Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman

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.


  1. Oh Darlene, what a wonderful, personal review. Like the Heiress, university was not an 'if' option for me and I can't imagine the hurt your parents caused. I so admire the self-guided education you've pursued through reading.

    I read this book last summer and loved it but have struggled with how to review it. I think Nicola does a wonderful job of examining the sheer variety of women's experiences during the period she focuses on. I really appreciated that wide focus, from housebound wives and mothers (happy or not) to career women. I was also touched by the afterword, particularly the passage you quoted (I too marked it down when I was reading), and I loved hearing about her informal research method. It was also so interesting to read her thoughts on a number of books that are now Persephone titles.

  2. Thanks for the really lovely review! I have been curious about the contents of this book ever since seeing it mentioned over the various blogs. But your review here, together with the endearing excerpts included, gives me a much clearer idea and feel about the book. Absolutely love the story about Paddy!

  3. I feel immensely educated by reading blogs and the books that I learn about from blogs. I think education may again become less of a given as tuition gets so expensive, so those of us who have benefitted are extremely lucky. I don't know if you have anything like our "Open University", but Mr W's mother never went to university as she had to go out for work to support her mother and sister as her father died when she was 16, but she did a history degree about 4 years ago. I think it is amazing that she was able to do the thing she wanted to that she'd missed out on before at the age of 60.

  4. With your review, you have reminded me how fortunate I have been in having the opportunities and encouragement I had growing up; I am sure your daughter also knows how lucky she is to have a mother who has wanted her to have the best opportunities possible.

    I haven't read 'A Very Great Profession' yet - though it is on my bookshelf and sounds like I will really enjoy it. I have read 'Singled Out' which covers a similar theme - the limitations on women, and how in the inter-war period women had to find different paths through life. I think it is a fascinating period, particularly for women, so I must get around to reading this!

    I also love how the internet is such an amazing tool for learning and sharing things; whatever your interest, there is so much that can be gained from blogs and sharing opinions!

  5. Claire, When I met Simon, Rachel and Mary, we joked for a moment about one line reviews that went something like...'I liked it'. Which is really funny coming from such clever people but reassuring to me! Sometimes, especially with non-fiction you just want to enjoy the education without writing your thoughts but I'm glad you shared a mini version with me.

    michelle, Thanks for stopping by! If you have titles on your shelf from this era then I highly encourage springing for this book one day. And wasn't that excerpt so telling!? Out of the mouth of babes.

    Verity, Hooray for Ken's Mum! That's an impressive accomplishment and one I hope to achieve one day. There are classes you can attend as a listener which would be perfect for testing the water. The only problem would be me wanting to ask far too many questions.

    Your father is a professor, lucky you indeed! The conversation at dinner must have been quite interesting at times and I am very envious.

  6. Alison, This was my second non-fiction book written by Nicola, she seems to get the mix of readability while presenting facts just right. You're in for a treat! And I've seen Singled Out in bookshops and have flipped through it. The print is really, really tiny so begrudgingly it's been placed back on the shelf but it does sound worth the struggle.

    Thank goodness for the internet! You meet the nicest people and discover the most interesting things, well, on book blogs anyway.

  7. What a beautiful review, Darlene. I was thinking the other day how I wished I was one of those wonderful bloggers who can incorporate their life into a review, and frame it around their response and life. I never seem able to do it - and here you are, doing it better than anything I've read in the blogosphere.

    I've been so grateful for my parents valuing education, even to DPhil level (although they're not always so keen on me doing that!) My Dad was a first-generation university student (his family were farm labourers) and my Mum didn't do her degree until she was forty. I think the first generation in a family to really value studying are the most encouraging and faithful - we offspring reap the benefits.

    I haven't said anything about A Very Great Profession, which I've read twice and loved, but not reviewed. It is so full of brilliant suggestions for reading, and it's great to see where Persephone started.

  8. A lovely review. I took it for granted that I would be able to go to university although my parents both left school at 13. I know now, through my reading of many Persephones & other books of the era, how lucky I've been. AVGP is a wonderful book. I first read it years before Persephone was founded & I've read it several times since. As Claire says, I find it interesting to read Nicola's thoughts about many of the books she's since reprinted.

  9. Simon, Oh thank you so much for your kind words, coming from you that is high praise indeed! Lacking the skill required to analyze such a work all I had to go on was passion and experience.

    Women who further their education while raising children and running a household are my heroes. Congratulations to your Mum, and also your Dad for being supportive, it really is a team effort at that stage. The next time I cross the pond we'll have to organize another blogger meet-up and make sure this topic comes up for discussion! Thanks again for making my day, Simon.

    lyn, Didn't it just give you shivers to know that Nicola would go on to re-issue some of the books she was writing about? I would love to see her write a book about women's literature during, and slightly post, the WWII era.

    Even though your parents left school early they must have valued education to support your venture, lucky you. I remember you writing once that there weren't many books in your house growing up. Wonder what your parents would think of your spectacular collection now!?

  10. Great review Darlene. I loved this book when I read it a few years ago and it was an invaluable source when I wrote my dissertation on Rebecca West. You've made me want to re-read it. The book that is - not my dissertation - I was glad to see the back of it!

  11. I thought I'd commented on this, turned out that I didn't!

    I was really moved by your comments, Darlene. You are an inspiration! I also want to say that you are fantastic at analysing texts and getting to the core of what they are about - you'd never know you hadn't had a formal university education. Frankly I don't think you need a degree to be able to intelligently analyse and dicuss literature - you just need a heart and an open mind and an ability to read between the lines. Some people have it, some people don't. I know plenty of people with degrees who can't read beyond the surface of a text or appreciate when something has been beautifully written. You have that gift and you don't need a piece of paper to prove it!

    My sister and I are the only people in my ENTIRE extended family to have got degrees - I have 30 cousins of the same generation as me and none of them went to university. Both my parents left school at 15 due to their family circumstances but they were adamant that we would have better and all of us were tutored to make sure we passed the exam for grammar school and then given every support we needed to get the education we wanted. My brother left school at 16 and my parents supported his decision but my sister and I wanted to go to university so they paid for us to go and I will always be grateful to them for it. I love learning, always have, always will, and I am so lucky to have had parents who have encouraged me in my pursuit of it, even though they raise their eyebrows at my high falutin' ideas of studying Russian and Egyptology and other such 'pointless' topics!

    I always think that the whole of life is an education and those who succeed are the ones who use their experiences to inform their attitudes to life and consistently seek to improve themselves - not just through studying academics, but through studying people and politics and culture and nature and spirituality and just generally always seeking to make themselves better people. There is a lot to be said for 'the school of life' and a lot more to education than books and exams.

    I am so pleased that Nicola Beauman persevered as well - it's so easy to get disheartened and discount yourself when people criticise you or tell you that you 'can't' but when you believe in yourself, no mountain is too high to climb!

    I wonder whether you'd be able to access online courses or even take a part time degree? There were loads of mature students on my English degree course and they were a pleasure to work alongside as they were so passionate! You should definitely look into it. I think you'd absolutely love it!

  12. Nicola, Rebecca West is an author I plan on introducing myself to this year, The Judge has been languishing on my shelf for months. I can only imagine the sigh of relief once you handed in such an exhaustive paper but well done you!

    Rachel, Thank you so much for your massively inspiring comment, I needed a tissue to get through it. Without baring my soul too much in public, when you've grown up being told everything you do is wrong those sentiments last a lifetime. A dear friend once described me as Matilda from Dahl's book and it made me laugh, it's true! That was my childhood.

    You and Simon have touched me with your stories. In my mind's eye, your family gatherings are like a summer afternoon with the Bloomsbury Group, minus the bohemian activities, of course. Well, until you dig up a gypsy or two with your family history research! Once we've finished financing The Heiress it will be my turn but for now you lot will have to be my on-line English course. Thank you once again for your support, it really does mean so much.

  13. I am looking forward to reading this--I keep putting it off thinking I need to read more of the books first that she is writing about. Maybe it doesn't matter? There's always time to go back for an education and sometimes life and the things we learn on our own are a good education as well. I've learned an immense lot by reading other bloggers thoughts on books. I'll never study English I suspect, but reading about these books and reading the books themselves is still pretty amazing on its own. And I read my first Rose Macaulay book last year--she's great-I hope you like her!