It was approximately four years ago that my first Persephone catalogue arrived in the mail. Flipping through its pages there were only a handful of titles I recognized. As someone who desperately wished to pursue higher education but was thwarted by parents who refused to entertain the idea, there were themes within these works that I gravitated towards. Women who thought they were worth more than they were given but made the best of things. But that internal struggle with 'is this all there is for me?' is ever present. There are days when I would give anything to work eighteen hours a day for a museum and days when it's lovely to clean the house all morning and bake all afternoon. Which isn't to say that some men don't have the same daydream but today this post is about a woman's perspective.
Through passages from interwar novels written by women, Nicola, brilliantly points out the way things are, the frustration which sometimes accompanies these situations, social mores from that era and what authors had to say about it. From Dorothy Whipple's The Priory.
'Well, this has taught me one thing,' she thought wearily, picking up another paper and turning to the advertisment columns. 'If I've to scrub floors or eat the bread of dependence all my life, Angela shall be educated to earn her own living. She shan't find herself in the hole I'm in now if I can help it.'
Dorothy Whipple picked up her pen in the thirties and expressed the thoughts I had, and still have, over sixty years later. While I may not be in 'the hole', the lack of faith from my parents to be anything other than someone's wife and mother is something I'll never come to grips with. The Heiress, poor thing, never stood a chance, for her university was never about 'if'. Regardless of whatever comes from her degrees or the hours her parents have toiled to pay their cost, we never want her to doubt our faith in her ability. But despite the strides made by women in society, she may yet experience prejudice against her sex in the job market due to the prospect of fertility.
In fascinating chapters such as War, Feminism, Sex, Psychoanalysis, Beauman highlights sections illustrating those aspects from works by various authors. In my favourite chapter, Domesticity, she points to a hilarious section from the Diaries of Cynthia Asquith.
'Eddie told a very good child story, about a dog called Paddy run over by motor and killed. Mother hardly dared break the news to child. Did so during pudding. To her intense relief, after a second's pause, the child calmly continued pudding. Later mother heard crying, and found child with absolutely tear-congealed face.
'Oh Mummie, Paddy's killed.'
Mother: 'Yes, but I told you that at lunch,darling.'
Child: 'Oh, I thought you said it was Daddy!'
A Very Great Profession is a book to be revisited many times as my knowledge of women writers from the interwar period increases. I'm quite proud of the education I've received through reading my favourite book blogs, as well as novels published by Virago and Persephone, which meant I could relate to quite a lot of what Nicola was writing about. But there is still lots of reading to be done and to expand my horizons even further she has piqued my interest in May Sinclair, Vita Sackville-West, Rose Macaulay and F. M. Mayor.
The afterword in which Nicola writes more personally about her research and plans for this book are touchingly honest.
'So it was these chapters that went off, in the late summer of 1972, to Barley's reader. His report was crushing. I cannot actually say that I was devastated because I cannot remember how I felt: I think the energy went out of me, that the criticisms, destructive rather than constructive, just made me not want to bother. I simply stopped. His report arrived on 23rd November. My third baby was born on 31st August next year. The arithmetic is neat. And what it reveals about psychology.'
That passage reduced me to tears but I am so glad Nicola Beauman persevered. Not just to publish a book which is both delightful and informative but to create a publishing company, Persephone Books. An incredible and much appreciated bright spot in my reading world.