Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Ya Readin' - Singled Out

I have been dipping in and out of Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson for some time. The time lapse was not because I wasn't enjoying the book but because I had a very short late pregnancy concentration span!

I was holding my place in the book with my Persephone High Wages bookmark (which came out with the last biannual). I didn't realise the irony of this until I read Simon's post on High Wages. It turns out to have been a most appropriate choice!

Obviously, as the title indicates, one of the saddest aspects of the first world war highlighted in the book is the number of women who either lost their lover / fiancee / husband in the war and never found anyone else to fill the gap left in their affections, or those who never found a lover at all. Which is worse, I guess, comes down to whether you hold to "love and lose" as preferable to never having loved. The stark reality, though, was that for those women of age during the war and those that came of age at the war's end there simply were not enough men left to go around. The issue was even more pertinent for middle and upper class women as, relatively, the officer class ( with whom they were likely to find their mate) suffered much higher casualty rates than their men. Nicholson gives the reason as the officer's leading the men into battle, as well as the simple fact that many working class men were not healthy enough to join up in the first place. I remember my high school teacher commenting on the irony of this not being healthy enough to go and die!

Singled Out has the tagline "How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War". But, I don't think the word 'survived' goes far enough to explain what some of these women did. Yes, some did just survive on low wages and without the fulfillment of their dream to marry and have children, but others embraced the freedom their inability to marry gave them and went on to establish thriving careers and enjoyable home lives.

Nicholson highlights the change in perception of unmarried women from "surplus women" to valued contributors to society. On page 323

Not being married allowed....[women] .... to play to their formidable strengths. They were pioneers. Single women like this changed the world they lived in. And there were so many of them: scientists, teachers, doctors, politicians, lawyers, artists and explorers. The vivissitudes of life - ridicule, prejudice, disappointment - had not subdued this parade of indominatble ladies. A thread of determined ambition ran through them. They would fly, they would discover, they would build, educate, help, cure, protest, transform.

Singled Out tells the story of many of them - both famous and forgotten. My favourite story was that of Gertrude Maclean who set up the Universal Aunts business for " capable ladies with all the auntly virtues: good health, time to spare, maturity and a can-do attitude" (p. 299).

Singled Out makes revealing reading and I think would be enjoyed by anyone who reads literature of the 1920s and 1930s. After all, many of the women who wrote then - including Richmal Cromptom and Elizabeth Goudge - had been 'singled out'.

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