Book Reviews

Her Brilliant Career

By Rachel Cooke

Virago £9.99

Review by Anne Sebba, Literary Review, Oct 2013

Housewives & Heroines by Rachel CookeWhat a brilliant idea this book is. By writing essays about the (often deeply unlikely) careers of ten extraordinary women in Britain in the 1950’s , Rachel Cooke throws new light on a whole society. In fact, she blasts a high beam spotlight onto a repressive, secretive yet in some ways forgiving culture where, as long as the Kenwood Chefs kept whirring, nobody explored too far beneath the shiny Formica worktop surface where all was not what it often appeared.

But although a 1950’s Ercol table was, Cooke insists, the catalyst for this engrossing book, it is much more than a history of objects.  It’s important to be reminded that a 1950’s British woman could not take out a mortgage in her own name and that a prescription for contraception could only be given if a marriage certificate was produced, to see how far today’s women have come. But that is only half the story. As Cooke shows, there were several pioneer women carving out careers in this decade, often careers they had not trained for, and they were not the single-minded spinsters she had been expecting to stand out in a decade full of home-loving housewives. Patience Gray, the food writer and Cooke’s first subject, commented that what she longed for above all was ‘an interesting life’.

Gray, author of the bestselling cookbook of the Fifties, Plats du Jour, was at once both bohemian and intensely domestic. Her book, illustrated by the brilliant young art student, David Gentlemen, was sophisticated (ingredients included olive oil, sea salt and garlic), her private life a muddle. She had two children with a man she never married and soon left, but took his name by public announcement in the London Gazette. Then, needing to work, she often parked her children with their grandmother. Eventually she found the love of her life, sculptor Norman Mommens, five years her junior, quietly escaped with him to Greece and Italy, marrying him only in 1994, thirty years after they first met.

Women searching for an interesting life in the 1950’s almost inevitably encountered problems so it is hardly surprising that the most poignant aspects of these carefully selected lives are about love and sex and its many complications; the lack of pre-marital sex knowledge for men and women, the frequency of adultery yet the difficulty of the divorce procedure and the dangers of unwanted pregnancies.  The women Cooke writes about lived unorthodox but in some ways very modern lives – apart from the secrecy. One chapter is about a ménage à trois of three women living in a lesbian relationship, Nancy Spain, Joan Werner Laurie and Sheila Van Damm. Tragically, two of them were killed in 1964 when their light aircraft crashed, leaving two boys orphaned who thought they were brothers. The son of one woman had been brought up as the son of another since she, having been previously married, appeared a more acceptable mother. The boys had never been told that in fact they were unrelated. Self-taught film director and Oscar winning Muriel Box discovered, also only in 1964, after almost 30 years of marriage, that her apparently kind and supportive husband had been habitually unfaithful and “participated in every known kind of sexual perversion.”

This book is wonderfully evocative of the whole decade from the reminder of the wireless programme, Animal, Vegetable or Mineral, adapted as a car game that we, like many families, played exhaustively long after the original had ceased to exist. I was wondering when that hideous bedside object, the Teasmade, would make an appearance and there it is, owned by J.B Priestley but annoyingly broken. The story of his adulterous affair with Jacquetta Hawkes, archaeologist and writer, was deeply shocking at the time; her divorce from her first husband, Christopher, who had behaved so generously until then, was painful and unpleasant as the judge, needing to apportion blame, described Jacquetta’s misconduct and Priestley’s mean and contemptible behaviour.

The writing sparkles; it is fresh and original and has great insight. And it is full of three (or even one) word sentences. Beware. This may annoy. But I loved it. I found Cooke’s approach refreshingly honest, especially when she pauses to ask: “What do I think?” or “Is this right?”  When she writes about the architect, Alison Smithson, she states fittingly: ‘Brutalism. What a word.’ One of Alison’s best known achievements is the controversial ‘brutalist’ Robin Hood Gardens, in East London, where after many attempts to get the abandoned council estate listed, demolition began earlier this year. Smithson, too, was both eccentrically bohemian and domestic, never stopping to work when she had children, who just became part of the enterprise.

Cooke insists that the essays are stand alone and can be read out of order. But like the author, I left Rose Heilbron QC, the first woman to sit at the Old Bailey, to the end. Heilbron arguably achieved the most. But in some ways this is the least satisfactory chapter because there appears to be no inner conflict, just hard work and one successful case after another. Her home life was, as far as this essay reveals, calm. She had a supportive GP husband, Nat Burstein and one daughter, Hilary Heilbron, who has followed in her mother’s legal footsteps and chosen her mother’s surname. She managed thanks to her plentiful staff and a total lack of anxiety. “One of the great upsides of being the first,” writes Cooke, “was that guilt, as it pertained to working women, had not yet been invented.”

If this was really the case, perhaps the fifties weren’t so bad after all.

Anne Sebba is working on a book about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes.