The full title is Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties and it’s by Rachel Cooke. It’s had some very good reviews and I must admit that it is a terrific read and that I gobbled it up. But – you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, didn’t you? – I do have some reservations and some of these are, I suspect, to do with editorial decisions. I was a few pages in when I turned to the index, wanting to check something, only to find that there wasn’t one. I don’t like it when a densely textured work of non-fiction like this doesn’t have an index. And I don’t like it when there are no proper footnotes, either. There are a lot of quotations. Sometimes they are attributed, sometimes not. I think this matters. I really want to know who said or wrote what and when. I can imagine the discussion leading to this decision: ‘oh, we won’t have footnotes . . . too stuffy . . . holds up the narrative . . . ‘ But it is important especially when, as here, the private lives of real people are presented in a somewhat unfavourable light.
For these women were for the most part undeniably brilliant – a film director, a journalist, a cookery writer, an architect, a barrister and others – but some of them really weren’t very nice. Admittedly this was a tough time to be a working mother and these women were bucking the trend. Some careers simply weren’t open to married women: a friend of my mother’s who worked in a bank had to stop work when she married. For those who could stay on it was very difficult to combine the two roles, much more so than today (though it’s a problem that never goes away entirely). Sadly the children in this book tended not to come out of things very well. The story of Nancy Spain is particularly disquieting. A lesbian when lesbianism wasn’t illegal only because it was totally unacknowledged, she had a baby that she passed off as belonging to her female lover. She was killed, along with the lover, in a plane crash, leaving no provision, financial or otherwise, for this little boy. Something was cobbled together and he was taken in by the headteacher at the school where he was boarding. He didn’t even know who his real mother was until he was nineteen. Later on he deduced that his father was Youngman Carter who was married to the crime-writer, Margery Allingham. I say ‘deduced’ because the evidence seems to be less than compelling, even though it is presented as fact. No wonder he was dogged by mental illness all his life.
Rachel Cooke doesn’t reach any particular conclusion and I didn’t feel that the whole was more than the sum of the parts – but how very entertaining those parts are.