes and forcing change.  She also retells some of the stories of hope from the period, particularly the story of Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who did pioneering work to repair soldier's damaged faces; Gillies's cousin Archie McIndoe started the more famous Guinea Pig Club after the second world war, drawing on the techniques and approaches Gillies had established, which included using artists such as Kathleen Scott and Henry Tonks, Professor of the Slade, to help draw and model reconstructed faces. She is also very good on the position of women, who had achieved the vote and could get an Oxford degree, but were being encouraged back to the home to make way for returning war heroes in need of jobs.

Nicolson has created a narrative of this two year period in which the shock and grief of the first World War are gradually accommodated and accepted, and in which the possibilities of hope for the future began to be permissible. Her last chapter, which describes the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, suggests that this funeral helped to heal the scars of the war, and her ending, which quotes Winifred Holtby, exuberantly in love with life, suggests an open doorway to a new world.  However, she does not overstate her case; the ongoing problems left by the war are recognised, as is dissent from the establishment view of the meaning of the war and its value.

In A Perfect Summer, Nicolson had the advantage of diaries and letters which were maintained throughout the period of her narrative, giving her a continuous set of voices to draw on.  In this book, voices appear only briefly, or disappear altogether, often because the writer has died.  This can be seen as a disadvantage in narrative continuity and maintenance of an argument, but is perhaps an advantage in depicting the uncertainty of the times she describes, the suddenness of loss, the fragmentation of identity suffered by so many.  It also helps remind the reader that the cycle of mourning is not a machine that runs in order; some people will be stuck forever in Denial, which some will move backwards and forwards through painful emotional states before reaching the promised land of Acceptance. The discontinuity of voices also speaks of the social divisions between those who sought to restore a pre-war society and those who sought the opportunity for change.  This book is, understandably, much less humorous than its predecessor,but it brings into the light a period heavily overshadowed by the war and the Twenties, and is a careful, nuanced account of the people who lived through this interval between times of more revolutionary change.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution by June Rose

Over fifty years after her death, Marie Stopes's name remains synonymous with contraception.  There is a chain of private sexual health clinics in the UK that is still called after her.  Most people will also be aware of her pioneering work in sexual guidance, which first articulated for a mass audience idea that good sexual relations were at the heart of happy marriages, and indicated frankly how these were to be achieved.  This book contextualises her work on sexuality and fertility control among her other achievements and her complex personal life.

Marie's mother, Charlotte Carmichael, was a suffragette and a scholar in her own right, although unable, during her own youth, to undertake formal study at a university.  Charlotte was in some ways a detached mother, with exacting standards that Marie found impossible to satisfy, but committed to the education of her daughters. Affection came more from Marie's father Henry, but her parents' marriage was not harmonious and Henry died when Marie was in her early twenties.  Marie was something of an academic prodigy; she completed her undergraduate degree in Botany and Geology at the University of London in two years, moved to Munich to undertake a PhD, and followed this up with a Doctor of Science again in London; at the time she was the youngest person in Britain to gain this award. Her specialism was paleobotany, in particular the fossils to be found in coal, and this specialism took her down many coal mines and on a research trip to Japan where she undertook long and arduous journeys in search of specimens.

Working in Manchester as a lecturer, with several complex romantic entanglements involving both sexes behind her, Marie began to write poetry and prose with a strongly autobiographical tone.  June Rose quotes enough of her poetry to give the reader a sense that, despite her facility with rhyme and metre, poetry was not really her metier, but at this time she was already working on a text that would eventually become Married Love.  Invited to Canada to study the carboniferous flora of New Brunswick, she met, and within a few days had agreed to marry, Reginald Ruggles Gates, a fellow scientist specialising in genetics.  Their marriage was unsuccessful, both emotionally and successfully, and was eventually annulled, but in its aftermath, and drawing on both her scientific knowledge and her own personal experience of unsuccessful marriage, Marie published Married Love to instant acclaim. Shortly afterwards she married the wealthy Humphrey Roe, who was to support her writing career and her crusading zeal for contraceptive advice with money, time and unconditional affection.

Rose is very good at evoking Marie's immense self-possession and overweening self-confidence.  She had no respect for the boundaries that kept women out of politics and science, and crossed many of them herself, but this was achieved only by maintaining a self-belief that can seem unbearable or ridiculous.  She can also be self-serving, making use of people and organisations while it is of advantage to her, and passing on from them when her need or interest has faded.  This tendency is perhaps at its most acute in her relationship with her son Harry.  Marie had longed for a child for years and, after giving birth to a stillborn baby, was overjoyed at Harry's birth when she was 44.  She was an attentive, if sometimes eccentric, mother. Until he went to boarding school, Harry wore only knitted trousers or kilts, because Marie believed ordinary trousers would damage the development of his genitals.  But when Harry proposed to marry a girl Marie disapproved of, for an entirely petty reason, she cut him out of her life.

The biography is very fair, however, in identifying Marie's achievements and recognising that her less attractive characteristics enabled her to break new ground and contribute hugely to the conditions of women's lives.  Her unbearable self-confidence was necessary to allow her to write, as a woman in the early 20th century, about contraception and women's entitlement to sexual pleasure.  It also allowed her to withstand and to counter criticism from such establishment forces as the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the British Medical Association.  Even if she had been self-deprecating and kind, her enthusiasm for eugenics and the improvement of "the Race" would make today's readers uncomfortable.  However, her books changed many people's lives greatly for the better, helping women take control of their fertility, and heterosexual couples achieve happier sex lives; June Rose includes many letters of thanks from enlightened readers.  Marie's sexual radicalism ended there.  Despite some emotionally charged relationships with women, she characterised homosexuality as a disease, and was at endless pains to demonstrate that her advice and guidance was for married people.

Rose's book is well-crafted and gives a balanced, nuanced reading of Marie's life, her successes and her failures. It presents her as a flawed but determined individual, sometimes using her grandiose ideas to propel her to greater achievements, sometimes going too far and doing damage to her own reputation.  Rose is particularly good at understanding and explaining the rather mystical nature of Marie's attitudes to sex, which led her to announce herself as a prophet and to publish A New Gospel, which she claimed had been dictated to her by God.  If I have one criticism it is that the latter part of Marie's life is given less attention than her early years; but to be fair, her early years are so packed with incident that it would be difficult to summarise.  The book is also very entertaining, particularly when Marie's self-assurance leads to unusually egregious acts of self-promotion.  It also gives a very good introduction to the context for Marie's work, particularly in terms of political, religious and social attitudes to sex and contraception.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Our Hidden Lives edited by Simon Garfield

Derived from Mass-Observation diaries, this book comprises entries from five writers in post-war Britain, and records their thoughts and reactions to the protracted end of the war, the Labour landslide, the beginnings of the welfare state, and to the austerity period. Having recently read Austerity Britain, I was prepared for negative views on Atlee's government, Utility furniture and continued rationing. However, the vigorous antisemitism expressed or recorded by the correspondents was surprising for a group of people who must all have seen the newsreels of the death camps. One correspondent's husband only regrets that the "Nuremburg thugs were not able to finish the job". This prejudice, and other illiberal tendencies, can make some of the authors hard to like. However, they remain fascinating. B Charles, a gay antiques dealer and superlative snob, gives glimpses of the lives of gay men in provincial cities; his opaque tone when discussing sexuality and attraction to others (the latest object of desire is always described as having "possibilities") is evocative of a strictly closeted life. We never learn his first name. Maggie Joy Blunt is a more attractive character and her diaries explore the opportunities and risks for a single woman trying to make a living as a writer. Best of all is pensioner Herbert Brush, labouring on his allotment, creosoting his fence, tolerating neighbourhood bores and composing really awful poetry to amuse the Mass-Observation readers.

I was interested in the number of Germans, mainly refugees or former prisoners of war, that several of the correspondents seemed to know and like; one correspondent seems to have many German neighbours and records their efforts to trace their relatives. She meets the mother of a German friend, miraculously retrieved from post-war Berlin and brought to Sheffield. These encounters seem to be without rancour, and POWs are received sympathetically. I have Don't Mention the War in my to-be-read pile, and hope that this will provide more insight into this facet of post-war life.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Bright Young People by D J Taylor

Taylor's history attempts to chart "the rise and fall of a generation", the generation who were mostly too young to have fought in World War I, but old enough to have understood its implications. Often opposed to traditional thinking, with greater independence, more opportunities to earn money, and more indulgent parents than previous generations, this particular fragment of interwar Britain rebelled against their parents through jokes, parties, and pursuing the cult of celebrity. Taylor considers the meaning of class in a frivolous society, the contribution (and sometimes the lack of it) to arts and letters made by its members, and issues of sexuality and criminality. Rather oddly, he suggests that "the real casualties of gay young Bohemia ... were women" (205), not appearing to grasp that any casualties at that time were probably caused by the illegality of homosexual behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. I can't quite believe in Nancy Mitford as a pathetic victim of her gay first love, since she seemed to have a pattern of falling for unavailable men.

Taylor has an excellent resource at his disposal: the letters and diaries of the Ponsonbys, comprising father Arthur, Labour politician and eventual leader of the House of Lords; his wife Dorothea; their conformist son Matthew; and their rebel daughter Elizabeth, who seems to have attended every party held during the 1920s, made a thoroughly unsuccessful marriage, drained her parents of money and died young from the effects of alcoholism. Taylor's sympathies are with the elder Ponsonbys, and it is fairly hard not to agree, but a little more consideration of Elizabeth's reasons for choosing a rackety way of life would have been welcome. Perhaps there simply isn't any evidence of her motivation. Elizabeth's story is a sad and touching one; this, and other similar narratives, prevent the book from being overly infected with the frivolity it depicts; it is a rich source of highly amusing stories. I particularly enjoyed Eddie Gathorne-Hardy teasing his celibate gay butler.

This book reminded me most of a book I read years ago about the Baader-Meinhof group. In both books, the author's distaste for most of his subjects, for their pointless lives, for their limitations, comes strongly off the page. For the Bright Young People, such distaste seems a little harsh. They may have led futile lives, they were certainly silly, but not really so very bad. The final chapter details the successes as well as the failures among this group, but I can't shake the feeling of Taylor's disapproval even for the successes of Robert Byron or Evelyn Waugh.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700 by Silvia Evangelisti

This is an excellent book, well-written and thorougly researched, on a fascinating topic. Evangelisti's central thesis is that nuns, although separated from society by the convent walls, were nevertheless integrated and connected to that society through social, policitical and economic as well as spiritual bonds. In the introduction she asserts the place of the convent as a familiar part of both urban and rural landscapes; the remainder of the book goes on to demonstrate how nuns themselves formed and contributed to the societies around them.

The main historical event of the book is the Council of Trent, which required the stricter enclosure of nuns as part of its responses the reformation. Walls were built higher, grilles installed in windows, and the nuns' choirs in their churches often screened from public sight. Convents had two doors separating them from the world, with the keys to the outer door held only by a priest. These reforms also required that convents were answerable to the Bishop, in an attempt to maintain male dominance over women and thwart women's self-governance. This met with mixed results. Some women embraced the enclosure as a spiritual opportunity; others met the Bishop's emissary, come to discuss enclosure, by attempting to drop a large lump of marble onto his head from a high point in the convent. It's hard to imagine the Bishop's authority having much sway in the governance of that particular convent.

Evangelisiti shows how nuns participated in the life of society through participation in the arts, including writing, painting, music and acting, and through the convent's position as a centre for spiritual and social support. On a saint's feast-day, a procession would carried around the convent by local people and then continued inside the convent by the nuns; people would come to the convent church, and wait outside the building, to hear the nuns singing from behind the enclosure. Many nuns wrote memoirs, often at the behest of their confessors, and their published works gave them a relationship with readers across the world. Convents were important as educators of girls, providers of save retreats for widows, and, more contentiously, as homes for unmarriageable daughters. The convent dowry was often considerably less than the marriage dowry, and consequently many women without vocations entered the convent because it was expedient for their families. Convents usually perpetuated external social divisions, recruiting choir nuns from the upper classes, servant nuns from the lower classes; social mobility within the convent seems to have been limited, with few nuns from the lower classes learning how to read and write, and only choir nuns being able to vote in chapter and be elected to senior offices.

The final chapter is devoted to orders established to working beyond the enclosure as nurses, teachers or providers of social care. Some such orders, such as the Ursulines, were obliged to submit to enclosure and limit their community activities. However, as war and increased urbanisation meant that societies had a greater need for the support provided by such orders, such orders were better tolerated and increased their membership and activities significantly. This gives force to Evangelisti's assertion that religious communities are necessary to, and integrated with, their wider society: we get the nuns that we need and want. The argument is persuasive.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou

Subtitled Women's writing, feminist consciousness and social change 1918-38, Joannou's book considers issues of feminism, pacifism and socialism within the work of some well-known feminist writers, such as Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, and some now quite obscure writers including Leonora Eyles and Katharine Burdekin. The book is arranged thematically but also traces a chronological journey from the Great War, with a critical evaluation of Vera Brittain's feminism as evinced in Testament of Youth, to the eve of the second World War and a consideration of Woolf's feminist and pacifist Three Guineas. These opening and closing chapters mirror each other to a certain extent, with Joannou identifying the class-bound and individualist nature of Brittain's experience which limits her radicalism, and opposing them with a reading of Three Guineas that draws out its greater radicalism, showing how Woolf used this book to align herself with those outside her class and removed from her Bloomsbury peers. During the journey through the inter-war period we look at the socialist-feminist works of Leonora Eyles, a new name to me and a middle-class writer who attempted to depict and critique patriarchal and industrial society; the portrayal of the spinster in works by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winifred Holtby and F M Mayor; lesbian representation in Orlando and The Well of Loneliness; and the relationships between femininity and feminism in Bowen's The Death of the Heart and Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets. The chapter on lesbianism argues that the non-traditional narrative structure and elements of fantasy in Orlando enable Woolf to offer a much more trenchant critique of masculinity and patriarchy than is possible for the more realistic and more obvious (and, in its day, more shocking) Well of Loneliness. A similar argument is used to compare STW's Lolly Willowes, whose escape from respectable middle-class life into life as a witch in rural Bedfordshire, and FMM's Rector's Daughter, which may take a light ironic tone when describing the life of Mary Jocelyn, and show ambivalence about Mary's self-sacrifice, but cannot achieve the critical bite of Lolly Willowes; it lacks the latter book's scope and internal freedom to do so. The introduction and conclusion point to the need for socialist and Marxist analyses of the 1930s to take account of and incorporate feminist critiques if we are to gain a full understanding of the period, and also argue strongly for the study of traditional, non-modernist writers alongside the modernist interwar women writers; Joannou exemplifies this type of comparative study extremely well throughout the book. A thoughtful and provocative critique, then, that places the lesser-known and traditional writers within an expansive canon of interwar literary production.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Rest is Noise: listening to the 20th century by Alex Ross

There are many, many reasons to praise this book. Geoff Dyer's quote on the cover calls it "a work of immense scope and ambition ... a great achievement"; inside the cover the praise is justified over and over again. Ross has linked together the stories of most of the significant composers of the last century, their lives, their work, and the interlinked nature of their work. He is particularly fascinating on Shostakovich and the ways in Soviet Russia, and Stalin, affected his work and life; on the pervasive influence of Schoenberg and twelve-tone music; and on both European and American musical responses to American modernity. There are fascinating nuggets of information: Dvorak was convinced that the first great American composer would be black; the only vaguely nasty thing anyone could be induced to say about Messiaen was that he and his wife had once eaten a whole tart without sharing it with their guest. Messiaen seems to be an exception to quite a roster of ego-driven, rather monstrous characters amongst the other composers described here, and Ross links this to Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, in which the composor Adrian Leverk├╝hn makes the ultimate bargain in return for aesthetic and worldly success. Both Ross and Mann suggest that the creation of great music is difficult to reconcile with great humanity; ironic in view of the humanising effect of music on audience and performer.

Ross is extremely good at describing musical works so that readers without great musical knowledge (including this reader) can understand the techniques used, and their relation to other works, but also at making you want to hear the music, even at the challenging or downright noisy end of the spectrum. I hope his list of recommended recordings is much used; I know I will be making many trips to the library to broaden my own experience of this work, which is shamefully limited.

Having read a lot about modernism and the avant-garde in literature and art in recent years, it was fascinating to see similar arguments, movements, schisms and declines described here. There is much here to compete, in avant-garde terms, with the excesses of Dada. But, with the possible exception of Weimar Berlin, until the late twentieth century music remained embedded in the Academy. Work, however challenging, continued to be performed by orchestras, in concert halls, as part of programmes and festivals. Unlike other modernisms, the modernisms of music cannot separate definitively from the cultural mainstream, until music begins to make use of tape and other recorded sound which can be performed in a greater variety of places. There is no obvious equivalent of Shakespeare and Co, publisher of Ulysses, to enable the performance of avant-garde work. Rather than necessarily compromising the impact of modernist composition, perhaps this enhances the significance of modernist composers' rebellion - against conservative traditions and then against modernist orthodoxy - and accounts for the longevity of innovations and their influence throughout the last century.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves

This Persephone reprint of a 1912 Fabian Society tract was a Christmas present; like A Christmas Carol it served as a salutary contrast to the feasts and presents. Reeves reports on the outcome of an experiment in Edwardian Lambeth, in which the Fabian Women's Group recorded in meticulous detail the income and expenditure of poor families. Reeves emphasises firmly that these are the hardworking poor; the men do not drink, some hardly smoke, the women do not spend their few shillings at the pictures or on a new hat. Instead, the family's income is usually spent on rent for unhealthy, often vermin-ridden rooms, which work out dearer per cubic foot than a house in a middle-class area; burial insurance to avoid the shame of a pauper's funeral at the almost inevitable death of a child; and the bread, margarine and tea which forms the greater part of the family's diet - a diet less nutritious than that provided in contemporary workhouses. When rent, or the price of coal, or the breadwinner's travelling expenses, go up, the amount remaining for food goes down: the women and children will always eat less if that means paying the rent. Unhealthy accommodation and poor diet make for sickly and undersized children, although they are not without spirit: my favourite was Joey, who, when asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, replied "You get a bigger bit of meat on your plate than ever you seen before ... and when 'E dies, you get a bun". Reeves' tone is generally mild and neutral; the simple reporting of the Women's Group discoveries is shocking enough without emphasis, and the point is clearly made: you cannot raise a healthy family on round about a pound a week. In her final chapter Reeves calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, and for the State - which has already taken some responsibility for children by prohibiting child labour - needs to meet the other half of this bargain by ensuring they are properly housed and nourished, through grants to parents. The book gives great insight into women's lives at this time, of both the Lambeth mothers and the rather ghostly "visitors" who helped them track their budgets and expenditures, and who are often kind, sometimes patronising, but usually generous in their view of what makes a good parent and a good housekeeper. I wish it had not reminded me so forcibly of David Widgery's Some Lives, published in 1992 and showing families struggling with the same problems: little money, poor food and poor housing, and consequent illness and death.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Smoke in the Valley by David Kynaston

Everything I said about A World to Build holds true for Kynaston's next chapter, which takes us from 1948 to 1951 through a lucid and fascinating account drawing on diaries, contemporary histories and subsequent analysis. He often finds contemporary writing about the issues he covers that challenge the accepted historical view; I was particularly taken with his analysis of Godfrey Winn's account of suburban life as a happy and satisfied one, greatly contrary to contemporary and subsequent commentary. I look forward to the next volume of the Tales of the New Jerusalem - if they all turn out as marvellous as the first two, they will be a huge joy.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A World to Build by David Kynaston

A fascinating history of 1945-48, drawing on published accounts, diaries and letters, and the Mass Observation archive. The use of unpublished material gives the text a fresh, vivid appeal and conveys very effectively the miseries of living during this period. The writing is peppered with Kynaston's own wry humour and some very good jokes: my favourite was the story of the Minister for Housing, a Mr Silkin, getting barracked by the people of Stevenage at a meeting intended to convince them that the new town development was a good thing, and finding, when he came to take his leave, that the local youth had let down his tyres. The book is intensely evocative of the tiredness everyone suffered, having struggled through the war; the cold and the squalor; but also the strengths of the dreams of social improvement and the sense of opportunity amongst those with the energy and power to undertake that improvement. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

Monday, 16 June 2008

The House by the Thames by Gillian Tindall

This meticulous piece of historical research tells the story of Bankside by focusing on one house, Number 49, and the people who lived and worked there. The book explores the industrial history of Bankside alongside the social history of its inhabitants. Tindall is more neutral about the transformation of Bankside from industrial to cultural activity than she is about the social changes effected by the removal of Bankside's working classes to suburban council developments, perhaps because Bankside, in its early history, was a place for relaxation and entertainment; it has now, mostly, reverted to that role. It's unlikely that the socially diverse Bankside population of the nineteenth century can be recreated with any great ease, given the costs and availability of housing around the area. It was fascinating to learn how many buildings, now acclaimed as monuments, were very close to demolition at various points of history - not least Southwark Cathedral, once facing the axe because its unheated interior was too cold to be healthy. Similarly, the survival of buildings like 49 Bankside was happenstance, influenced by spurious historical assocations that came to be taken as fact. Tindall makes an excellent case for the value of such buildings, not themselves architecturally distinguished, as a focus for our understanding of the development of our towns and cities.