After reading this entertaining and shocking book I should know what makes a perfect wife. But I am confused. Take Liz, who was 19 when she married David in 1952 and promptly produced six children alongside running a shabby, unheated farmhouse, providing all the meals, doing some gardening and generally helping out on the farm. But one day, annoyed by a triviality, she let off steam using the word ‘bloody.’ David hated women who swore and told her instantly to take off her treasured pearl necklace, which he then confiscated for several years as a punishment until she learned not to swear.
The surprising part of this intimate and personal story is not the alpha male behaviour nor even the complete subservience to an uncompromising husband which cost Liz her youthful ambition to be a journalist, but her own conclusion that her life had, she believed, thanks to David, been a ‘charmed’ one. “I do feel I have had a completely fulfilling life,” she told Nicholson. Liz decided that to be a perfect wife she had to shelve her own interest in music and pretend to lose swimming and skiing races against her husband.
Hers is just one in a catalogue of complicated tales revealing how 1950’s women negotiated their way through the decade. The popular image is of a world where women wore little frilled pinafores – (over dresses, never trousers) – with immaculately coiffed hair and happy smiles as they dusted, swept and baked until their husbands returned inthe evening to find dinner on the table. But Nicholson’s book reveals a much darker side of life for what the glossy magazines of the day might have portrayed as a perfect wife.
Education was one of the most controversial issues at a time when the objective of most schools was to educate girls to be wives and mothers and the highly gendered lessons for girls, in grammar as well as secondary modern schools, might include “horticulture, cookery, dressmaking, mothercraft, nursing and housecraft.” A survey on ‘Wives who went to College’ produced angry articles about how taxpayers’ money was being squandered on teaching women irrelevant disciplines. Even the normally sensible Marjorie Proops wrote that ‘intelligent girls who spend their youth getting themselves highly educated have little time to devote to the art of making themselves delectable for the opposite sex.’ The frustration felt by educated wives not being allowed to work often resulted in serious depression, little understood and thought to be ‘a self-indulgence’. Although some women overcame the obstacles and went on to higher education as well as a good job, possibly even a profession, the prevailing view throughout the 50’s was that being educated was unwomanly and that women who had succeeded were ‘misfits or probably spinsters or (whisper it) lesbians.’
Nicholson depicts an era where there was ‘an almost pathological fear of lesbianism’ and prejudice and discrimination forced many gay women in the 1950’s to live lonely lives under society’s radar. She cites the case of Janice, who had a nervous breakdown and was sent to an insane asylum where, on confessing that she had feelings for women, was given aversion therapy which involved injections in order to make her feel physically ill at the sight of women.
The centrepiece of the book is the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition, the yearly showcase for innovations in the post-war homes that could never be built fast enough, and which in 1957 broke records with 1.5 million visitors. One Newcastle housewife remarked: ‘I’ve a fridge, a washer and a television set, and that’s all I want in life.’ But for most, the exhibition was a fantasy world of aspiration, especially considering that in the decade from 1945 around 40 % of couples were co-habiting with their in laws for periods of up to five or even fifteen years.
Hearing about the excitement to own consumer items we now take for granted is sobering. But it’s the emotional agonies suffered by women in the 1950s – whether Princess Margaret forbidden to marry her divorced lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, at one end of the social scale or Florence Fell at the other, thrown out of nursing college when she became pregnant, which provide the core strength of the book. Florence was forced to live in one of the country’s plentiful mother and baby homes until she had had her baby and then, after a month’s breastfeeding, to give her up for adoption.
As Nicholson explains in her introduction, much of the raw material for her book derives from interviews so the challenge was to weave a readable narrative from a wide variety of experiences and wildly disparate backgrounds. In creating a narrative of frustration, fear and ignorance where the dominant desire, linking debutantes to factory girls, is to escape the confines of their birth, Nicholson succeeds brilliantly. I was completely gripped for 400 or so pages, reading some of these horror stories with mounting incredulity and having to remind myself, as a child of the fifties, that this happened during my life time. Nicholson handles her material with confidence, sympathy and ultimately optimism that for most women things have improved so that the abiding emotion is not gloom but, in my case, admiration for my mother’s generation and gratitude that it was so much better for ours.
Anne Sebba is writing about Paris from 1939- 49 seen through women’s eyes