No blog this week. Back on 4 June.
This marvellous book, edited by Jenna Bailey, is a collection of extracts from the magazines of the Cooperative Correspondence Club. This was simply a group of women, with a somewhat shifting membership, who between the 1935 to 1990 contributed letters and articles to a magazine edited by one of their number and circulated privately amongst them. This privacy and the use of noms de plume allowed them to write with sometimes startling frankness about sex, marriage and motherhood and poignantly, as the years progress, of ill health and widowhood. All of them were intelligent women – most university-educated – all of them were mothers and most were confined to the home. Families tended to be large and labour-saving devices few, at least in the earlier days. Accidia’s account of her life in the 50s with five children, no washing machine, no vaccuum cleaner and a kettle that runs on batteries – well, words fail me. The CCC was a lifeline for women like this and created a precious sense of community for them. The isolation of some of these women – and the selfishness, regrettably, of some of their husbands – made my heart go out to them. It’s hard to pick out particular passages from these fascinating chronicles of everyday life. I was particularly gripped by Isis’s account of her almost-consummated love for her GP and her conversion to Catholicism, but the whole book was endlessly fascinating. There’s so little whining, and so much courage and good humour. In the end I can’t do better than to repeat the words of the reviewer in the TLS: ‘ordinary goddesses, grand girls, every one.’ Yes, indeed.
I loved Georgina Lee’s Great War diaries, HOME FIRES BURNING, written for her baby son, Harry, and got completely absorbed in her world. She married her solicitor husband when she was 41 and had her adored only child when she was 43 or 44. I identified with her as an older mother, though my life is very different from her’s with its background of servants, nannies, and so on. At one point near the end, nanny is away and Georgina proudly records that she has nursed her little boy through a cold all by herself. She was often parted from him – he spent some of the war with her family in Wales to avoid the zepplins – we tend to forget that London was attacked from the air and civilains died too during this war. She is clearly torn between her longing to be with him and what she saw as her duty to stay with her husband, whose health was not good. She is admirably level-headed, reasoning that statistically the risk of being killed or injured is low. She is well informed about the progress of war and has two brothers-in-law in the army. Her rather unconventional upbringing with her widowed artist father in France had made her an independent thinker – her judgments are shrew and she predicts that Churchill, whose political fortunes, took a nose-dive, would return to do great things. She does her bit for the war effort by working for the Belgian Red Cross in London. Hers wasn’t a very unusual or especially exciting life, but she was a remarkable woman all the same. She lived into her 90s, not dying until 1965. I wish I’d known her. I bet she was a lot of fun.
Sometimes the very fact that someone presses a book on you sets up a resistance that makes you disinclined to read it. Contrary, I know, but there it is. This happened to me recently with INJURY TIME. a memoir by poet and all-round man of letters, D. J. Enright. I hadn’t read anything by him as far as I could remember, and it sounded a bit old fogeyish and grim. It is his last book, written in old age while he was being treated for terminal cancer. I put it in the bathroom, intending rather grudgingly to pick it and read the odd page or two now and them. And of course it it turned out to be wonderful – I had to surrender and remove it from the bathroom for proper reading. It is really a commonplace book rather than a memoir. Two things I found especially funny. In a list of exam howlers: ‘Voltaire invented electricity’ (as Enright points out, ‘a brilliant inference, worth half marks’). And this: ‘A paper in the north of England ran an advertisement on its “Lonely Hearts” page which read: “Professional man, 45, head on a stick, seeks similar woman”. When readers asked what freakish practice or rare condition was encoded in “head on a stick”, it emerged that the secretary in the office had taken the message over the telephone and what the man had intended was “hedonistic”.