Keep Calm

Rosemary Hill

  • Can Any Mother Help Me? Fifty Years of Friendship through a Secret Magazine by Jenna Bailey
    Faber, 330 pp, £16.99, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 23313 7

The last daughters of the Victorians were destined to occupy a peculiar place in history. Born before women got the vote, many of them lived through two world wars to see The Female Eunuch published and watch Margaret Thatcher arrive in Downing Street. Contraception, education, economic independence all became widely available to women in their lifetimes, while the institutions that had seemed to frame their destiny at birth, the empire, the class system and marriage, came to count for much less. In some ways that made them fortunate, witnesses to if not participants in the forward march of emancipation. Yet in others they were particularly unlucky. As old certainties broke down behind them, the new opportunities were often slow to open up ahead. They were caught in a kind of social airlock.

A woman born in 1900 might go to university but after that her options were cripplingly narrow. Many professions remained closed. The most realistic possibilities were teaching or office work and a condition of almost all employment was spinsterhood. Jobs had to be given up on marriage and if the woman’s employer did not insist then the man’s might. It was not so much a glass ceiling as a brick wall. ‘I think that one of the hardest things for the educated woman to do is to accept the almost purely domestic role that marriage . . . forces her into,’ wrote one member of the all female Co-operative Correspondence Club, who had read English and Modern Languages at Cambridge. Accidia, as she called herself, in reference to the melancholic depression she often suffered, bemoaned the need to spend all her time keeping the ‘horrid little house’ clean when ‘relieved of the inevitability of sink and duster and oven, one could be so much more creative in one’s relationship with other people.’ Not all the members of the CCC had been so well educated but many of them felt frustration at the fact that ‘marriage often = housewifery’. ‘There was so much else I wanted out of life,’ another remarked. ‘I didn’t even, then, want children, and really had poor little [Julian] more because of boredom than anything else.’

It was boredom, isolation and a desire to be ‘more creative’ in their social relationships that brought together the women of the CCC in July 1935. That month’s issue of Nursery World carried a letter in its ‘Over the Teacups’ section from Ubique, who wrote from Ballingate in Ireland, wondering if anyone could help her. ‘I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books . . . I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed . . . Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me . . . and cost nothing!’ Sympathetic responses flooded in and Ubique had to explain, through the pages of Nursery World, that with stamps at 2d each she couldn’t afford to reply to them all. Instead, it was proposed to start a magazine in which the contributions would be sent to an elected editor to be compiled once a fortnight into a single copy. This would then circulate by post among the members of the Correspondence Club. The idea took hold and the CCC, which was sent out in hand-embroidered linen covers, lasted, astonishingly, until 1990.

The magazine, like the members themselves, presented a more or less conventionally feminine front, behind which the contents, which were confidential and written under pseudonyms, ranged far beyond the duster and the oven. The CCC grew into a conversation that carried on for more than half a century between women of varying backgrounds and classes all over Britain (and occasionally abroad), some of whom sometimes met, but whose main connection was their writing to, for and occasionally about one another. Jenna Bailey has skilfully compiled and edited some of what survives of the magazines into a series of thematic chapters. Much of the material was lost over the years and some contributions have been judged by surviving relatives too personal for publication, but what remains is compelling: a behind the scenes account of women’s history through one of its most formative periods.

At one end of the spectrum are the details, the minutiae of everyday life, taken so completely for granted at the time that they are usually lost to history: the supper at Lyons Salad Bowl; the possibility, if feeling nervous before a doctor’s appointment, of chain-smoking in the waiting room; the difficulty of deciding when to buy a house at a time when property prices are falling by 6 per cent a year. At the other end are the great events, personal and public, the love affairs, the pregnancies, the Blitz and the Coronation. In the background there is the physical harshness of life as it was in even comparatively affluent middle-class homes at a time when credit was frowned on, electrical appliances were rare and plumbing unreliable. ‘The pipe to our one tap in the house has been condemned,’ wrote Sirod (Doris backwards) resignedly in 1945 from her Dorset dairy farm. Accidia, in 1951, asked, ‘Do I work hard? Do I work as hard as most women? Harder than many? Not hard at all?’ before going on to explain that her household made its own electricity: ‘100 v DC, which means no washing machine, no vacuum and officially no nothing but the amber glow which passes for light. Sub rosa we run an electric kettle (30 minutes to boil . . . 20 when the batteries have just been charged.)’

All of the women in the CCC were mothers and although some dropped out and occasional new members, mostly younger women, were recruited up until the early 1950s, this remained a condition of membership. Children were by no means the dominant topic of discussion but the nature of motherhood preyed on many minds. It was a role, like so many others, that was being redefined as more and more middle-class women were taking sole responsibility for child care. Most of the members of the CCC got enormous pleasure and satisfaction from their children: it was themselves they worried about as they attempted to practise Sir Frederic Truby King’s ‘craft of motherhood’, sticking to rigid feeding regimes and leaving their babies to cry all night in order that they might in time be ‘turned . . . into something that could be controlled’. Childbirth itself, according to the other guru of the day, Grantly Dick-Read, was painful only if the mother was frightened, as this caused blood to drain from the uterus. It was her responsibility to be brave. Poor Accidia did her best, following the diet and doing the exercises, but nevertheless suffered agonies with all her babies and could only conclude that ‘the undoubted pain which I feel from start to finish is entirely my own fault.’

The CCC might not have flourished and survived as it did had it not been for the outbreak of war four years after it was founded. With many husbands away, the strain of the bombing, evacuated children and rationing made the women even more appreciative of one another and the experience bound them together permanently. It also brought out some of their most evocative writing, such as Roberta’s description of a dogfight over the Kent countryside. One Sunday on ‘a fresh September morning’ in 1940, when she had just taken the newspapers into the garden to read: the ‘six planes, fighting like mad’ suddenly just over the house, ‘the noise of the machine gun . . . deafening’, and the ‘once white parachute, spattered with blood’ lying in the field next door with a dead German pilot beneath it. ‘I do think of you all each night,’ wrote Waveney the same month, ‘and wonder which of us is getting it.’ Her husband, Maurice, was a prisoner of war and she was coping with the children plus a stream of evacuees and the fact that while he was a prisoner his pay was cut. At the same time she was clearly exhilarated by all she had to do. Cramming unexpected relatives into her father’s rectory, washing ten sheets a day, accommodating the men from the BBC who had come down for the rector’s harvest festival broadcast on the Home Service, and keeping the children out of their way while ‘Daddy was running over his selection of prayers with a stopwatch’ was exciting. Waveney was less happy when Maurice returned, physically weakened and disillusioned by his experience, to resume a much diminished married life.

That immediate postwar period was perhaps the worst. After six years of being encouraged to take responsibility, to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ at home, in factories and in the military, women were unceremoniously shoved back into the kitchen to open up the labour market to the returning men. Once there, they found themselves very much alone, which was a shock for many. The middle-class or professional family that before 1939 would expect to employ a cook, a maid and a cleaner could in most cases no longer afford to do so. Women in their forties had suddenly to learn to fend for themselves and they discovered that, in addition to being boring, housework is also quite difficult. Extended families played a smaller part as couples moved away either to find work or simply, as Angharad’s husband insisted in 1945, to get ‘established as a separate unit’. That unit, the modern nuclear family, often involved a husband and wife who lived more separate lives than at any previous time, with less leisure and fewer shared experiences than ever before. ‘Since Christmas,’ Accidia wrote in 1955, ‘we calculate that John has spoken to over four hundred people – I to about four, and those would be the dustman, fishman, policeman and the woman from one of the Harewood Estate lodges.’

The life of the postwar married woman, diminished and degraded as it was, was whipped up in magazines and newspapers into the confection that was the Housewife. Competent but modest, elegant but capable and always in a freshly ironed blouse by the time her husband came home, she was the target of an ever growing number of magazines and advertisements. The first edition of Housewives’ Choice with its busy music-to-clean-windows-to theme tune was heard in 1946. Choice, of course, was exactly what they lacked, but the women of the CCC were not, for the most part, easily bullied. Nor were they inclined to moan. Some made jokes about their difficulties. Many got on well with their husbands and a few really enjoyed domesticity. Yet between 1950 and 1955 three of their 20 marriages broke down. Fifteen per cent was surely above the national average.

One rebel was Amelia. Born in Quetta in 1904, the daughter of a major general, she left her husband and children in Shropshire in 1950, took a flat in London and got a job as a secretary. The company where she worked, Clean Walls, specialised in removing the effects of soot from buildings. It wasn’t a brilliant career, but Amelia’s breathless account of her digs, of the great smog of December 1952, ‘quite an adventure,’ and of sleeping out the night before the Coronation and watching the procession – ‘That heavy crown, the purple and the gold’ – are full of the excitement of a woman beginning life at 46. It was perhaps a rash, certainly a courageous thing to do. The other members of the CCC, who could be critical of one another at times, seem not to have disapproved of her decision to break away. The personal story that attracted more comment was that of Isis, who stayed with home and family after the war and whose fate is the muffled tragedy at the heart of Bailey’s book.

In a series of articles headed ‘Revelations’, published in 1952, Isis, who had chosen her pen name as a tribute to Oxford, where she read history, described to fellow members what had happened to her between April 1946 and 1949. She described it candidly but in tones as clipped as Celia Johnson’s in Brief Encounter, and it is difficult at first to grasp the full horror of events. Isis, with a new baby and a self-absorbed schoolteacher husband in the throes of Freudian analysis, developed a passionate crush on her GP. The doctor seemed, perhaps, to return her feelings. He once held her hand slightly longer than was necessary and he was kind about her baby, who was not thriving as expected. When the boy was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome, ‘a Mongol’, again the doctor was kind while her husband seemed to blame her. Isis decided to declare herself.

I said: ‘There was something I was going to tell you – but perhaps you know it already.’ Long pause – and not receiving any encouragement, I said: ‘It would be best, I think, if I didn’t see you any more . . .’ There was an awful silence for a minute. Then he said, very coldly indeed: ‘Yes, I agree . . . When your duty and your inclination don’t go together, you must make them.’

‘What a SAP! Honestly Isis – He is,’ one of the other CCC members wrote encouragingly in the margin. But the damage was done. The GP wrote to Isis’s husband and told him all. The husband took his revenge in the manner of ‘Mr Barrett of Wimpole Street’. Over the next ten months ‘a sort of living death’ of strict supervision followed, along with electr0shock therapy and a psychiatrist who ‘stared at me as if I was something quite beyond the pale’, and asked: ‘What is this I hear about this doctor?’ ‘Next he said, “I’ve heard about this unfortunate child of yours” – in a tone that suggested he was referring to some disgraceful incident.’ Eventually, though not before a failed suicide attempt, Isis found consolation in the Roman Catholic Church. Her son was put into a home. She and her husband stayed together.

As the 1950s wore on and the social climate changed and the children grew up, the members of the CCC began to branch out. Angharad, one of the younger generation and one of the few who is identifiable beyond her pseudonym as the Welsh writer Elaine Morgan, embarked on a career as a playwright and scriptwriter for Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Her husband, who had agreed they could have another baby if she earned a thousand pounds, did the typing. Elektra became a marriage guidance counsellor and found herself being interviewed on Panorama by Richard Dimbleby, along with L.S. Lowry and a costermonger. She was less than dazzled by her moment of celebrity, thinking it rather a waste of time and the Lime Grove studios ‘dreary and tumbledown’. In 1973 she was elected as a Labour member of the Greater London Council. Angharad, it seems, was the only one to take any explicit interest in feminism. Her Descent of Woman, a riposte to Desmond Morris and other ‘male-centred’ evolutionists, appeared in 1972. If the CCC felt any envy (or approval) of the greater opportunities available to their daughters none of them mentioned it, though Cornelia was disappointed to discover that despite all that had happened by 1974 her daughter-in-law was a racist: ‘Yet she is a BSc! She just has no logic at all!’ Sirod, who was by now working for the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies, appraised her own daughter-in-law’s situation as the mother of a disabled child with cool reasonableness, and perhaps a memory of Isis. ‘She is intelligent enough not to blame herself. She needs more occupation than . . . cooking and caring . . . and could perhaps enjoy . . . forming a local parents’ association.’

In their photographs the members of the CCC pass, over time, from the sharp immediacy of black and white into the nostalgic blue haze of faded Kodacolor. With their grey waved hair and plain two-pieces they turn into the archetypical grannies of the 1970s, still, like their magazine, presenting a conventional front to an unsuspecting world. By 1980, however, the club was becoming like ‘some ghastly Agatha Christie play’, as Janna put it, with members disappearing from issue to issue. ‘Here we are,’ Ad Astra noted, ‘surprised by time.’ After so many changing scenes, the last are sadly similar: the hospital ward, the nursing home, the uncomfortable sofa bed in a grown-up child’s front room. But the end was met with the same fortitude as the rest. ‘I think one should be open about cancer,’ A Priori wrote. Cotton Goods, the only working-class member, who came from a Lancashire mill town, contributed her last article a few days before her death, describing the effects of morphia.

When the magazine finally came to an end in 1990, Elektra salvaged as much of the copy as she could, and failing to find a publisher for any of it, deposited it instead with the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University. There Jenna Bailey found it and brought the CCC into another century and into the world of blogs and Bridget Jones – a freer if less heroic age.