Only More So

Rosemary Hill

  • Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke
    Virago, 368 pp, £18.99, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 84408 740 2

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.

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