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January 01st 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

How does one take tragic loss, personal loneliness, financial hardship and social disorientation, and turn them into success and fulfilment? Simple: ask the “Surplus Women” of interwar Britain. Here they are, clutching their umbrellas, redoubtable in their well-worn tweeds, cats curled on their laps, or standing with a foot on the shovel of their allotment garden, arm in arm with their best friend; on the catwalk, on the stage, on the radio, in the nursery, at work on the ward, in the office, and down at the pub.

How does one take tragic loss, personal loneliness, financial hardship and social disorientation, and turn them into success and fulfilment? Simple: ask the “Surplus Women” of interwar Britain. Here they are, clutching their umbrellas, redoubtable in their well-worn tweeds, cats curled on their laps, or standing with a foot on the shovel of their allotment garden, arm in arm with their best friend; on the catwalk, on the stage, on the radio, in the nursery, at work on the ward, in the office, and down at the pub.

Victoria Nicholson’s Singled Out is well arranged, and manages to present a huge quantity of material in a consistently interesting way. Nicholson shares with Antonia Fraser the gift of weaving a clear narrative from diverse and limited primary sources, but unlike Fraser, Nicholson has been able to interview some living subjects.

And what stories! The courage and good humour and (conspicuous) dearth of self-pity in these women is dazzling. They put the 1970s feminist movement to utter shame. I hang my head when I think of my privileged existence, in comparison with the awful battle faced by these post-Great War women, having to live in a society which quite literally had no room for them.

In its first chapter, the text seems repetitive and rather depressing: after all, Nicholson is recounting tale after tale of personal tragedy and loss of a loved man in the Great War. (Interestingly, this puts to the test Tolstoy’s axiom: all bereaved spinsters seem very quickly to be unhappy in exactly the same way.) After the first couple of chapters this sense vanishes, as the women themselves begin to pick up the pieces and find their way in the brave new world of interwar Britain.

And how brave some of them had to be: struggling on subsistence wages, with no pension, no means of providing for their old age out of their own incomes, living in single rooms with limited social circles, or bearing the burden of providing and caring for a dependent family of elderly parents and younger siblings. It confirms the worst of interwar Britain: post-Victorian society trying to continue functioning unsuccessfully as Victorian society. Orwell’s profoundly moving 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter offers a harrowing vision of the psychological and emotional life of an interwar spinster, harried, dependent, and without prospects of any sort.

These women had no vote, no voice, no men to provide for them—but how many of them seized this as a glorious opportunity. Take for example Richmal Crompton, crippled in one leg and losing her breasts to mastectomy after breast cancer. Her magnificent fictional creation William Brown was not so much a son-substitute as an outpouring of her own misfit creativity. William’s total lack of comprehension of the niceties of middle-class convention, and his ability to generate anarchy in a world created for wives and mothers, is the expression of “the spirit of a dirty, lawless child with a pea-shooter” who lived inside Crompton herself.

Then there is Beatrice Gordon Holmes, who worked her way up from a poorly-paid office job to become the only successful woman stockbroker in London, head of her own firm and engaging in the joyous purchase of rose-coloured carpets and piratical takeover of her former employers. There is catwalk model Rani Cartwright, comedy duo Gert and Daisy, Somerville College principal Margery Fry, Matron Mary Milne of St Mary’s Hospital Paddington, lady’s maid Rose Harrison, archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, celebrity “invert” Radclyffe Hall, novelist Elizabeth Goudge, adventuress Irene Rathbone, and African explorer Margery Perham.

The archaeology of a substantial, productive, socially valuable class begins to emerge. Nannies, Universal Aunts, maiden ladies, suffragettes, radio producers, salesgirls, clerks, domestic servants, novelists, journalists, academics—I especially liked the Irish-born French scholar Enid Starkie, the blue-trousered scandal of the Senior Common Room—all contributed to creating major social change in Great Britain in the interwar years. Faced with two million “Surplus Women”, a moribund social structure simply had to give way in many places, and did so, but not without considerable personal pain and suffering.

Bridget Jones’s “smug marrieds” were alive and well in the interwar years, undermining spinsters’ confidence through dozens of avenues, not least the ubiquitous patronising magazine or newspaper column. The married Marie Stopes, often heralded as a liberator of women, had little positive or helpful advice to give the thousands of single women who wrote to her, puzzled or worried about their sex lives (or lack thereof). Driven by the constant social pressure to marry, women emigrated, or married Mr Wrong, or advertised for wounded ex-soldiers who might have lower expectations.

Others found this pressure repellent, and were put off marriage for life. One such was diplomat’s daughter Mary de Bunsen, who wrote of her younger self:

“I was far too innocent to recognize this life as the marriage-market which, indeed, it still is, or to realize the fact that with a lame leg and horn-rimmed spectacles I stood no chance in it whatever … All it gave me was a hatred of dance music and a horror of hunt balls.”

Mary’s solution? She learned to fly: she became a successful aviator, and never looked back again. And this is excellent advice, both then and now.