What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington so much that I wanted to know more about the author, so my next read was Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard. This was a very long and thorough overview of Spark’s life and work, written with her cooperation, although the biographer claims his book is not ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ in any way. Nevertheless, I suspect he went out of his way to be tactful and discreet, given Spark’s tendency to lambaste journalists or reviewers who dared to voice the tiniest criticism of her. She even disowned her only child when he claimed (admittedly, without much evidence) that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, with Spark telling journalists, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.”

'Muriel Spark: The Biography' by Martin StannardSpark did not seem to be very good at personal relationships. She married a violent, mentally unstable man when she was nineteen, then divorced him a few years later. She pretty much abandoned her young son, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandparents, while she worked in publishing in London and eventually began to enjoy critical and commercial success with her novels. There were a few boyfriends over the years, all of them insecure, controlling and disloyal. Her biographer thinks “she had a kind of death wish on all close relationships, a fear of exposure that led her to preserve distance and prevent intimacy. Boundlessly forgiving of human nature in general, she was boundlessly unforgiving of it when she saw it as obstructing her vocation.”

Her writing was more important than anyone or anything, and she took her publishers firmly to task whenever they weren’t giving her the respect and money she felt she deserved. However, I was surprised to read about how well she was treated by her publishers, especially her American publishers, even at a relatively early stage of her writing career. She earned enough, as a ‘literary’ author, to buy houses and apartments, race horses, designer clothes, jewellery and sports cars and to travel the world in luxury. She expected to be treated as royalty at all times and became increasingly peevish, obsessional and unpleasant in her final decades.

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'  by Muriel SparkI’m always interested to learn how writers, especially women writers, balance the responsibilities of life with their work. In Spark’s case, she behaved as many male writers of the time did, by being completely focused on her writing, dumping partners and friends whenever they failed to give her unconditional support, and ignoring her family, including her offspring. She was fortunate enough to acquire a ‘wife’, Penelope Jardine, her secretary and then close friend, who gave up her own career as an artist to live with Spark and manage her business and personal affairs for thirty years. It should be noted that Spark was not born into wealth and social privilege. She had innate talent, but she worked extremely hard for her success. She refused to identify as a feminist, but claimed to be an “independent woman” and said, “I’m in favour of women’s liberation from the economic viewpoint, but I wouldn’t want men’s and women’s roles reversed.” If that seems a little contradictory, it’s typical of her perspective on life. For example, she converted to Roman Catholicism but ignored any doctrine that was inconvenient to her personal life, rarely attended Mass and wasn’t much interested in anything the Pope had to say.

This biography also provides an interesting analysis of Spark’s poetry, short stories and each of her books, which made me take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie down from my shelf and re-read it with a new perspective. Miss Brodie was based on a real-life teacher of Spark’s, but she also comes across as a version of Spark herself. Miss Brodie is supremely confident, convinced that her opinions are fact. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that she believes in contradictory ideas, such as despising the conformity of the Girl Guides while idolising Mussolini and his fascisti. She encourages her girls to challenge their headmistress, but is shocked when one of them rebels against Miss Brodie’s own authority. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s very funny and clever and full of gorgeous descriptions of pre-war Edinburgh life.

'Loitering with Intent' by Muriel SparkI then read Loitering with Intent, which was also highly entertaining and apparently very autobiographical. Set in post-war London, it’s about a young woman writing her first novel while working for an odd organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Life appears to be imitating art, thinks Fleur, but it turns out her deranged boss has stolen her manuscript and is incorporating its events into his own life and work. I enjoyed Fleur’s musings about the publishing industry (“the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers”) and about making personal sacrifices to be a writer (“I preferred to be interested as I was than happy as I might be. I wasn’t sure that I so much wanted to be happy, but I knew I had to follow my nature.”) As entertaining and clever as the story was, I also kept stopping to admire Spark’s language. For example, rather than write, “Beryl Tims escorted the old lady out of the room”, as most authors would, Spark comes up with:

“Beryl Tims turned up just then and grimly promoted the old lady’s withdrawal; Beryl glared at me as she left.”

Grimly promoted! Especially juxtaposed with that casual, “turned up just then”. It’s exactly right for that character, that scene and that narrator. As is a later description of Sir Eric Findlay, who “lived long enough to earn the reputation of an eccentric rather than a nut”. Fleur herself is also beautifully portrayed throughout – whenever her confidence and ambition start to slide into arrogance and ruthlessness, we’re shown her genuine affection for Edwina, the incontinent “old lady”, and Fleur’s relationship with her friend Solly, and we’re reminded why she’s the heroine of this story.

I think my favourite Muriel Spark novel, though, is still A Far Cry From Kensington. If anyone has any further Muriel Spark recommendations, I’d be glad to hear them (keeping in mind my current interest in books set in post-war England).

What I’ve Been Reading

'An Experiment in Love' by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love was an interesting, if depressing, novel about young English women studying at university in the 1960s. Carmel, the narrator, has been brought up in a grim, working-class Northern town to believe that she does not deserve pleasure or happiness, and that her life must consist entirely of duty, hard work and ambition. She shares her London residential hall with two former schoolmates – Katrina, whose Eastern European migrant parents escaped the wartime “cattle cars”, and wealthy, confident Julianne, both of whom turn out to have secret lives. Carmel begins to starve herself, due partly to the terrible institutional meals and her inability to pay for extra food, partly to her misery after her boyfriend dumps her, but mostly as a logical consequence of her self-denying nature. The conclusion was a little too melodramatic and abrupt for me, but otherwise, I found this to be a thoughtful exploration of sexism and class divisions in 1960s England. It reminded me quite a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, set during the same period in Canada and also featuring a young woman reacting to society’s restrictions on women’s appetites by starving herself nearly to death.

'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth HarrowerI also found myself engrossed in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, a meticulous study of an abusive marriage, set in post-war Sydney. Young Laura and Clare have been abandoned by their self-centred mother after the death of their father, so Laura marries her boss, Felix Shaw, because he promises to fund Clare’s education. He goes back on this, and on every other promise he makes to Laura, and spends the next ten years torturing her, physically and psychologically, until she abandons all hope. At first it seems that Clare will also succumb to this monster, but she has hidden reserves of strength, which are revealed when a young refugee needing help enters her life. It was painful for me to watch Laura’s decline, with her only real attempt at escape thwarted by her environment – in the 1940s, Australian police regarded domestic violence as a private matter, there were no women’s refuges, and there were few options for a woman with no education, no job references and no money. Then again, a woman today trapped by a man as manipulative and vicious as Felix would also have a very difficult time escaping him. Some of the choices the author made (the constantly shifting points of view; the long sentences interspersed with sentence fragments) didn’t always work for me, but her descriptions of Sydney were vivid and the psychological studies of Felix, Laura and Clare were fascinating, if horrifying.

'A Far Cry From Kensington' by Muriel SparkAfter all that grimness, it was a relief to spend time with Mrs Hawkins, the magnificent young widow at the centre of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Mrs Hawkins, who works in the publishing industry in 1950s London, busies herself dispensing good advice to neighbours and colleagues, but her comfortable life is disrupted when she insults a pompous hack called Hector Bartlett. Their feud leads to a range of disastrous consequences for those around them, but Mrs Hawkins has no regrets and emerges triumphant. This novel is cleverly plotted and very, very funny. I think my favourite scene was the posh dinner party, in which Mrs Hawkins dispenses writing tips to her fellow guests, and then, due to a misunderstanding of etiquette, remains with the gentlemen and their port and cigars when the other ladies prepare to depart the room:

“I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room … I, for one, refused to behave rudely just to show solidarity with these oversensitive women, possibly prudes.”

As she is Mrs Hawkins, she not only gets away with this, but becomes even more respected. I also enjoyed her refusal to give in to Emma Loy, a successful novelist entangled with Hector Bartlett. Emma attempts to explain his appeal:

“Do you realise how dedicated he is to my work? He knows all my works by heart. He can quote chapter and verse, any of my novels. It’s amazing.”
“Does he quote it right?”
“No. He generally gets it wrong, I’ll admit. But his dedication to me is there…”

A Far Cry from Kensington is highly recommended, particularly if you liked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark next on my reading pile.

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

“So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

The Brigadier fortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs Hawkins at a dinner party “listened with deep interest”. Mrs Hawkins continues:

“I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs, published by Mackintosh & Tooley. On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

‘The Meaning of Treason’ by Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason is a fascinating, if somewhat biased, discussion about what ‘treason’ means in the modern world and although it was first published in 1949, I found it highly relevant to current political events. The author, Dame Rebecca West, reported on the post-war trials of the British traitors William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) and John Amery for The New Yorker, then decided the topic was interesting enough to explore at greater length. She revised the book in the 1960s to include a number of Cold War spy scandals, and the edition that I read included a new introduction, written by her in 1982.

'The Meaning of Treason' by Rebecca West
Revised edition of ‘The Meaning of Treason’, with a cover image of creepy Oswald Mosley and some of his fellow Fascists, including William Joyce (pictured, ironically, to the far left of Mosley)
In Britain, the “root of the law against treason” dated back to 1351, when Edward III declared that “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”, that man was guilty of treason. So, how did that apply to the strange case of William Joyce? He’d been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, then he moved to Nazi Germany as soon as war was declared, became a German citizen and spent the war years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British public – for instance, he’d gloat over the radio about the damage that German bombs were inflicting on English cities and encourage the British to surrender to Hitler. Obviously, British people weren’t very impressed with Joyce at the time, although most came to regard the broadcasts, and Joyce, as a big joke. At the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the Allies and then put on trial in London, charged with ‘high treason’. Still, he’d been a German citizen at the time of the broadcasts, working loyally for his own country, not even engaged in anything that might be termed a ‘war crime’, so how could he be put on trial for being a British traitor? Well, it turns out “a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime”, so he’d broken the law by moving to Germany and becoming a German. Except it turned out Joyce was actually an American citizen, born in the United States, with an Irish father who’d become a naturalized American years earlier. Joyce’s family moved to England when the boy was two, and he’d never applied for British citizenship, although as an adult, he fraudulently applied for (and received) a British passport to travel to Germany. The prosecution argued he’d been under the protection of the British Crown due to his passport, so he owed the Crown his allegiance, and after several trials and appeals, Joyce was found guilty and hanged. There were other British men tried for treason after the war, including John Amery (the son of Conservative Minister Leo Amery), who pleaded guilty and was also hanged, as well as a number of men who’d been taken prisoner by the Germans and were enticed to join the ‘British Free Corps’ and fight with the Nazis against the Soviets. West has some sympathy for these men, who were often young, uneducated and in terrifying situations (or, in the case of Amery, were mentally unstable).

She has far less sympathy for the next set of traitors, the nuclear scientists who’d signed agreements to keep information secret, then gave away these scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In fact, she is deeply suspicious of scientists in general. Scientists, she says, are arrogant and clannish, placing scientific comradeship above national loyalty and believing themselves to be always rational, always right and incapable of doing harm. She uses as evidence the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Emil Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. Dr Fuchs is particularly interesting. He was born in Germany to a Quaker family who courageously opposed the Nazis when they came to power. His father, a church leader, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but young Klaus, by then a member of the Communist Party, escaped to Britain, where he completed his doctorate studies in physics. When war broke out, the British imprisoned him because he was a German, then exiled him (along with many other scientists, including Max Perutz) to the wastelands of Canada. Eventually, the British worked out that all those imprisoned anti-Nazi German scientists could be helping the Allies win the war, so they brought them back, made Dr Fuchs a British subject, sent him to America to work on the Atomic Project for three years, then, after the war, employed him as head of the physics department at the Atomic Energy Establishment – until 1950, when they discovered he’d been sharing scientific information with the Soviet Union for eight years. He was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and pleaded guilty, but explained that most of the offences had been carried out while the Soviet Union was a wartime ally of Britain, so he hadn’t been ‘aiding the enemy’. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and his British citizenship was revoked, although he protested against the latter, pointing out that he’d pleaded guilty, cooperated fully with the authorities and anyway, “the British Nationality Act of 1948 excluded punishment as reason for revoking a certificate of naturalization”. Isn’t that interesting, that Britain couldn’t take away citizenship as punishment for a crime, even a ‘traitorous’ crime? In fact, West explains that if a traitor’s citizenship was revoked, he would become “a stateless person and could not have been deported” – that is, taking away someone’s citizenship meant he’d be forced to remain in the country.1 In the end, Fuchs was released from prison and moved to East Germany, where he became an East German citizen and resumed his career in nuclear physics.

West goes on to discuss the cases of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (British diplomatic staff who turned out to be Soviet agents) and their friend Kim Philby (MI6 operative, also a Soviet agent), as well as William Marshall, George Blake, William Vassall and the Portland Five. She acknowledges that many of these spies could have been detected far earlier if British security services had been more competent, but she also seems to share the paranoid belief of Peter Wright that the Soviet Union was far more powerful and efficient than it actually was. Whenever a Soviet spy is caught, she’s convinced that the USSR deliberately allowed the spy to be discovered, in order to further its fiendish Communist plans (that is, to make British security services look foolish, encourage the British public to lose confidence in their government, and cause the Americans to regard the British with distrust). She insists, for instance, that William Vassall was a professional Communist spy, rather than a bumbling amateur who was blackmailed into handing over information to the Soviets after they took compromising photos of him during a drunken homosexual orgy (she says the party may have taken place but it was “probably engineered so that Vassall might refer to it, should his treachery ever be discovered”). And when Burgess and Maclean defected and the British government initially denied the men were Communist spies, this wasn’t a government trying to cover up its own incompetence but a sign of secret Communist conspiracies in the highest echelons of power. And so on.

I kept noticing the parallels with modern politics. West describes the experiences of Westerners imprisoned during the Korean War and subjected to Communist “brainwashing” before being sent home, then worries that future British fighters in “peripheral wars” could return home and spread false ideas “that their countries’ enemies were in the right”. Then there’s Harold Macmillan, responding to demands that security legislation be tightened in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean scandal: “It would be a tragedy if we destroyed freedom in the effort to preserve it.” But apart from having lots of interesting things to say about current events, this book was also beautifully written, full of thoughtful observations and a lot of droll humour and motivated by a genuine interest in the well-being of society. The Meaning of Treason is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic of treason, but particularly those interested in the Cold War.

_____

  1. For the benefit of non-Australians, I should explain that the current Australian government is trying to pass legislation that would revoke the citizenship of Australians accused of terrorism, regardless of whether or not these people had been convicted of terrorist offences, or indeed, if there was any firm evidence they’d committed any crime at all. Among the options being discussed were that such people could have their Australian citizenship revoked: if they had dual citizenship, even if their other country of citizenship refused to allow the person to enter that country; or if they were citizens only of Australia but had parents or grandparents who’d been citizens of other countries – that is, the legislation would potentially leave people stateless. Also, this would be decided by the Minister for Immigration, not by a court of law or an independent commission. Not surprisingly, when the draft of this legislation was shown to legal experts, they said (and I paraphrase), “This is illegal, unconstitutional and makes no sense whatsoever.”

The Years of Grace: Careers

The fifth and final section of The Years of Grace provides advice for girls about careers, although Noel Streatfeild emphasises in her introduction that “the best career for every woman is, of course, taking care of her husband and home”. (Noel, you big hypocrite. As if you ever got married or did any housekeeping.) But before I describe the careers open to Fifties Girl, I’d just like to point out that this book was first published in 1950, a mere five years after the end of the Second World War. During the war, young English women were conscripted into the army, navy or air force if they weren’t already doing vital war work. Women were welding armaments in factories, driving ambulances through the Blitz, putting out fires started by incendiary bombs, shooting down enemy bombers, taking new planes on test flights, driving supply lorries, plotting ship convoys, decoding enemy messages at Bletchley Park, and being parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe to help the Resistance.

But that had all changed by 1950. According to The Years of Grace, girls could aspire to be nurses but not doctors; air stewardesses but not pilots or aeronautical engineers; school teachers but not university professors; secretaries but not managers.

Of the thirteen chapters, a significant number are devoted to destroying any illusions the teenage reader might have about ‘glamorous’ careers. The girl who dreams of being a prima ballerina, film star, famous singer or ice-skating star is firmly told that her chances of making it to the top are infinitesimal – even if she happened to have the requisite talent, it would require an enormous amount of time, money, luck and sheer, backbreaking effort to get anywhere near stardom. I was interested to see that an entire chapter was devoted to ice-skating, of all things, as a career. Apparently, most towns in 1950s England had ice rinks that employed skating coaches and hosted professional ice shows, each show needing a large number of “chorus skaters” (producers looked for girls with “personality, a good figure, a pretty face and well-shaped legs”). However, only a lucky few of these chorus girls would reach the exciting heights of understudy to the solo skater, and only if they had unusual skills (“for example, should you be able to skate indifferently with a live cobra, you are more likely to impress the management than if you skate superbly with a man”).

The other chapters give practical advice about more achievable careers. For example, Mary Field provides a lot of useful information about various behind-the-scenes jobs in the film industry (prop buying, set designing, wig-making, editing, publicity) and gives a frank assessment of women’s prospects:

“As the film production business is a fairly new one – only just over fifty years old – there has not been time for much sex discrimination to grow up and workers get the ‘rate for the job’ without reference to their sex. This is good in one way, because so many jobs may be open to a girl-worker, but it means also that a girl has got to be better than her men competitors to get and keep a position.”

Then there are chapters about the realities of nursing, school-teaching and agricultural jobs, each one emphasising that the rewards of such jobs are emotional, rather than financial. And even nursing requires that a girl be glamorous:

“A good nurse should look as pretty as possible, her shoes should always be polished, her fingernails carefully manicured, her hair done neatly but in a way that suits her. She should somehow manage to look – and smell – as fresh as a daisy, no matter how tired she is – and her nose shouldn’t shine!”

Girls wanting to earn a decent salary are encouraged to think about retail jobs or the Civil Service. Marjorie Linstead claims “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women” and that “the civil service, as a career has been, and is being, combined with marriage and a home by some women”. (The author does not seem aware of the fact that married women were barred from working at the Foreign Office, a situation that continued until 1972.) There’s also secretarial work in private businesses, which requires a girl to be well-groomed (of course), dignified, have a good memory, be excellent at typing and shorthand and adding numbers, and most importantly, to be devoted to her (male) employer and to ensure he never, ever feels he’s incompetent, even when he is, as illustrated in this extract from a hypothetical secretary’s diary:

“2:30 pm – Board meeting–took minutes and rushed a copy into Smithy immediately afterwards, so he could see what had been said, as he was half-asleep during best part of Board. Worked on Fuller accounts for rest of afternoon–felt sure that something was wrong somewhere, but S. said, ‘No, impossible.’ Turned out I was right, but with S. in that mood had to persuade him that the idea of a possible error had been his from the very beginning. Eventually he beamed all over and said, ‘Sue, I had an instinct about that!’”

'Above the clouds' by Alice Bush, in 'The Years of Grace'Then there’s the most lucrative career of all for a girl – being an air stewardess. Women could earn up to nine pounds a week, plus a flying allowance and an overseas allowance and free world travel and free hotel stays, and they were provided with a stylish uniform. Of the four thousand applications, only about forty lucky girls were offered a job with B.O.A.C. each year. Such a girl had to be between 21 and 28 years old, have a “good private school background”, speak at least one foreign language, have nursing or catering experience, be charming and beautiful, and be willing to submit to a “thorough checkup” by airline doctors every couple of months. Also, she had to be able to stay smiling during non-stop twelve-hour shifts, in which she was expected to serve food and drinks, calm nervous flyers, cure travel sickness, amuse fretful children, change nappies and “delicately snub the wolf” (it is not clear whether the sexual harrassers were passengers or pilots, or both). But it’s okay, she’d probably manage to snare a husband pretty quickly:

“There is a retiring age in B.O.A.C., it is fifty-five, but no stewardess has yet come within smelling distance of retiring. After all, they are hand-picked young women, with character, charm and pleasing looks. It will not surprise you, therefore, to learn that 95 per cent marry, and their usual length of service with the corporation is only two years.”

You know what? None of the above career options sounds very appealing to me! I think I’d like to write books. Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild knows all about that:

“You can’t, of course, learn to be an author. An author is born to write, just as a singer is born to sing … They may write masterpieces or they may write what is rudely known as pulp, but they have qualities which make them writers … amongst them you will find a blotting-paper memory which has soaked in everything seen and heard. Often a faultless ear for dialogue, so that it is impossible for any person to say something which belongs to another person. A vivid imagination. Usually ruthless individualism. And of course, an ear for cadences, a love of words, and, in the case of the novelist and biographer, a vast interest in human beings.”

But don’t forget about a day job:

“Wolves do not just sit on the doorsteps of young artists taking a casual lick at the paintwork, they come inside and sit on the hearth-rug, taking all the warmth from the fire. You may think now that you won’t mind being poor if only you can give your talent full scope. Maybe, but all the same, before developing your talent, find a nice humdrum job that will support you in hard times and keep the wolf, not only off the hearth-rug, but possibly several streets away.”

Very wise words, Noel. Some of this book’s advice might be a little out of date, but The Years of Grace contains a few timeless truths.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

The Years of Grace: Sport

Each section of The Years of Grace begins with some verse, and the introduction to ‘Sport’ is the worst by far:

'Sport' by Anna Zinkeisen from 'The Years of Grace'

Every girl ought
To love sport
But if she wants to be wise and adorable
and completely feminine
She will let meniwin
ALWAYS

Apparently Fifties Man was so fragile that if he was ever Beaten By A Girl, he’d crumple into a heap.

This section is the shortest in the book, partly because Noel Streatfeild admits she was always “the lowest-class rabbit at games”, but mostly because there are only three sports in which Fifties Girl is allowed to participate: lawn tennis, horse riding and swimming. There’s also golf, but “in many parts of the British Isles it is such an expensive game that few can afford it”, so I guess it’s fair enough that Noel chose to omit it from the book. Of course, there’s also ‘Watching Sport With Your Brother And His Friends’. Watching sport played by men, naturally. I spent the entire section desperately wanting to watch Fifties Man getting trounced by Serena Williams at Wimbledon.

The next and final section of The Years of Grace is ‘Careers’. But what possible career could Fifties Girl be qualified to do, given that she spent her school years concentrating on being “well-groomed” and is forbidden from ever competing with a man? Chapter titles such as ‘You Might Be A Secretary’ and ‘Shop-Keeping’ give some indication, although ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ looks intriguing. The Foreign Office? MI5? I will report back.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

The Years of Grace: Leisure

I meant to post this earlier, but have been experiencing major technological difficulties1. Sorry about that. Anyway, according to The Years of Grace, Fifties Girl had many different options when it came to her leisure hours. She could go to the pictures and sigh over Stewart Granger (although Virginia Graham cautions her to pay careful attention to the film’s production values, if only to be able to say, “Look how beautifully he acted, in spite of that appalling script”). She could listen to records on her gramophone (Christopher Stone recommends Elgar, Sibelius and Szymanowski, but warns her to “always test a new record in the shop before taking it home”). She could watch the ballet (Rumer Godden provides useful tips) or go to the theatre (in her best “party frock”) or listen to a concert (provided it featured “good music” by Beethoven or Mendelssohn, and not any of that terrible “jazz or light music”). Even reading was expected to be an exercise in self-improvement, with Howard Spring recommending that girls read “classics”:

“… it will sometimes happen, when you come to read them, that they seem a little difficult, their meaning is not on the surface, and you wonder why other people think them supreme. Now please have the grace to wait a little, to believe that you are not seeing them aright because your own vision is not yet clear. Go on reading them, and, as life itself teaches you what living means, the day will come when you will suddenly see what it is all about: the book will become an eye-opener, and you will cry with Job: ‘Now mine eye seeth Thee.'”

Fortunately, Noel Streatfeild provides some comfort to girls who like pulp fiction and jazz:

“Never care what any kind of art snob says or looks. If you like a book, like it and say so. If you like a certain sort of music, own up to it, don’t pretend you only enjoy something that actually bores you stiff.”

Mind you, even Noel is wary of some modern developments in popular culture:

“Wireless and television are scientific marvels, but like many other marvels they want careful handling. Television can be a joy, but, my goodness, it can be a horror. America, where of course all programmes over the air are paid for by manufacturers, nearly put me off television for good.”

Still, leisure isn’t just about watching others being creative. Kitty Barne has a great chapter on ‘Producing a Play’ and Cora Gordon almost inspired me to take up ‘Sketching’, with both writers providing lots of practical tips and emphasising how fun these activities can be. John Pudney also contributes an entertaining chapter on summer holidays, which can range from camping in the back garden and exploring old Roman roads in the local area, to boating on the Thames and drawing a map of your adventures (“There is a special mark, of course, for the spot where Father fell in”). However, he hopes he is not being unpatriotic when he declares that “holidays abroad with or without parents are the best holidays of all”. He gives examples of his own family trips to Ireland, featuring airsick passengers (“Half-way over the Irish Channel, Elizabeth, our youngest, said in a loud voice to the stewardess, who was bringing round lunch: ‘If that lady over there is too sick to eat her dinner, can I have hers too?'”) and in France, involving adventures with Customs officials (“Anne was so excited by it all, I remember, that she infuriated us by insisting that the nice man should examine her bags”).

Another illustration by Anna Zinkeisen from 'The Years of Grace'
One of these girls slouches, dresses in a slovenly manner and reads trashy books. The other learns tap dancing, so she has Poise.

And Marguerite Vacani (yes, the Miss Vacani who taught Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret – and Sophie FitzOsborne – how to dance) describes how enjoyable ballroom dancing can be:

“I have taught a baby of two a polka in the morning, and finished the day by teaching her grandparents the samba, and all three enjoyed themselves equally.”

Of course, dancing is not merely about enjoyment. It gives a girl “that most useful quality – poise” and furthermore, if a girl is “not naturally well made”, it will improve her shape. Also, dancing improves the complexion, eradicates shyness and gives one’s face “a contented look”. Tap dancing is especially good, because men love “the gayness and fascinating timing”. Well, if tap dancing can do all that, imagine how much good sport would do to Fifties Girl. Accordingly, the next section in The Years of Grace is Sport.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

_____

  1. Did Fifties Girl ever have to face a WordPress admin screen on which most of the buttons had suddenly decided to stop functioning for no apparent reason? No, I don’t believe she did. Readers, if you’ve tried to comment on this blog in the past two weeks, I’m very sorry, but your comment has been lost in the ether. However, commenting is back to normal now. I hope.

The Years of Grace: Your Home

In my previous discussion of the opening section of The Years of Grace, I neglected the fabulous illustrations, so I’ll make sure to include some here. Each section of this book has an introduction by Noel Streatfeild, and in this second section, ‘Your Home’, she admits that she was a “menace” as a teenager, “scowling round the house, saying ‘Why should I?’ about everything I was asked to do” and bringing home an unsuitably un-English friend called Consuelo (“Girls from Latin countries grow up faster than girls from cold countries. Consuelo probably held the record for fast growing-up even in a Latin country.”).

The first chapter, by Margaret Kennedy, discusses the difficulties of sharing a house with parents and siblings:

John Verney illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“The mother must manage to make room for her daughter’s wider life without letting the others feel that the whole house now belongs to an ENORMOUS GIRL who seems to be everywhere at once – locked in the bathroom when her brother wants to shave, telephoning in the hall at the top of her voice, pressing a dress on the kitchen table and dancing to the radio in the sitting-room.”

(By the way, I thought that illustration’s dense cross-hatched style seemed familiar and it turned out to be the work of John Verney, author of Friday’s Tunnel.)

Margaret Kennedy provides some sensible advice about reaching compromises with parents, including the need to be nice to your parents’ dull old friends (“It is highly mortifying for a mother if the refreshments at her bridge party are brought in by a daughter who looks as though she were dispensing alms to a colony of lepers”) and having to explain your own friends to them (“Parents do not always understand their daughters’ friendships or see where the attraction lies”). This is further explored in an article by Richmal Crompton, who gives useful tips for being a good friend (you need tact, generosity, lack of possessiveness, common but not identical interests, and a shared sense of humour).

Next comes Magdalen King-Hall with a chapter about community service and social justice, even if she doesn’t call it that. Although the examples she provides are a little dated (Elizabeth Fry, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale), the message is still relevant today:

“We are linked together, not only with the other people in our own country, but with all the other people in the world. It is like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples spread out in widening circles – you, your family, your school, your community, your country, your world. This feeling of world citizenship is only in its infancy, but it has been born, and two devastating world wars have not destroyed it.”

She even mentions The League of Nations. Veronica FitzOsborne would approve. But Veronica probably wouldn’t think much of Mary Dunn’s article, ‘The Queen Was in the Kitchen’. Mrs Dunn explains that men reserve their greatest admiration for a girl who can cook:

Anna Zinkeisen illustration from 'The Years of Grace'

“Pretty, helpless women are very nice in the fiancée stage, to take to the pictures and to dance with, but after marriage, unless a girl is feminine in the right way, not just to look at but a homemaker, there is going to be trouble. Of course, after he has married her a man still wants a girl to look pretty and to have time to do things with him, but he wants as well to be quite certain that she looks after him better than the wives of all the other chaps in the street, and that he can brag that he is the best-fed man he knows.”

Mrs Dunn despairs because British housewives are letting down the side, compared to their glamorous counterparts in France, Scandinavia and especially the United States. You might think those Hollywood films depicting pretty housewives creating beautiful meals in dazzling kitchens are just Hollywood fantasies. But you would be wrong:

“Most American kitchens are like that and nearly all American girls really are splendid cooks, and really do whisk up superb meals and appear five minutes later in their living rooms looking too glamorous to be true. This business of looking smart when doing housework or cooking is something that we in this country really ought to turn our attention to … I feel sorry for tradesmen; how depressing when they call, to be greeted by a bedraggled object …”

Fortunately, the next article, by Janet Farwell, involved a vet talking to a family about the advantages and disadvantages of various pets (dogs, cats, rabbits, tortoises, fish, hamsters, budgies, silkworms) and included some adorable puppy illustrations, so my blood pressure returned to normal.

Finally, Elizabeth Cadell gave a lot of practical advice on hosting teenage parties, including hints on venues (turn your bedroom into “a very attractive bed-sitting room” by scattering cushions on the floor and covering the dressing table with a tablecloth), refreshments (sausage rolls, trifle, ice-cream, cider cup and “in cold weather, provide Bovril”) and games (cards, Tiddlywinks, charades). Which leads nicely to the next section of The Years of Grace: Leisure.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

Adventures in Research: Schoolgirls in the 1950s and 1960s, Part Two

My copy of Truth, Dare or Promise: Girls Growing up in the Fifties was finally delivered and proved to be interesting, although not terribly useful for my research purposes and possibly not worth the three-month wait. I am far more excited by the arrival of this book:

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel Streatfeild

The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild, was recommended to me by Penni and is a marvellous guide to 1950s Girl Life. As the jacket proclaims,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

There are sections on ‘You’, ‘Your Home’, ‘Leisure’, ‘Sport’ and ‘Careers’, all beautifully illustrated. I’ve only read the first section, but can already tell I’m going to find this book highly entertaining. The first chapter of ‘You’, for instance, is written by “a Woman Doctor” who has chosen the interesting pseudonym of ‘Cannula’. She begins by stating,

“When I become Prime Minister, I shall introduce a law: the study of glamour will become a compulsory subject for all girls at school. Science and algebra are all very well, but they will not be much use to you in life unless you also know all about glamour … I declare firmly that you will do much better if you have glamour without learning than if you have learning without glamour.”

The rest of her chapter consists of stern advice on posture (“no girl who holds herself badly can look really smart”) and grooming (make sure you change your knickers “two or three times a week at least” and use deodorant once a week).

This is followed by an amusing chapter by Marguerite Steen, mostly about the history of undergarments, although she does have some advice on modern-day underwear:

“Nothing on earth looks more sluttish than mended nylons (unless they are invisibly mended) with darns down the ladders. The ‘next worst’ is moth-eaten suspenders, a single glimpse of which is quite enough to ruin the effect of your handsomest hand-knitted sports stockings.”

Also, make sure you’re wearing nice underwear, in case you get run over by a bus:

“I remember being told by a friend of mine, who was in an accident, that the fact of having on her best pin-spot chiffon step-ins went quite a long way to offsetting the pain of her fractured thigh when they were taking her away in the ambulance!”

Then comes James Laver on the history of women’s hairstyles and Elizabeth Arden on ‘The Care of the Skin and Hair’ (strangely enough, this requires a lot of cleansing creams, skin tonics, foundation creams, face powders and outfit-coordinated lipsticks, all no doubt available at the nearest Elizabeth Arden counter). Digby Morton’s contribution is ‘Pretty Girls All in a Row’, full of words of wisdom on fashion (for instance, “school is a place where your reputation is built, a place to look trim and well-groomed always” and “the wisest thing a girl can do is to take a dress-making and millinery course”). He also wishes to be Prime Minister, so he could “make it compulsory for every girl to have a grey flannel suit”. (These writers seem to have a peculiar view of the role of the British Prime Minister.) But as much as I want to make fun of Digby Morton, I have to admit he provides some very good advice on colours, fabrics and styles, and a fifties girl who followed his advice on building a wardrobe would look quite fabulous. And Alison Settle’s ‘Making the Best of Yourself’ is a terrific, timeless article on teenage anxieties regarding emotions, making and keeping friends, falling in love, dealing with annoying siblings and managing parents. I am very much looking forward to the remaining sections of this book – if anyone’s interested, I’ll post my thoughts about them here.

You might also be interested in reading:

1. The Years of Grace : You
2. The Years of Grace : Your Home
3. The Years of Grace : Leisure
4. The Years of Grace : Sport
5. The Years of Grace : Careers

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve mostly been reading British fiction written during or about the 1960s, but as I tend to blog only about books I like, I won’t be writing about them.1 However, I did enjoy the third volume of Noel Streatfeild‘s autobiography, Beyond the Vicarage, first published in 1971. She wrote the books from the perspective of a character called ‘Victoria Strangeway’, explaining, “I made, and make, no pretence that I am not the Victoria in the three books, but the thin shield of anonymity has helped me to feel unselfconscious when writing the story of my life.” 'Beyond the Vicarage' by Noel StreatfeildFair enough, but it does lead to phrases like “Victoria seemed to think that …” and “Victoria must have forgotten that …”, which is a bit odd when she’s writing about herself. Anyway, this book is about how Victoria/Noel decides to stop being a successful actress touring the world and become a writer. She sails back from Australia via Siam (as it was then called), where her brother works, and eventually arrives in England to look after her recently-widowed mother. Although Victoria’s father had been a bishop from a well-off family, the family is now in ‘reduced circumstances’ and Victoria’s mother is the sort of helpless genteel lady who has never had to look after herself, so living in lodgings does not go well. After employing a series of disastrous companions, her mother is finally settled in her own new home with appropriate help and Victoria, breathing a huge sigh of relief, moves back to London to write her first novel. Despite the distractions of her busy social life (she eventually resorts to writing in bed in her pyjamas so she won’t be tempted to go out), she quickly writes the manuscript, immediately finds a publisher and is instantly making a comfortable living as a novelist. Her publisher even pays her a weekly wage when she complains the system of advances and royalties is too complex for her to deal with. The only complaint her publisher has is that “you make everyone too loveable. I doubt you could write about a bitch if you tried.” (Victoria then vows to write “the bitchiest bitch you ever read about” and writes It Pays To Be Good.) Then another publisher, aware of Victoria’s theatrical background, asks her to write a children’s book about child actors, so Victoria, “cross at herself for agreeing to something she was convinced she could not write”, produces Ballet Shoes, which is an instant bestseller, and the rest is history. Although she ended up writing a few more novels for adults, she gave up on them in the early 1960s, telling herself,

“If, for some reason, the public are either off novels or like such peculiar ones you couldn’t and wouldn’t write them, why go on trying? Let’s face it, you never had more than what Noel Coward’s song called ‘a talent to amuse’. You never belonged to the great. So give up writing [adult] novels here and now.”

She took great care with the research for her books – for example, she travelled with a circus when writing about child circus performers, visited Hollywood when writing about a child star, and spent “a lot of time in [Buckingham] Palace hanging about for news from the Lady-in-Waiting” when writing about Princess Margaret for Growing Up Gracefully. But the most interesting part of the book involves her experiences during the Second World War, when she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. She ran mobile canteens in Blitz-battered London, arranged housing for bombed-out Londoners, put out fires set off by incendiary bombs and then, after the war, organised entertainment for newly-returned residents of the Channel Islands, gave lectures in Holland and spent her own money turning a London bombsite into a flower garden. (What a contrast with Dodie Smith, who spent the entire war living in luxury in America.) The war stories are a mixture of humour and heartbreak – a monkey rescued from the rubble of a bombed pub gratefully accepts a cup of hot milk, then turns around and bites his rescuer; a woman dying of cancer survives two bombing raids that kill the rest of her family. There is also personal anguish for Victoria, with her brother and his young family interned as prisoners of the Japanese, her own flat and most of her belongings destroyed in the Blitz, and her publisher’s warehouse, containing all unsold copies of her books, all the plates to reprint them and the entire first printing of her new book, getting “bombed to pieces”. While she skims over a lot of potentially interesting events and the book is essentially a series of unrelated anecdotes, Victoria/Noel comes across as a lovely person – energetic, funny, honest, devoted to helping others and endlessly curious about life.

'Quiet' by Susan CainTaking a break from post-war England, I then read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by US writer, Susan Cain. It came out a couple of years ago but there was a long queue for it at my library (I know, library patrons being deeply interested in a book about introverts, WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT IT). This was an easy-to-read, well-researched account of the difficulties introverts face in the extroverted culture of modern-day America. There was a clear overview of the strengths of both introverts and extroverts, as well as a good discussion of the overlap between ‘high sensitivity’ or reactivity (or neuroticism) and introversion. The author also explains that many introverts are very successful at faking extroversion when highly motivated to do so (for example, because their job requires it or they’re promoting a cause they’re passionate about), although they need ‘restorative niches’ of solitude to recharge their energy. Most of this information was familiar to me, although I was interested to read about research into introversion/extroversion in various animal species. For example, some species have about 20% ‘shy’ individuals and 80% ‘bold’ individuals, with the bold ones doing better in hard times because they’re willing to take the risk of being eaten in order to find food (the shy ones starve to death in harsh conditions, but thrive in good conditions as they’re better at evading predators). My only criticism of this book would be the very narrow focus – while the author (a Harvard-educated lawyer) claims the book is about American society in general, it’s really about rich white Americans and rich Asian-Americans (and all ‘Asians’, from Indians to the Japanese, are treated as having similar cultures and lifestyles, which is just not true). Still, it’s a good read and its bestseller status indicates there are a lot of Americans who agree that introverts are under-appreciated in their society. Also, I was interested to read the author’s note that “You wouldn’t be reading this book if I hadn’t convinced my publisher that I was enough of a pseudo-extrovert to promote it.” Sad, but true. Ah, for the good old days when authors were able to sit at home writing their books in introverted bliss, without having to worry about promoting themselves …

_____

  1. Although if you’re interested in finding out just how sexist, racist and homophobic 1960s England was, hey, have I got some book recommendations for you!