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Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties 
by Rachel Cooke.
Virago, 368 pp., £18.99, October 2013, 978 1 84408 740 2
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War was looming when Alexander Korda’s film Fire over England was released in 1937. It stars Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, and as the opening titles roll the voiceover sets the scene: ‘the free people of a small island’ defy the tyranny of a Continental power and ‘a woman guides and inspires them.’ Robson, firm of jaw and bristling with double-decker ruffs and farthingales, outwits the dastardly Spanish and the Armada is defeated. In 1953, with memories of war beginning to recede, there was another film based on Elizabeth’s life. Young Bess had Jean Simmons in the lead. Hemmed in by Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour and Charles Laughton reprising his prewar role as Henry VIII, there isn’t much Simmons can do beyond tossing her hair and striking a curious hands-on-hips Holbeinesque pose to suggest that there is more to her defiance than teenage sulks. Her girlish wiles win her father round, she rashly falls in love with Seymour and with his disgrace and execution nearly loses her own head. It is a life entirely dominated and shaped by men up to the moment when she is about to ascend the throne, at which point the film ends.

These two Elizabeths tell by implication a now familiar story: the contrast between what women were required to do and admired for doing during the war years and the strenuous attempts after 1945 to get them back into the home, the kitchen and the nursery. For many who had had a taste of professional and economic independence the 1950s were a period of frustration and disappointment. Even those like the novelist and journalist Nancy Spain who had comfortable middle-class lives did not want to go back to them – the round of ‘changing library books, playing a little tennis, helping mother about the house’ had become intolerable. More women than is perhaps generally supposed managed to escape, and in this collection of lively and thought-provoking biographical essays Rachel Cooke considers the careers of ten who made their names in the decade.

By 1950 change was coming. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in English in 1953. There were increasing opportunities for women who were bold and determined enough to take them. Yet for all Cooke’s justified satisfaction in finding so many possible subjects from which to make her selection, the cumulative effect is to emphasise how very bold and persistent these women had to be, what prejudice, sacrifice and discouragement they faced. She has chosen them as ‘role models’ and ‘inspirational figures’ but these are not exactly Stirring Stories for Girls (published in 1960), more like cautionary tales, their moral, sadly often, women beware women. Cooke rules out actresses and dancers on the principle that they were not ‘illustrative of anything very much’ since they were at any time exceptions to the norm. They were not necessarily exceptional, however, in their attitude to women’s proper sphere. Three years before Young Bess, Jean Simmons was cast as the lead in the historical thriller So Long at the Fair. When the producers proposed that it be directed by a woman, Muriel Box, Simmons flatly refused to countenance the idea. ‘Heigh ho,’ Box wrote in her diary: ‘I see a storming future ahead of this young lady.’

Muriel and her sister-in-law Betty (known as Betty Box Office) are two of Cooke’s subjects. They did make careers as film director and producer respectively, though their fortunes were uneven (and their relationship not always harmonious). While Muriel stuck out as much as possible for pictures she could respect artistically, Betty owed her nickname to the smash hit Doctor in the House and its many sequels which, Muriel wrote somewhat primly, she would not have ‘cared a jot about directing’. Betty was not squeamish about success. After a tough start in life she was thrilled to be rich: ‘I already owned five fur coats,’ she wrote in her memoir, ‘so I ordered a white mink, floor length, and wore it with pleasure, even if it did make me look like I was rolling along on casters.’ Despite which, as she discovered, she was being paid less than her male colleagues. Muriel meanwhile battled on against headaches, depression and the Ministry of Information, for which she made several short films until the officials decided that Road Safety for Children was too important a subject to be trusted to a woman.

The Boxes were unusual but not quite alone in their day. Jill Craigie was making documentaries and Cooke points to a clutch of films from A Taste of Honey to The Belles of St Trinian’s in which women were involved as writers, directors or editors and in which the female characters became noticeably more prominent and morally ambiguous. Glynis Johns played a gambling addict in The Weak and the Wicked, based on the prison memoirs of Joan Henry, an ex-debutante who had been caught passing a forged cheque. Muriel Box’s Street Corner was about women in the police force. The film to which she was most personally committed, however, was The Truth about Women, a feminist comedy inspired by A Room of One’s Own. Woolf, whose influence hangs over several of these lives, argued that privacy and economic independence are necessary for a woman to write at all. If she wanted to write as she pleased she must also be able to move freely in the world.

Addressing the question of why there has been no female Shakespeare, Woolf traces the likely career of his imaginary and equally talented sister Judith, following her from patchy education to rebellion and flight to London, where every door including the stage door is closed to her and the streets are dangerous. There follow a pragmatic liaison, unwanted pregnancy, suicide and an unmarked grave at ‘some crossroads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle’. For a playwright, a film director or an architect, a room of one’s own isn’t enough. Those of Cooke’s subjects whose work required them to exercise authority, to organise and control large numbers of people, subverted conventional hierarchies more radically than those who followed a career in gardening, cookery or design. The Boxes, nicknamed by Noël Coward ‘the Brontës of Shepherds Bush’, didn’t die at the Elephant but neither did they or their contemporaries blaze a trail. The scarcity of female directors and producers in the film industry is still marked and periodically lamented. The same is true of architecture. Cooke cites Zaha Hadid as an example of women’s progress in the profession but she would find it difficult to point to three other female architects whose names are familiar to the public. In that sense not much has changed since Alison Smithson’s day.

The chapter on Smithson, who with her husband, Peter, achieved a reputation out of all proportion to the number of buildings they put up, is one of Cooke’s best. Born in 1928, Smithson is among the youngest of the women she considers. A contemporary of Margaret Thatcher, Smithson, like Thatcher, made her way in a masculine environment by behaving like a man, only more so. Cooke is careful to avoid special pleading. Her tactful descriptions of Smithson as a woman who ‘did not invite closeness’, and to whom ‘collaboration … did not come naturally’, leave no doubt that she was, in many ways, a nightmare. But she was a nightmare of a kind familiar in architecture, almost a caricature of the megalomaniac male architect as solipsist and ideologue, indifferent to practicalities, clients, anything at all except his own vision.

The Smithsons won their first project soon after they qualified. The chillingly antiseptic Smithdon High School at Hunstanton in Norfolk was described by Alison as ‘the most truly modern building in Britain’; there had been ‘nothing like it since Inigo Jones’. The great American modernist Philip Johnson praised its ‘distinction’ in the Architectural Review. Local people disliked it, possibly because, as the Smithsons thought, they were unsophisticated but without doubt because the combination of glass façades and inadequate underfloor heating meant that the north side of the building froze while the south was like a hothouse. A difference in temperature of as much as 30ºC from one side to the other not only made it unpleasant to inhabit, it had the effect, as Pevsner pointed out, of warping the structural metal frame.

Such drawbacks made no difference to the Smithsons’ reputation with their peers. Avant-garde architecture between the wars was largely a literary construct. A physical building was, as Harry Goodhart-Rendel drily remarked, merely ‘an unfortunate but necessary step’ between the architect’s perspective drawing and the ultimate photograph. When it came to photographing the Hunstanton school for the architectural press Smithson removed every trace of children and all the furniture, restoring the building to what one admiring critic called its ‘protean, didactic state’. In 1953 she and her husband published their drawings for an unbuilt scheme, a concrete house with a flat corrugated iron roof and ‘no internal finishes whatsoever’: had they not been thwarted in their attempt to buy the site in Soho, this would, as they put it, have been the first example of the ‘new brutalism’ in Britain. The phrase stuck. With a leading role in an ‘ism’ the Smithsons had the final accoutrement of architectural chic.

Public taste meanwhile continued to disappoint. The Smithsons went abroad in 1951 to avoid the horrors of the Festival of Britain; their House of the Future at the Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956 attracted mixed notices, with some visitors reduced to helpless laughter by the costumes of the actors who inhabited it: they wore tights with built-in foam rubber shoes. Alison couldn’t think what was funny. For their only major public commission the Smithsons had to wait until the late 1960s, when they built the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, East London. An attempt to create Corbusian ‘streets in the sky’ and put their social theories into practice by force majeure, it had a certain conceptual dignity but was never a practical success. Soon after it was finished in 1972 the estate was vandalised, the social centre and launderette closed in weeks. After a long battle between Tower Hamlets Council and the Smithsons’ admirers, who include Hadid and Richard Rogers, the estate is currently being demolished.

Alison Smithson died in 1993. Her husband survived her, but she had always been the dominant partner and much of the cult status the Smithsons now enjoy is owed to her. With her dark matryoshka doll hairstyle and louring, film noir eyebrows, she was much photographed and often, like Thatcher, stands out as the only woman in a sea of men. It is arguable, if somewhat detrimental to Cooke’s case for these essays as what she ingenuously calls ‘a sly kind of feminism’, that for Smithson the fact of being a woman brought her more rather than less recognition than she deserved.

Though not sequential the essays overlap and implicitly cross-refer, revealing a striking contrast. Women were able to write with relative ease about industries in which they had great difficulty working. There was no shortage of female film critics, and architecture, as the journalist and food writer Patience Gray discovered, was considered by the mainstream press to be close enough to home-making to constitute a suitable subject for a woman, along with ‘youth … design and craftsmanship’. Gray found herself in the late 1950s one of only two women in the offices of the Observer, in charge of a page called ‘A Woman’s Perspective’. ‘I wondered,’ she recalled, ‘what were women’s subjects.’ Born in 1917, she had been brought up in the twilight of the Edwardian age in a world of nurseries and pinafores which felt like ‘the snuffing out of every spontaneous impulse’. Her father’s temper made her feel she was always ‘walking on tiptoe to avoid the detonations’ and her mother’s histrionic attempts to placate him put Gray off the idea of marriage. ‘The kneeling upset me,’ she explained.

She went her own way, travelled, had affairs and a couple of babies. During the Blitz she spent a brief period as a secretary on a counter-insurgency course teaching the Home Guard to make Molotov cocktails. Her book Plats du Jour, published in 1957, was considered sufficiently go-ahead, with its suggestions about oven-to-table ware and eating in the kitchen, to get her the Observer job. The questions she wanted answered for herself – ‘how one might bring up two fatherless children and earn a living while contriving to get home at the precise moment they got back from school’ – were still far beyond the comprehension of the Sunday papers. The solutions Gray found for herself were not entirely satisfactory, not at least from the children’s point of view. ‘She wasn’t like other people’s mothers,’ her daughter, Miranda, recalls: ‘She wasn’t worried about us.’ When Miranda and her brother, Nicolas, were 15 and 16 respectively their mother took them with her on a trip to Italy, following in the footsteps of Norman Douglas and accompanied by her admirer and mentor Irving Davis. When Davis’s stepdaughter joined them she objected to the children’s presence and so unworried was Gray about them that she gave them £20 and told them to hitchhike back to London. It took them three weeks and when they got home they found their mother was still away.

By choosing to concentrate on women whose private lives were ‘as modern’ as their careers Cooke finds herself dealing with many permutations on the nuclear family, itself largely a creation of the 1950s. As the postwar divorce rate rose, magazines and advertisements dwelled with increasing urgency on model housewives with their Kenwood Chefs and hostess trolleys. Women who didn’t conform became more conspicuous. Some, like Smithson, for all her modernity, in effect followed the pattern of their Edwardian parents, running their households on formal lines and granting the children limited access. Her son, Simon, remembers a rigid regime. Coming home from school he and his sister would ‘poke our noses round the door’ of the office, ‘then go upstairs and make ourselves some toast. At 6.45 they would come up and make dinner, and afterwards they would read or go back to work.’ ‘Architecturally politicised’, the Smithsons sent Simon to Holland Park comprehensive, designed for the London County Council by Leslie Martin. ‘It was chaos,’ he remembers. He was bullied and his parents’ way of life embarrassed him, though later, he says, he came to see that his childhood had been ‘amazing’ – an ambiguous verdict.

Other households were more experimental. Nancy Spain and her lover Joan (‘Jonnie’) Werner Laurie lived in various triangular relationships, most notably with the racing driver Sheila Van Damm, whose father owned the Windmill Theatre. Beyond the triangle Nancy had an array of further entanglements. When she and Jonnie were killed in a plane crash in 1964 it turned out that Nancy had a whole ‘portfolio of secret love nests’. She also had a son, Tom, who had been brought up to believe he was Jonnie’s. For Nicholas, who really was Jonnie’s son and had been told that Tom came from ‘the baby shop’, the truth explained a lot about a childhood which had been an uneasy mixture of glamour and deprivation. By the time he was nine Nicholas had eaten at the Ivy so often he could make crêpes suzettes, and he had met Marlene Dietrich, but he felt neglected and lonely.

With the exception of Smithson and Rose Heilbron, Britain’s first female judge, who seems to have balanced private and public life with exquisite tact, Cooke’s women, when they did marry, found husbands a mixed blessing. Muriel and Sydney Box appeared to have the perfect partnership. They collaborated professionally and Sydney did all he could to further his wife’s career. Then one day in 1964 Muriel took a phone call from which she learned that Sydney’s ‘writing den’ in town was in fact a second home shared with Sylvia, his mistress. When confronted Sydney confessed, and indeed expanded on the subject, explaining that he had had innumerable other affairs and one-night stands. He refused to give Sylvia up, so she and Muriel tried changing places. Sydney lived with Sylvia and visited Muriel. It was not a success and divorce followed.

Margery Fish, the gardening writer, took a more pacific line. A secretary who married her boss, Walter Fish, editor of the Daily Mail, Margery waited for him to die before starting on her career. Her book We Made a Garden, published in 1956 and admired by Vita Sackville-West, tells a less cosy story than the title implies. More autobiography than plant manual, it recounts a battle of the sexes played out in horticulture. In their garden at East Lambrook near Yeovil, Walter wanted paths, lawns and a symmetrical line-up of dahlias. Margery wanted Jekyll-like drifts, wild flowers and informality. Walter laid his lawn with a very narrow strip of earth down one side where he said she could have flowers as long as they didn’t encroach on the grass. He banned wisteria and thought the alpines in the drystone wall his wife built were ‘belly crawlers’. Then one day he died of a heart attack. ‘The scattering of a few ashes’ at Weymouth crematorium was the end of this ‘outstanding figure’, whom his wife had loved and whom she missed, but without whom she was free to develop one of the more interesting postwar gardens in England.

The 1950s were years of extreme contrasts for women. The gulf between prewar and postwar experience was deep but also narrow. Most of Cooke’s subjects were born before women got the vote and lived into the era of the contraceptive pill. In theory, Sylvia Pankhurst, who died in 1960, could have shopped at Mary Quant’s Bazaar, which opened in the King’s Road in 1955. The turning point was 1963, the year Paul McCartney went to Nancy Spain’s New Year’s Eve party and from which Larkin dated the beginning of the 1960s. Cooke agrees that it was the effective end of the 1950s. From that point it was not only sexual intercourse that began, it was also the moment when ‘guilt … as it pertained to working women’ began to be, as she puts it, ‘invented’. The Observer, like much of the press, started to change its mind about what constituted a woman’s perspective and to look for readers among working women with spending power. Gray, who ‘had a phobia’ about fashion, was fired just when the questions she had been unable to raise were becoming first of all mentionable and then unavoidable. Problem pages and lifestyle columns, however, didn’t exactly reassure. The housewife was replaced by the dolly-bird, the stay-at-home mum and the career woman, none of them unambiguously admirable. There began to be talk of ‘juggling’ and ‘having it all’. As external constraints on women eased they were replaced by internal pressure; guilt replaced shame. For all the difficulties they faced, women who made a career in the 1950s did it in the interval between the end of social stigma and the beginning of self-reproach. In that sense they never had it so good.

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