Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"Meet a good husband and make a good life" -- Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The story of women in the 1950s, by Virginia Nicholson

Viking, 2015
with index, 526 pp


"Be a good girl
Lead a good life
Meet a good husband
And make a good wife." 
                           ---- (169)

My memory is a bit hazy about how this book came to my attention, but when I first saw the dustjacket cover, it reminded me a bit of the women of the 1950s that Anne Taintor uses as a backdrop for her sarcastic brand of humor that all too often hits home.   However, there's nothing Taintor-ish or humorous at all about Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes, which focuses on the lives of women in the UK from both working-class and privileged backgrounds during the 1950s.   Using a number of different sources -- diaries, interviews, memoirs, archives, newspapers, periodicals, the web etc., -- Virginia Nicholson offers her readers a very up-close and personal look at how women dealt with "some of the conflicting pressures and strains under which they lived" during this decade. For some women, it was a time of "ambitions, dreams and fulfillment," while for others, their stories combine to present a "narrative of fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness."  It is a spellbinding read; I hated having to put this book down for any reason. 

Nicholson examines the "tug of war" that was the "daily reality" of life for women during this decade. As she notes, it was 
"between society and the individual, prohibition and permissiveness, conformity and independence, passivity and ambition. Between identity -- and the empty shell."
It is through most of these stories of "fears, frustrations and deep unhappiness"  that the author skillfully finds a connection between these women -- from factory workers to debutantes presented at court to Princess Margaret -- that of being hemmed in by their family backgrounds or  the expectations of society. These women faced a number of "conflicting pressures and strains," encountered through sexism, class pressures, the reality of married life based mainly on the expectations of their spouses,  and in the case of an immigrant from Jamaica, the realities of racial prejudice. Another problem was education: since "society had determined that woman's place was in the home," and that "getting your man" was mattered most, a great deal of emphasis in a young woman's education went into preparing them in skills appropriate to their married futures.  While better-off girls were schooled  in such things as "poise and deportment," many pupils sat through classes in  "dairying, horticulture, cookery, dressmaking, mothercraft, and housecraft."  In one case, the girls were responsible for cleaning a "school flat... where they were expected to entertain the Headmistress to tea, prepare the meals, and to wash up afterwards."  Some girls from "segregated working-class communities" such as mining villages in the northeast,  were lucky if they could overcome their parents' ideas that education was wasted on girls, since "They only get married."  As the author notes, for these families,
"Educational deprivation was cyclical; stay-at-home mums lacked the vision or understanding to see how better schooling might advantage daughters otherwise fated to follow in their footsteps." 
Yet, even for those who managed to make their way through university, the prevailing point of view was that educated women were "NOT sexy," or even perhaps "spinsters or (whisper it) lesbians."  And speaking of gay women, Nicholson also touches on these women who had to fly "under the radar" because of the "almost pathological fear of lesbianism" that existed during these times.  In one case, a woman was committed to an "insane asylum" where after having confessed that she "had feelings for women," was sent for "aversion therapy," that "wrecked her for months."  Another big issue during this time were single girls who became pregnant and the sense of shame that their condition brought to their families; one woman in nursing school  who grew up totally ignorant of sex because her mother never told her anything got pregnant as a young teen and was sent to a home for unwed mothers to have her baby.  On her return, no one talked about where she'd been although most people in her small town already knew she hadn't been away "nursing" as her mom wanted her absence explained.

Many women, having been through the war years and having learned how to be independent,  now faced an entirely different set of standards. A number of women in this book dreamed of having a career, and some did go on to become "illustrious," but as Nicholson points out, "It took luck, talent and a different kind of ambition to break the mould and fashion your own life" in this decade. However, many successful women were often viewed as "misfits," since either they were unmarried (or as seen by society as unable to "find a husband,") or because of their independent natures that left them "unwilling to conform."   Some experienced  a sense of powerlessness and of isolation.   Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes also reveals a decade full of women's angst and emotional turmoil from the highest echelons of British society on down the ladder. The author quotes widely from several women she interviewed (and from other sources, many of these interviews and diaries) and adds in her own commentary to build a picture of the decade.  She makes it clear that while some women seemed happy with their marriages and their lives, there were plenty of others who were not. She also manages to incorporate how communities were built among women for friendship and for support. But, as Nicholson also reminds us, the sixties were right around the corner, and things were on the verge of looking up --  and many of these same women laid the  groundwork for a better life ahead for the next generation.

Ken Russell: The Teddy Girls
from http://www.messynessychic.com/2013/02/10/the-forgotten-1950s-girl-gang/

If you look at some of the reader reviews of this book written by women or men who lived during the 1950s, the majority praises Ms. Nicholson for capturing what women's lives were like at the time.  Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes is a captivating read.  There are parts of this book where the author sort of rambles, and I felt several times that it could have been pared down a bit, but overall, it's a really good, well-written social/cultural history that I couldn't put down. I'm not from the UK,  but the book held my interest and kept me turning pages.  

definitely recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment