Wow - I wonder how any of us would have felt with that little snippet of information rolling around in our heads? Certainly many of us who are baby boomers might not have felt too put out at first – the 1960’s and 70’s were a different time, after all. But these were young women who had been brought up by mothers steeped in the mores of the Victorian era, when a woman’s fulfillment was expected to come through marriage, children and the home.
So, what was at the root of this prediction, and what happened to those women?
The first question is easy to answer, but hard to take. The Great War 1914-1918, as the First World War is often known, claimed the lives of some 750,000 young men of marriageable age in Britain. In addition, about 1,350,000 were seriously wounded, and another 200,000 profoundly shell-shocked (the “Official” line was 80,000 shell-shocked, but recent research reveals the number to be dramatically higher – the original numbers having been massaged to minimize the impact of war pension claims).
Now to the second question – what happened to those women?
The 1921 census revealed that there were over 2,000,000 “surplus” women of marriageable age in Britain for whom there would never be a husband or children. Indeed, a pamphlet was published: The Problem of the Surplus Women. And what an insult that was, after all, those same women had been called up during the war – an additional 1.5 million women entering the workplace in highly visible roles, not only as nurses, ambulance drivers, in military support roles and munitions, but in just about every field of endeavor so that young men could be released for the battlefield machine. After the war, there was a tendency to treat those women as pariahs who were after the jobs of men – and as if it wasn’t hard enough rising to the challenge of work, of making their way in a new world, these women had lost their fathers, brothers, cousins, sweethearts and friends to war. For many their grief must have been unimaginable.
How they coped, how many floundered, and how a great number rose to the challenge of a life lived alone is a subject that has certainly fascinated me since my teens, and for years I hoped that one day someone would write a really good book on the subject – not an academic treatise (there are enough of those), but a book that crackles not only with a depth of research, but through which you really hear the voices of those women. Finally that book came along when Nicholson published SINGLED OUT. And though there are historians who have countered some of her assertions, for me Nicholson’s stories of the women of that era rang true to my own experience.
When I was a child, those women who came of age in the Great War were in their 60’s, some still at work and some just retired. There were quite a few in the small hamlet in which I grew up – each addressed as “Miss” this or that, and never known by their first name, though they always gave the impression that “fortitude” might have been their middle name.
One of the tragedies for so many of that generation, was that they never knew motherhood, so bringing children into their lives became important – perhaps that’s why so many became teachers or governesses, and not just because those jobs occasionally came with accommodation. I remember often being invited to tea by one of the “Misses” in our community – I would be sent on my way by my mother, in my best dress and polished shoes, and would sit for tea with a woman of a certain age, who was clearly delighted in the company of her young but temporary charge. And I remember that, as I munched on my egg sandwich cut into small triangles, or my buttered toast and jam, I would look up at the mantelpiece and see the sepia photograph of a young man lost to war – perhaps a brother, a dear friend, or a sweetheart – and I knew not to ask.
Nicholson doesn’t rose-tint the lives of these women, and the book contains some heartrending stories of loneliness and separation – and also highlights the disintegration of Victorian morals as many liberated women of the 20’s and 30’s lived their lives in a way that might have made young women in the 60’s blush! But more than anything I loved the stories of those who blazed a trail – here are just a mere handful mentioned in Nicholson’s book:
Miss Gertrude Tuckwell, the first woman Justice of the Peace to be sworn in, in London.
Miss Margaret Beavan, Liverpool’s first Lady Mayor.
Miss Reynolds, head of one of the largest publicity firms in Britain.
Miss Irvine, the only professional tea-taster appointed by HM Government
Miss Maud West, Detective (I love that one!).
The time between the wars became the golden age of detective fiction, with many of those best-selling authors being unmarried women – there’s a job you can do at home with no training!
Nicholson points out that the conditions of the first half of the twentieth century enabled women to give the very best of themselves. As Cicely Hamilton wrote:
Teach me to need no aid of men,
Teach me to need no aid of men,
That I may aid such men as need.
In a review of SINGLED OUT, Jane Ridley of the Literary Review pointed out that, though the memorials to the men who gave their lives grows, the women who were left behind are forgotten. With that in mind, I highly recommend SINGLED OUT to anyone interested in this era, and if you’re reading this blog – that’s you! Which brings me to my first competition:
I’ll be sending a copy of SINGLED OUT by Virginia Nicholson to the first person to send an email to email@example.com. Just type “Maisie Dobbs Singled Out” on the subject line, and remember to give your full name and address. (ADDENDUM! I have been overwhelmed by the response to my competition, which is now closed - but check in again as there will be another one soon!)
And as a consolation prize, the next five people responding to this post (via the same email address) will receive a Maisie Dobbs “Secrets” journal. Earlier this year my publisher, Harper Collins, produced a lovely Moleskin journal in conjunction with publication of A LESSON IN SECRETS. The notebook, with a letter from me inside, was sent as a gift to booksellers, however, there were a few leftovers – and now I can give them away! (Again, competition now closed).
See you next week – it’s time to talk about Downton Abbey and The Great War – a subject I am sure we’ll come back to once or twice!