Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Her Brilliant Career. Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke.

9781844087402When I saw this book announced, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Not only does it focus on the decade in which I grew up, but also on a number of women of that decade who were part of that childhood and adolescence, about some of whom I hadn’t thought, as they say, from that day to this. I’d heard of virtually all of them, and some had even been heroines of mine. I just knew it must be the book for me.

So here it is, and I’ve lapped it up and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a tremendous first book by Rachel Cooke – highly original in concept and execution, lively, witty, affectionate and admiring. It is a cleverly constructed series of biographical essays. The collective biography is an interesting form, and here it works very well to conjure a small world, containing a network where hardly any degrees of separation come between many of these women. Rachel Cooke’s style is exuberant, exhilarating even, and she writes with intense appreciation of the discoveries she has made of a group of women whom she rightly finds inspiring. With energy and enthusiasm she flies headlong through these lives, pausing from time to time to digress in a footnote (the footnotes are fun!).

At the same time, reading it has been a rather weird sensation for me, one that will possibly make me test my own reaction to reading about other figures from deeper in the past. I’m very close to this era, and I feel very close to these women, but they were not portrayed here entirely as I remembered them – naturally not, as when they were part of my consciousness they were still alive, therefore many of the details revealed here of their private lives were unknown and those that were known, severely rationed. I heard some of their voices weekly on the radio, read about others in the news and in magazines, followed the career of at least one of them as a fan, and their personalities made a strong impression on me.

The book starts with a scene-setting introduction, in which Rachel Cooke deftly processes the spirit of the age as conveyed through what must have been some really illuminating interviews with people still alive who remember the 50s and knew the protagonists. Then on to the main event: her subjects are Patience Gray the food writer; the triangular relationship of Nancy Spain, Joan Werner Laurie and Sheila van Damm; Alison Smithson the architect; the gardener Margery Fish; film industry pioneers Muriel Box and Betty Box; Jacquetta Hawkes the archaeologist, who married JB Priestley; and Rose Heilbron QC, high profile barrister and the first woman to sit as a judge in England. Each chapter is a lively essay on the life and achievements of one or more of these women. The life story is compiled from memoirs, the press and personal memories – the acknowledgements are a great read in themselves. For me there is an eye-opening emphasis on the private life of each of the subjects, in some cases almost to the extent of overwhelming the story of their public achievements. Great gossip! and certainly not all the sort of detail to be culled from their contemporary memoirs and public profile. Prisoners are not taken: one is left with a strong impression of partners discarded (many long-suffering) and some (though not all) children who brought themselves up and survived to tell the tale.

The women who were off my radar were Patience Gray (I was an Elizabeth David girl, through and through), Joan Werner Laurie, though I read many magazines that if I had but known it she edited, and Alison Smithson. All the others – well – they are not forgotten by me, at any rate, and I’m delighted to know that their memory is being revived for readers who don’t remember them. Sheila van Damm was (among many other things including inheriting the Windmill Theatre) a successful rally driver, and as I was besotted with motor sport when I was a girl I read all I could about her. Nancy Spain was ubiquitous on radio and in the press, and a vivid, glamorous personality. Muriel Box and Betty Box were names I saw weekly in the credits of the films I watched (I still am an obsessive reader of credits, and have been known to hiss at tall people who get up in my line of sight at the end of a film. They want a pint, but I want to see who the fish wrangler was). Rose Heilbron was a high profile barrister, yes, a woman barrister when they were uncommon, a Merseyside heroine and one of the first two women to take silk; her notorious cases were meat and drink to the Telegraph readers, just as were those of her male counterparts. It is wonderful to bask in the revival of their memory, and to learn about those who were unfamiliar to me.

At the end there are chapters on 50s fashion, and a great game to play: one novel per year from 1950-1960 written by a woman ‘… Good and Richly Subversive…’ Which ones would you choose, I wonder? I had fun with that. And then right at the end …. no index. That’s a great shame. I really think an index is needed, to tease out connections and ‘degrees of separation’.

So, I found this a sparkling, original and highly entertaining read. But … and please let me be clear that this is a massive personal But … and almost undoubtedly due to my age, there was something about the world as described in this book that I found I couldn’t buy into. You see, when I was growing up with these women in my young life – maybe I was very lucky, luckier than I knew – I had no idea that they were pioneers, exceptional, going against the tide. They were who they were, vivid, talented, demanding and deserving attention, but not exceptional for being women. I suppose, if pressed, I could say that as women they were rare, but to me they were part of a landscape of professional and creative people, who happened to be women. The message that I am meant to take from this book, therefore, I suppose must be that they were outstanding, were pioneers and extraordinary and I was too innocent to know it, and that they had a particular struggle to find the place they occupied because they were women. But that led me on to the slightly depressing thought that the obstacles they encountered, the casual discrimination they overcame and the everyday sexism that they bore, all sound horribly familiar. There was nothing so very different about the 50s that we don’t encounter in the 21st century, I’m afraid.

I know (at least I think I know) that I may not really be the core audience for this book – this is a tribute to a group of wonderful women whom anyone under 40 may never have heard of. It is aimed at revealing them to those who do not know them, and along the way, it is an attempt to uncover a hidden history of women for those who may have made many wrong assumptions about the recent past. However, when I read this on the cover flap: In her apron and rubber gloves, a smile lipsticked permanently across her face, the woman of the Fifties has become a cultural symbol of all that we are most grateful to have sloughed off. A homely, compliant creature, she knows little or nothing of sex, and stands no chance at all of having a career. She must marry or die. But what if there was another side to the story? – I think I know an Aunt Sally when I see one. I’m supposed to challenge this, surely? This does not describe the women in my life that I recall when I was growing up in the 50s – not my mother, not the women in my family of my parents’ generation, nor of their parents’; not the women who taught me; not the working women I grew up amongst – I could go on. Many significant changes happened in the 50s and 60s that have made women’s lives what they are today. But there would not have been the fertile ground for them if the generality of women in the 50s had conformed to that stereotype. Rachel Cooke’s Extraordinary Women had a high profile, but were standing for many many more extraordinary women. There are lots of reasons to read and enjoy this book, fizzing as it is with energy and a great sense of excitement and discovery; that these are the women who broke the mould, though, is in my opinion not one of them.

Rachel Cooke: Her Brilliant Career. Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties. London: Virago, 2013. 368pp Hardback
ISBN13: 9781844087402
Available in eBook formats; paperback not yet published.

7 comments on “Her Brilliant Career. Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke.

  1. Catherine Czerkawska
    October 30, 2013

    Three cheers for you, Hilary. Actually, a cartload of cheers. I remember the fiftes too. Was born with the decade and grew up (a bit) through it. And although I heard Rachel talking about this book on radio and thought she sounded lovely and the book sounded most interesting (and one I needed to read) I have NEVER recognised in modern depictions of women in the fifties the brilliant, strong, talented women who were in my life back then. I suppose in many ways, it’s like the sixties – I was a teenager through the sixties and I scarcely recognise the sixties as depicted by those who never lived through it either. It’s something I’m planning to tackle in my own writing. Soon.

  2. Kate
    October 30, 2013

    I detect the sound of a reasonable history book proposal being tarted up to sell more copies. I knew about Nancy Spain, but had heard of none of the others! Mum’s Christmas present is thus sorted.

  3. Alison
    October 30, 2013

    Wow! Sounds like a “must read”.

  4. Jennie Walters
    October 30, 2013

    A very thoughtful review of a book I’d been planning to read: thank you! Just what a review should be: generous but perceptive.

  5. Alison Priest
    October 30, 2013

    Thank you for an interesting review, Hilary. My mother was also a ‘woman of the Fifties’ and an Extraordinary Woman in many ways. She was a graduate with a professional qualification, who ran her own business as well as bringing up three children.Yes, my mother was unusual as a woman in the 1950s, but she was following women in her profession who had ‘broken the mould’ over a generation before her. I’m not convinced that Rachel Cooke has really understood her subject matter for the reasons that you express, especially after I read part of her introduction on Amazon. I certainly won’t be rushing to buy this book.

  6. rachel cooke
    October 31, 2013

    This is a message for Alison Priest. It’s a shame you’ve taken such a negative message from this review, which seems so positive to me. Especially since my whole book is trying to prove that the Fifties isn’t what people seem to think it was; your mother was one of many, as you say: some 30 percent of women were working by the end of the decade, as I point out. So, you won’t rushing out to buy my book. But if you would like to read it, email me at the Observer, or send me a DM on Twitter, and I will send you a copy at my own expense. That’s how confident I am that you will enjoy it.

  7. Alison Priest
    November 1, 2013

    Thank you for your message, Rachel. I am sorry if you thought that I had taken an overly negative view of your book. I was merely agreeing with an interesting point that Hilary had made about it which resonated with my own family experience. I will pass on your offer of a free copy of the book – if I wish to read it in future, I will buy it. At the moment, I have a number of other books on my to-read list which are rather more pertinent to my current interests (both academic and otherwise).

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