As a young man in 1973 I have to admit I was somewhat disgruntled to note the founding of Virago, proclaiming itself to be ‘a feminist publishing company’ dedicated to championing women’s talents. It seemed rather an aggressive name. And why did women need a segregated outlet? After all, some of my favourite writers, as various as Elizabeth Gaskell or Virginia Woolf, had been published. But then, there was Mary Anne Evans, who had had to choose the male pen-name of George Eliot. And, come to think of it, The creator of ‘Cranford’ was presented to the world as Mrs. Gaskell.
The book I finished reading last night ‘Her Brilliant Career’, subtitled ‘Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties’ by Rachel Cooke incidentally makes quite clear why Virago was necessary. The dust jacket bears a sticker announcing ‘Virago is 40’. Fancy that, a publishing house whose nascency I remember is now middle aged.
The fifties were my formative years. I was seven when the decade began, and eighteen when it ended. Photograph number 38 in the ‘through the ages’ series was taken right in the middle of Cooke’s period, in our grandparents’ garden in Staines. Elizabeth is toddling, Chris and I each hold one of our then youngest sibling’s hands, and Jacqueline stands, smiling, behind. Mum and my brother appear to have been scalped and I have virtually lost my head altogether. Once more, parallax had struck. Or maybe the photographer only had eyes for the girls. Chris sports the famous blazer badge. Mine must have still been on the frame.
Once Chris and I had entered our teens, I was vaguely familiar with some of the more famous names in the book, but had really no idea of the magnitude of their achievements. A woman of her time, my own mother sacrificed her book-keeping career to concentrate on rearing her family, only to return to work when we children were all fairly grown up. She got on with life with none of today’s labour-saving machines to help her. Dad brought in the money and she managed it. I do not wish to suggest in any way that we experienced Mum as resenting her lot. That is just how it was.
Rachel Cooke’s women were not having that. They forged the way for others. This book is well-written. Offering pen portraits of her subjects and their lives, it also provides a snapshot of the age from the female perspective. The designers of the jacket could not resist decorating it with glamorous young ladies, albeit in fifties fashions.
The work/life balance continues to be a struggle for everybody, not the least for women who wish to have a family. It does seem as if the children of the book’s subjects did rather miss out. Inevitably, I imagine. Even now I don’t think we have enabled maternal women to have satisfying careers outside the home without great cost to their domestic lives.
Virago should continue for a long time to come.
Today’s advent picture is another detail from the Regent Street of 1963.
This morning I began reading Voltaire’s ‘Le Monde Comme Il Va’, which I would translate as ‘The Way of the World’.
This afternoon Jackie drove us to M & S at Hedge End to satisfy my need for trousers. As she turned a bend in Seamans Lane she was forced to stop by a stationary car ahead that was surrounded by living equine sculptures. The other driver seemed content to sit it out. He can’t have known how long the ponies can remain as still as yesterday’s pirate. Jackie alighted to do something about it. Leaving our car, she tried raising her arms and repeatedly shouting ‘Shoo!’. She was ignored. She tried taking a step back, leaning forward for purchase, placing her hands on its warm, furry, rump and pushing the cream coloured beast stationed in front of the car. The occasional head was turned, but this, too, was of no avail. The animal didn’t flinch. Finally she took to bruising her hands by clapping them into each other in an attempt to startle. This worked, and we were on the move.
After this we drove on to The Foresters Arms at Frogham for a very enjoyable dinner, entertained by the Hyde Church choir singing carols to the accompaniment of their own brass band. We shared bread, olives, and cajun skewered chicken for starters; Jackie followed this up with stacked venison burger, whilst I had sirloin steak. Both meals were very good, except that my medium rare steak turned out to be well done. My sweet was Tart Tatin and Jackie’s was ice cream. We each drank Villa Rosa wine, mine being Merlot and Jackie’s sauvignon blanc.