Monday, August 4, 2014

How Life Would Change

For those of you who are new to this blog - I started it almost three years ago, to honor the generation of women who came of age in the Great War, and whose lives were changed by that war. I always felt there was much to learn from them.  I stopped writing the blog when my father fell ill in early 2012, and although I have promised to pick it up again along the way, it never seemed to be the right time.  Now it is.  Today marks the anniversary of Britain's declaration of war in 1914, so it seemed a good moment to come back to the blog, and to write about an extraordinary generation of women.

August 4th, 2014

Today is the 100th anniversary of the day Britain declared war on German in 1914.  For several days people had been out on the streets, waiting for an announcement, as speculation increased.  Already soldiers from the regular army were being deployed to the Channel ports, and trains were delayed and canceled to facilitate their travel as the plan for general war in Europe awaited action.  There were growing crowds waiting outside Buckingham Palace for news, or who made their way to St. Paul's Cathedral, and more than a few at Downing Street.  Britain was in the midst of a long, hot summer when the most pressing issues facing Parliament had hitherto been the economy,  "the Irish question" and the fight for suffrage being waged by Britain's women.

How could anyone have imagined the extent to which life would change over the coming years of war?  How could they know that so many young men would die on a foreign field, and that what became known as The Great War would, in fact, lead to another war - it seems there was only a ceasefire between 1918 and 1938/39.  Would they have believed that the Great War would herald changes in every sphere - in society, in international law, medicine, geopolitics, technology, telecommunications, global power, travel, and so on?  I am reprinting here, below, an essay I wrote that was published recently in The Daily Beast - it's a personal recollection of a few of those women who came of age in that terrible war.  They were elderly when I was a child, and I often wonder, now, how they felt on August 4th, 1914, when their country went to war.

I was wearing my best dress, best shoes, and my hair was braided with ribbon.  At four years old, I was only going to have tea with a neighbor, so I might have seemed a little overdressed – but my mother was well aware that the neighbor’s last intimate experience of childhood was her own in Edwardian England. 
            In 1959, I was the only child in our hamlet, so I was in some demand among the ladies of a certain age who lived alone, having never married.  I would sit at table with my boiled egg and toast, or a small cheese and cucumber sandwich and a scone with butter and jam, and I would answer their questions.  And because I was a curious child, I had questions of my own.  Each of those women had a sepia photograph on the mantelpiece, of a young man in uniform.  And I remember the answer, when I asked about the man.  “Oh, that was my sweetheart. He died in the Great War.”
            I already knew about this “great war” because I’d been told that my grandfather’s ailments were all due to the same event.  Granddad had been wounded, shell-shocked and gassed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and it was my questions about him that ignited a lifelong interest in the effects of war and its aftermath – and in particular, the changes wrought by that conflict on the lives of women.
            A young woman in pre-WW1 Britain would likely expect her life to follow that of her mother and grandmother.  Dependent her “station” in life, she might work in a factory, in domestic service, a shop, or in an office. If she were from the middle or upper classes, she would remain at home until marriage, hopefully before the age of twenty-one.  Women’s lives were as restricted as their clothing, though Britain’s suffragettes were considered the most vociferous.  Then war was declared in 1914.  By the time the Armistice was signed in 1918, a young British woman aged 16-32 stood only a one-in-ten chance of marriage. The 1921 census revealed that there were two million “surplus” women of marriageable age, a statistic that led to publication of a pamphlet, “The Problem of the Surplus Women.”  That might appear amusing, but a generation had endured a devastating human tragedy.
            It must have seemed liberating to my 18-year-old grandmother, Clara - she was living away from home in quarters close to the Woolwich Arsenal, working with volatile explosives.  She was earning “good money” for a woman, though it was half that paid to a man doing the same job.  The wage gave Clara and her women-friends a measure of independence – on a day off they could pretty much do as they liked.  In the years 1914-18, women flooded into the workplace to take on the toil of men conscripted to fight. No field of endeavor was left untouched by a woman’s hand – they built ships, aircraft, tanks. They made munitions. They drove trains and buses and became mechanics.  They worked overseas as nurses, ambulance drivers, and in military support roles.  They buried the dead, delivered the coal and the milk, and women police auxiliaries pounded the streets. Some fifty thousand worked in the Secret Service.  Women were now in very visible roles, not hidden in factories, or offices, or working at home.
After the euphoria of the Armistice gave way to a deep collective depression, it was clear that life would not return to “normal” – especially for a woman.  Certainly there were those who were married, but many floundered, living solitary lives.  But others blazed a trail, realizing they alone had to bear responsibility for their financial security, that they must build community or become invisible, and that they had to nurture relationships to sustain them in old age.  Women became teachers and scientists, they worked in business, became justices of the peace and entered politics, and if they couldn’t find work, they made it.  The time between the wars became the golden era of the British woman novelist – there’s a job you can do at home with no training!
            I believe an archetype was born in those years, that of the doughty British woman – proud, opinionated, but with a heart of gold.  I knew her – she was one of the ladies who invited me to tea because she ached to have children in her life.  The chance of becoming a mother had died when she lost her sweetheart in the Great War.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Singleton Strikes Back!

An op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago was centered on the fact that more people are living alone than ever before, with the USA actually lagging behind Europe in the number of singletons making their way in the world without a partner at their side. In fact, the author, Erik Klinenberg, says “singleton” is his word, but I could have sworn Helen Fielding arrived there first with the inimitable Bridget Jones.   About ten years ago, Meghan Daum wrote a similar article for the Los Angeles Times, when the 2000 census report was published, showing a rise in the number of people living alone.  “And you can bet most of those people are women,” she said.

This sort of observation is far from new, as readers of this blog know.  A generation of British women lived alone following the end of the Great War, and were even the subject of a 1921 pamphlet entitled, “The Problem of the Surplus Women.”  As I said in my introduction to the blog, when I launched it last year (click on the Introduction to the Blog link on the right if you haven’t read it), I’ve been collecting books for and by this generation for a long time now, so it’s time to break out one of my favorites – interestingly enough, written by an American author, and published in 1935.  Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis is a fun read – I have an original copy, but it was republished in 2008.  I’ll be looking at similar books in future posts, but let’s consider some sage words from Live Alone and Like It, which the author described as being “A Guide for the Extra Woman.” 

 Solitary Refinement is the title of the first chapter – and it sets the tone for the rest of the book, though the author is a bit dismissive of the “lonely hearts” types and says that, “There is a technique about living alone successfully … whether you view your one-woman ménage as Doom or Adventure (and whether you are twenty-six or sixty-six), you need a plan, if you are going to make the best of it.”  Ah yes, a plan for singlehood.  If you read Singled Out, recommended in an earlier post, you’ll know that many women in post-WW1 Britain definitely made the best of it, if not the most  of it, with some choosing singlehood even when the opportunity for marriage presented itself.    Hillis, though, suggests, “ … the basis of successful living alone is determination to make it successful..”  With that in mind, here are a few of the chapter headings:

Who do you think you are?
When A Lady Needs A Friend
Your Leisure, If Any
The Great Uniter

That sentiment behind first chapter title has inspired a whole raft of self-help books in recent years.  You can almost feel Marjorie Hillis wagging her finger and warning you to “act as if …” in a very take-no-prisoners fashion. Indeed, she says it behooves the single woman to acts as if she were a duchess, or deserved nothing less than orchids.  “It’s a good idea,” she says, “to get over the notion (if you have it) that your particular situation is a little bit worse than anyone else’s.”  I could almost hear my grandmother saying that, starting her tirade with something along the lines of, “If you think you’ve got it bad, think of (add deprived person, whether the starving, the poor, the sick.)”  It worked, that “just get on with it” attitude.  Here’s some more advice from Hillis:  “Never, never, never let yourself feel that anybody ought to do anything for you.  Once you become a duty you also become a nuisance.”  Ouch, I bet that hurt a few of her original readers, and maybe a few of her more recent followers.

Listening well, attention to matters of one’s personal grooming, care with alcohol consumption, and friendship are all discussed, along with advice on the spending and saving of money.  Though Live Alone & Like It was one of many such books written during the between-the-wars period, it is certainly one of the most entertaining.  I’ve often imagined the kind of women, in that era, who might have bought this book.  I think it would have made them feel not quite so alone, knowing that they were, in fact, part of a trend.  Now, according to those recent articles, though there’s an assumption that most single people living alone are women, increasingly men are choosing the solitary life.   The interesting thing is that the dynamics are different now, when compared to those faced by Britain’s “surplus women” of the 1920’s – we have enhanced travel, social media, all sorts of ways to feel connected.  Yet so many are choosing to live alone and please themselves.

The final page of Live Alone And Like It has a Q & A, and includes the question, “May a woman traveling alone talk to men who are fellow travelers without being introduced – especially on shipboard?
Answer:  If you are old enough to travel on shipboard alone, you are old enough to talk to anyone who interests you.

I like Marjorie’s no-nonsense approach, though she sounds a little like the headmistress of a girls’ school who has transitioned into being a life coach.  Klinenberg closes his New York Times op-ed piece with the words, “All signs suggest that living alone will become even more common in the future, at every stage of adulthood and in every place where people can afford a place of their own.” 

Taking into account the advice of women like Marjorie Hillis, it seems that if you want to like how you live, whoever you are, whether you are alone – or, indeed, with a partner or family – an element of being able to do what you want to do, when you want to do it is an absolute necessity.

Next time:  The Women Who Spied in WW1

Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Beauty ...

My paternal Grandmother died when I was eighteen.  Her passing was particularly sad for me because, having been raised many miles from London, where she lived, I had just started college a few miles from her home, and was enjoying popping in to see her on a Saturday afternoon, or dropping by on a weeknight.  She always sent me back to my digs with a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits (you Anglophiles know what those are), or she’d put a few coins in my hand, reminding me to call my parents – this from a woman who didn’t have a telephone.   

Nan had suffered a dreadful fall down a steep flight of stairs.  Her neck was broken, so we all knew she had very little time.  I remember my mother coming back from the hospital, where Nan had asked her to wash her face.  My mother told me, “It was like touching a baby’s skin, so soft and smooth.”  Her skin was something people talked about, it was so unblemished – and she had never worn make-up in her life.  That life had been a hard one.  She had left school – and home – at twelve to go into domestic service.  Her father brought her back at thirteen when her mother died – she was needed to care for the house and three younger brothers.  She married my grandfather in 1917 – a soldier who was still recovering from physical and psychological wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who was about ten years her senior.  She must have been all of 18.  To the day she died, she never had a washing machine, but instead completed all her household tasks with little in the way of labor saving devices (I think she had a wringer, because I remember her telling me to keep my fingers out of the way when I was a little girl and had been sent to stay for a week in the summer), yet her face remained barely lined even to her death in her late seventies.

I remember visiting Nan when I was about sixteen.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when she stopped whatever she was doing – you hardly ever saw her sitting down – and took my chin in her hand and moved my face from side to side, scrutinizing me through her thick spectacles.  “Time to get you some rosewater and glycerine, my girl,” she said.  So that afternoon we walked down to the shops, stopping in at the pharmacy.  She asked for, “My usual rosewater.”  I watched as the pharmacist brought out two large demijohns, each marked in gold lettering.  He blended equal measures of rosewater and glycerine in a plain bottle, marked the label and handed it to her. It was cheap.  Much cheaper than anything else I’d been using on my skin. Nan instructed me that upon waking and before bed I was to soak a small ball of cotton wool with the solution, and to cleanse my face completely.  She also told me that the sun was not my friend. Why I didn’t stick with her advice, I don’t know.

I thought of Nan this week, while reading an article written in 1926 for a woman’s magazine, and I wondered how far we women had come, really, where care of the skin is concerned.  Tackling the question of what makes a fine complexion, here’s what the writer said: “To do her best for her appearance is every woman’s duty towards herself and her surroundings.”  Her surroundings?  Might my living room be doomed if I forget to moisturize?  Mind you, maybe our foremothers knew there was a link between personal care and a respect for one’s environment, and thus, one another. Or perhaps an untidy house leads to – heaven forbid – wrinkles!

Here’s something I think I always knew, but of course in a more modern article wouldn’t get a mention: the relationship between discomfort and poor skin.  Those women who came of age in the early part of the last century knew this.  Nan always said, “If you’re bad on your feet, you’re bad all the way through.” I never saw her in more than one inch heels.  And here’s what the author of the 1926 article said:  “Take for granted that your health is in trim, that you have no corns or sore feet that tend to giving your features a pained expression (the beginning of wrinkles!), and that you take a sufficient amount of daily exercise and fresh air.”  A suggested beauty regime followed, which I would basically describe as “soap and water” cleansing (and remember, soap was often pure of chemicals in those days), but then our writer asks the question, “Does the so-called beauty culture result in anything worth having?” 

Can you imagine that question in today’s magazines, when any regime seems to be worth having – and at great cost?  Here’s the 1926 answer:  “While some of it may be useful, a great deal of it is positively harmful.  The powders clog the pores, which are the ‘breathers’ of the skin.  The paints and lipsticks encase the face so that the captivating muscular twinkling movements stop; the dimples lose the art of ‘dimpling’ and every kind of animation of the face disappears.”

What would they say about Botox?

My grandmother’s face was beautifully animated.  Her smile was broad and her gray-blue eyes twinkled as a grandmother’s eyes should.  My father has her skin, and so does my cousin Celia, who took that sage advice and kept out of the sun.  Unlike me.

Unfortunately, I never kept up with the glycerine and rosewater, though I have always tried to keep things fairly simple regarding my skin. However, after sustaining a hamstring injury some months ago, I decided to take one of those joint and ligament supplements that are supposed to help with movement. I did my research and picked a good one, but missed the observation of many reviewers that, while their joints felt better, their skin was adversely affected by the supplement.  Uh-oh, if you could have seen my skin.  My grandmother would have brought out the carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush!  I was so miserable, and couldn’t bear to be near a mirror.  But Nan must have spoken to me from the beyond, because in my despair, I went online and found a bottle of Glycerine & Rosewater.  Within hours of applying the water, in the way my grandmother instructed, my skin had calmed, and a few days later, there was even a bit of a glow.  Now, many years after she took my adolescent chin in her hand and inspected my complexion, I know without a doubt that my grandmother knew best.

So, what tips about skincare did you learn from your mothers and grandmothers?  And did you stick with them?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Those Magnificent Women In Their Flying Machines

It was in 2008 that the last female veteran of WW1,  passed away.  Though her passing was covered by the press in both her native Britain, and in Canada, her adopted home, her death didn’t seem to garner the attention that the old soldiers – men such as Harry Patch – attracted in their final years.  To be sure, her experience was different – Harry Patch had marched into battle, and saw action again in the second world war. He was a remarkable man who had no truck with limelight-seeking politicians who sidled along to pay their respects at a timely moment for a photo-opportunity – good old Harry made Tony Blair wish he had kept well away.

But let’s get back to Gladys Stokes.

She transferred from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to the newly formed Women’s Royal Air Force in April 1918, where she became a Leading Aircraftswoman.  Her story is a remarkable one, with early adventures that are the stuff from which books are written, however, the fact that she was an aircraftswoman – who was responsible for certain aspects of aircraft production in the Great War – fascinated me, and led me to look a little further into the lives of women who took to the air during the 1914-18 war, and in the years that followed.  We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson, but they were simply following in the steps of some truly intrepid flyers – and if you think that women flying combat missions is something new, then think again!

 Female pilots volunteering for military service in WW1 included the following brave women:  Helene Dutrieu, who made flights from Paris to check on German troop movements. Marie Marvingt flew bombing missions over Germany.  
A cadre of Russian aviatrix included Princess Eugenie Shakovskaya, an artillery and reconnaissance pilot, and Princess Sophie Dolgorukaya who was a pilot and an observer.  Courageous women, all.  Is it any surprise, then, that so many women took to the air in the post-WW1 years?

I remember listening to recordings of women who had lived through the Great War, and whose lives were changed not only by their experiences, but by the huge shifts in society following the conflict. One woman was asked about being a “flapper” in the 1920’s and in reply commented, “They called us flappers because we were like butterflies breaking out of the cocoon and flapping our wings so we could fly.” And fly they did, socially, educationally – and quite literally.

While I was in England in October last year, I came across a series of articles in an annual written in the 1930’s, and one just fascinated me:  Flying As A Career For Girls.   Here’s how it begins:
“For some years now flying has been a delightful hobby for wealthy girls, but at last it is beginning to take its place as providing a career for the not-so-well-off.”  The article points out that some fledgling female pilots prefer to be taught by their own sex, and commented on the number of flying clubs with “girl instructresses.”  I think I would have stuck at my flying lessons if I hadn’t been instructed aloft by a half-bored pilot with a smoldering cigar that never left his mouth, even as he was shouting commands at me (and that was only my first lesson!).

The records established by women are inspiring even today. The author describes New Zealander Jean Batten as being, “The gamest little airwoman in the world.” Batten was often in the news given her flying exploits, especially when she established the record of flying solo from Port Darwin, Australia to Kent, England (8,615 miles in 5 days, 18 hours, 15 minutes).  
Other intrepid airwomen include Harriet Quimby,  the first women to fly at night, and to pilot her own ‘plane across the English Channel (1912).  
Alys McKey Bryant, the first woman pilot in Canada (1913)
And one I really love – Bessie Coleman, the first African American, man or woman, to earn a pilot’s license. 
There’s a list that goes on and on of women’s accomplishments in the field of aviation in the first 40 years of the last century.  Author Dorothy Carter, herself a pilot, wrote many stories for girls and young women, generally featuring an intrepid aviatrix who could not only teach others to fly, but who could teach the men a thing or two about aircraft.  I love glancing through these old stories, and reading the biographies of women who took to the skies, especially that extraordinary generation of women between the wars who seemed to be game for almost anything.  And I wonder how girls and young women today could be inspired by their stories – they may not want to take to the air, but every woman, in her own way, wants to fly.

“We swung over the hills and over the town and back again, and I saw how a man can be master of a craft, and how a craft can be master of an element. I saw the alchemy of perspective reduce my world, and all my other life, to grains in a cup. I learned to watch, to put my trust in other hands than mine. And I learned to wander. I learned what every dreaming child needs to know -- that no horizon is so far that you cannot get above it or beyond it.”  Beryl Markham, West With the Night

Friday, January 6, 2012

Downton Abbey - It's Baaaack!

I know so many of you can’t wait for the arrival of Downton Abbey’s second series to hit the screens in the USA this weekend. I’m afraid I couldn’t wait, so I ordered the UK DVD set and was able to watch the whole series over a three-day period some weeks ago (one of my best investments – a code-free DVD player!).  Not only am I rather hooked on the series, but this time – as you know – I was particularly interested in how the Great War would be depicted on the home front, especially given the wires that seem to ensnare this particular cast of characters, whether upstairs or below stairs.

I’m not going to give any spoilers here, that would be so unfair, however, I’ll just say I was interested to see how the women were portrayed in this series, especially given my interest in women’s lives during the 1914-18 war, and how those changes impacted their futures in the following decades.  It seemed that each of the Crawley sisters represented the different ways in which women became more independent, how they experienced having a voice and a choice, and then exercised that new freedom.  In them we see both the joys of discovery and the disappointments that  can accompany taking a road never before traveled.  See what you think when the series airs, and in the meantime, I’ll be coming back, posting on this blog about the lives of women during that era.

The naysayers were out in force when the second series of Downton Abbey aired in the UK. There were criticisms regarding language (for example, the fact that someone’s young man was referred to as her “boyfriend” – which was not used in those days), and comments about costumes and whether so-and-so really would have worn tweeds, or whatever.  While I like to see authenticity, we have to remember that this is a story, and in a story sometimes to keep the viewer engaged, one has to sacrifice fact to get to the truth.  And I don’t think the overall truth of the time period was compromised – the series focuses on a family in the upper echelons of society, with only brief glimpses of those on the ladder’s lower rungs.  The impact of war is a bit rosier than it might have been, but you get a sense of how some aspects of life will never go back to the way it was before, no matter how much the Dowager might want the pre-war status quo established again.

I still think, though, one of the most poignant moments is when the young Lady Sybil says, Sometimes it feels as if all the men I ever danced with are dead.”   And that’s what interests me and brings me back to this period in history time and again:  750,000 young men killed in Britain alone, 1,350,000 severely wounded, and – according to the latest estimates – over 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked.  And after the war, two million women of marriageable age for whom there was little chance of finding a partner to share life and have a family, were considered “surplus.”  Now I’m looking forward to Series 3 – I want to know what happens to those Crawley girls.  And of course there’s – uh-oh, better not say any more ...

Enjoy your visit to Downton Abbey this weekend.  I'm expecting the DVD of the "Christmas Special" which aired on December 25th in Britain to arrive any day now.  Waiting was never my strong suit!

Next week:  Those Magnificent Women & Their Flying Machines.