I’ve very much enjoyed Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. It is the kind of gossipy, anecdotal history that is very easy to read. Nicholson has done an enormous amount of research. The pages throng with remarkable women who managed to find meaning in life without a husband or children: women like Gertrude Caton-Thompson who trained as an archaeologist in her thirties, travelled extensively on digs, and ended up teaching at Newnham College: Mary Grieve who was editor of Woman magazine for 30 years; many writers, including Elizabeth Jenkins and Elizabeth Goudge. Women lawyers, teachers, stockbrokers, and engineers all seized their chance. But if one thing comes over strongly, it is that while middle class and upper class women could often find worthwhile and financially rewarding employment, for working class women it was the tough life of a shop girl or factory worker. For them, marriage must surely have been preferable, even if as Nicholson points out, it was rarely a bed of roses.
For many women in all classes the absence of children was a sadness. Many played roles as aunts and godmothers, but few in those day dared have an illegitimate child to raise alone. It’s a pity that so few felt able to follow in the footsteps of Rosamund Essex, editor of the Church Times, who as a single woman adopted a little boy, a touching success story
Nicholson writes in the introduction that at thirty she was still unmarried and expected to remain so, but two years later found herself planning her wedding. For me it all came even later and I thought as I read this book about what it must have been like to have no choice about marriage or children because there just weren’t enough men to go round. I wonder too how many of the (mostly) single women teachers at my girls’ grammar school in the sixties had lost the men they might have married in WWII – or whether they simply preferred a career – or other women (not a thought that occurred to me in those days!)
It used to be that I felt obliged to finish a book once I had started it, but those days have long passed. I have grown fairly ruthless at cutting loose when I’ve had enough and this has happened quite a lot lately. I stopped in the middle of Elizabeth Goudge’s THE DEAN WATCH a few weeks ago. I know she is much admired by some of my fellow bloggers so I thought I would give her a try, but something about the omniscient point of view put me off. I didn’t want to be told so much about the inner life of the characters and their history (though for some reason I don’t mind this when it is Trollope). I generally prefer to discover it gradually for myself. Perhaps she is one of those writers it is best to read in youth and it was just too late for me.
I’ve also recently stopped in the middle of a book of memoirs: I decided I didn’t like this person much and didn’t want to spend any more time with him. This nearly happened too with Orhan Pamuk’s THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, our latest book group choice. I got to around page forty or fifty – often a make or break point for me – and found the voice of the narrator and what he had to say so annoying that I felt I didn’t want to spend 500 pages with him. A novel this long really has to have something good to offer! But after a break I went back to it and I’m glad I did. After struggling along for a while I became completely absorbed by this extraordinary tale of obsessive love and the picture of Turkey between 1975 and 2000 that came slowly into focus.