Review: Singled Out

Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War chronicles the lives of a whole generation of women, most of whom lost any prospect of marriage when three-quarters of a million soldiers died in the war. Nicholson looks at these 2 million surplus women and what they made of their lives.

The new demography irrevocably changed British society and any of the usual conventions of women’s roles had to change with it. The spinster of the 19th century was a well-known figure of ridicule but the new spinsters of post-WWI had, if nothing else, numbers on their side. Old roles of women as wives and mothers could only be realized for one out of ten women, and so the new women had to find and make new places in society, starting with providing for themselves. During the war, women naturally stepped up to take up the jobs men had to leave behind to fight in France. But afterwards, when only a very reduced number of men returned to demand their jobs back, they found that women enjoyed the independence that went with being financially independent and were much fitter than many of the wounded men who returned. The working place was a major field of contest, women were only supposed to work until they married, however, the new ‘superfluous’ women would likely never marry and relied on these jobs. Also, while married women were expected to step down, they did not necessarily like relinquishing their independence either. And if this drastic change in British society was not problematic enough, those men who returned from the war were often bitter to find that the country they had fought for wanted nothing more than forget the war and move on. They returned, often wounded or shell-shocked, to find seemingly cheerful and more able young women doing their work. This of course led to much resentment and feelings of wounded masculinity, and women were condemned for stealing the returning soldiers’  jobs.

Post-WWI society was thus far from welcoming to the working spinster, marriage having been the be-all and end-all with regard to providing for women, no real alternative existed and the sheer force of patriarchal structures these women had to fight against must have been more than daunting. Often they worked as lowly paid typists, just managing to live on their salary, but with no possibility of providing for their retirement. They could do a bit better if they lived together with others of their kind, but young women living together and not in the family home, was frowned upon. With no securities or provisions for them from the state, Florence White took it upon herself to better the lives of single women and campaigned, successfully, for a spinster pension.

Other professions available were that of being a shop girl, of secretarial work, nursing or teaching, which was considered unsexy and reduced chances of marriage even more. But while they often labored long hours for unfair pay, this new age also provided chances for some women they would otherwise never have had or thought of. Beatrice Gordon Holmes for example was a pioneer woman in the typically male field of finance and carved an extremely successful career for herself in stock broking. Or Victoria Drummond who realized her dream of becoming a marine engineer. Or the archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thomas. These are the women who defied conventions and did so with spectacular success. Other women struck to more typical professions, but were successful in their own right. Gertrude Maclean and Emily Faulder for example set up the agency of Universal Aunts, which provided the much-sought after service of the professional aunt.

Successful or not, the key was to keep busy. Many of these women would never enjoy sex or have children, and they could be desperately lonely at times. But unlike 19th century spinsters, there were a lot of them now and they went on to set up alliances and groups, and went on holidays together. Not all of them lived in celibacy of course, they had affairs or lesbian relationships. The 20s and 30s were in many ways times of liberation, although many women were still given the advice to repress their sexual urges when they turned to women’s magazines and such for help.

Nicholson covers the many paths women chose and follows the lives of a couple of them in great detail, conjuring vibrant, if often difficult lives. These case histories are the strongest part of this work, and made these women very real to me, they ceased to be simply numbers and I was very happy whenever one of them turned up again in a different chapter, it was like meeting an old friend. And there was so much to discover, the pain of lost loves, or the impossibility of love in marriage, fighting to change a society that was more than unprepared for their existence, but in between that, the excitement of new ways to live their lives. These women’s lives consisted of so much disappointment and fighting against old-fashioned and impossible conventions, but what they achieved was often groundbreaking and forever changed society. Many of them lead difficult and disappointed lives, but for every couple of them, there was a woman who thrived, and that is what I took with me when I closed this book. Winifred Holtby said it best:

I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin


Other thoughts:

Things Mean A Lot

Review: Maisie Dobbs 1-3


Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series of mysteries set in England in the 1920s/30s. Its title heroine is an investigator and psychologist, just setting up a business of her own after the retirement of her mentor. Maisie’s first case is the supposed infidelity of a wife, but of course there soon turns out to be much more to it. This is very much the first book in a series and is mostly there to establish Maisie’s investigative approach and to give her back story. The mystery is not terribly well-constructed but my problem was mostly with Maisie as a character. I read this book in June and never thought then that I would voluntarily read more of the series. Maisie, as we learn from the flashback to her early years, is from a humble background and used to be a servant in the household of Lady Rowan Compton. This lady becomes Maisie’s patroness and her friend Maurice Blanche becomes a sort of mentor. Maisie is unbelievably intelligent, hard-working, good-looking, and loved by everyone she meets (except for the reader that is, I was beginning to hate her guts at that point). A third of this book is devoted the exceptional Miss Dobbs and her Hollywood-meets-Dickens story. Also, Maisie’s detecting involves a lot of esoteric psycho stuff that I’m not very comfortable with. She imitates people’s body postures to find out what they are feeling and thinking. And she feels the spirit of people in their abandoned rooms. Ugh! So neither the mystery nor the main character did much for me but what I did enjoy was Winspear’s description of the long-lasting effects of WWI, the trauma of the soldiers and their families and how those who were affected the worst were often shunned by a society that felt guilty but also wanted to move on.

After all my complaining about Maisie Dobbs, are you surprised that I went and read the second book? I was! Book 1 left me feeling very unsatisfied, I felt that there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been realised in the first part of the series. And I’m glad that I gave the series another try, for I enjoyed Birds of a Feather a lot. Maisie has come into her own, her business is successful and since book 1 has established how brilliant and wonderful she is, Winspear doesn’t seem to feel the need to harp on about Maisie’s qualities. The mystery is sound and interesting, though it’s not too difficult to guess who did it. Still, this book is a good example of the cosy British mystery that I enjoy, but it’s in the period description that this novel really shines. I found the references to the white feather campaign especially interesting, I had no idea that some women distributed white feathers to men to get men to sign up in WWI (the white feather was a symbol of cowardice). Times like these remind me how fantastic access to academic databases is!

Since I enjoyed book 2 so much, I quickly moved on to book three, Pardonable Lies (I guess Maisie is growing on me after all). The third installment is interesting as Maisie’s trauma finally catches up with her when she returns to France. Winspear handles Maisie’s trauma very well and I think it helps make Maisie more human, I know I connected better with her in this book. Winspear’s descriptions of England and France in the 30s are very well done and reading about people still recovering from one war makes it all the more devastating to know about the second one which is already looming (I find that one of the most difficult things in reading literature from the 20s and 30s, reading about the devastation and exhaustion and trauma of the survivors, but knowing what is still to come).

I’m still a bit bothered by Maisie’s esoteric approach to investigations, but either I’ve gotten used to it, or Winspear has toned it down a bit. Either way, I’m glad I kept going with this series. If you enjoy classic mysteries or are interested in the 20s and 30s, you should give Maisie a chance.


Other thoughts:

Ana on Maisie Dobbs

Review: After the Armistice Ball

After the Armistice Ball was a gift from my mom, who thought it looked like something I might enjoy. Obviously the judging a book by its cover thing runs in the family 🙂 But I love that she took a chance and she loves that she was right for once. And that means I’ve got another series of cosy mysteries, perfect since winter isn’t too far off.

After the Armistice Ball is Catriona McPherson’s first book in a murder mystery series, set in Scotland after WWI. Dandy Gilver, the heroine of this mystery, is bored with her life. Her volunteer uniform is growing musty in the attic, her two sons are away at school and her husband has rather become an afterthought to her. So when her friend Daisy asks her to look into the disappearance of the Duffy diamonds, Dandy jumps at the chance of adventure and earning some of her own money. But taking a closer look at the Duffy family, sweet soon-to-be married Cara, cold Clemence, their dominant mother Lena, and quiet father Gregory, Dandy soon finds herself uncovering the secret of a death at the family’s cottage with Cara’s fiance Alec.

What I found refreshingly different about this mystery is that the amateur sleuth Dandy really is an amateur, and not a detective genius in disguise. For most of the time, Dandy really doesn’t have a clue whodunit, and she and Alec talk at length about who could have done what and every time they exchanged their theories, I was more confused than before. I guess their talks are another kind of red herring. The mystery is quite good and suspenseful but it is Dandy who makes this book so appealing. While she bumbles along trying to solve this mystery and finding her place as a sleuth, Dandy narrates her adventures with a dry wit and never takes herself too seriously, but she also has a real interest in the other characters. The combination of middle-aged Dandy and the younger Alec also works well, and I’m looking forward to their next adventure. Much of the comic relief is provided by Dandy’s interactions with her maid, Grant. Grant comes from a theatrical family and her “face-painting still tends toward the dramatic”. I also loved the way that Dandy’s interactions with her family was written. For example, going on a picnic with her sons, she is told: “‘You look dreadful, Mother,’ he said, reminding me very much that he was his father’s son.” My experience with children isn’t that great, but I find this much more realistic than many other representations I’ve encountered. Dandy’s marriage, too, is interestingly written. Her husband Hugh is more interested in the estate, fishing and the like, than having an active social life outside of his home with his wife. And Dandy finds that after a while, husbands seem to fade into the background. Not much relieve from boredom there, and Dandy repeatedly states that she isn’t very sensitive or maternal, but in her friendship with Alec, Dandy finds someone lively and interesting and their banter is great fun.

McPherson also seems to have researched the twenties quite thoroughly, although I’m no expert. After the freedom for women in WWI, Dandy is now bored with domestic life, and by helping her friend Daisy, she not only sees a chance of adventure but also for earning some money. The years after WWI affected the wealthy landowners and the gentry, and the resulting changes in their financial situation are mentioned in this book. The description of the manners of the twenties, the fashion and the language convinced me, and I had a great time with bumbling but charming Dandy.  Even if you’re not usually drawn to mysteries, give After the Armistice Ball a try.

The Dandy Gilver series now comprises five books, and there’s a website with more information.

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!