Her Brilliant Career the 1950s Woman Rachel Cooke Review

Rachel Cooke and the 1950s woman bookblast

The stereotypical view of the 1950s woman is reflected in vintage postcards on sale at stalls in Portobello Market, featuring colourful ads for hoovers, OMO, ‘Empire’ baby pants, or Kenwood chef food processors alongside an immaculately dressed housewife with perfect hair and varnished red nails beaming a pillarbox-red lipsticked smile as she does the household chores. So much for the patriarchy!

Rachel Cooke’s book, Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, flies in the face of the clichéd view of the fifties housewife stuck at home ― an appendage to her husband. It may have been the case in American suburbia of the time, but in Britain women had got through the war without their husbands, brothers or fathers. Some had joined the ATS, or WAAF, or WRNS and drove ambulances, or worked in a government ministry. Others ended up at Bletchley Park. When Elisa Segrave came upon her late mother’s diaries, she discovered that her mother had excelled at her work as an indexer in Hut 3, then in Hut 3N, at Bletchley Park, from 1941-43; and was promoted to 4th Naval Duty Officer during Operation Torch, the Allied Invasion of North Africa. She had several jobs in Bomber Command and later saw its effects in the ruined towns of Germany where she had her last job in the WAAF. On her days off she travelled in a weapon carrier with her American boyfriend. The Girl From Station X is an illuminating read.

Women in World War Two

The war had a liberating effect: women were hardly about to exchange their newfound freedom in peacetime for baking cakes and a life cushioned by nappies. Cooke stressed how the old and the new were pulling against each other in fifties Britain, which was on the cusp of modernity ― heralding the sixties. Women were expected to settle down, marry and have kids, yet having had a taste of freedom; they wanted to do their own thing and be independent. The way women today juggle home and career and feel guilty about it was not the case then, when women just went for it and did not consider the consequences. The term ‘latchkey kid’ dates from the fifties.

The decade was certainly a tough and depressing one for most women, as Jessica Mann describes in her book The Fifties Mystique. However there were trailblazers who lived purposeful, intense lives. These women inspired others to get out from under and do their own thing too.

I have always admired the cultural columnist and critic Rachel Cooke, (who it turns out has always admired my godmother, Lesley Blanch, who died age 103 in 2007), so I went along to the Authors’ Club lunch held in her honour last week at the National Liberal Club. A spirited group of women ― and one man ― enjoyed ragout, fine wine and stimulating conversation around an oval, damasked table.

Of Cooke’s motley crew of ten women, each had “to be thick-skinned: immune to slights and knock-backs, resolute in the face of tremendous social expectation and prepared for loneliness“. Post-war Britain still had rationing (butter, meat, tea and coal) and all manner of state regulations and high taxation to put up with. Cities were scarred by bomb-sites, half-ruined houses, temporary prefabs and gardens turned into allotments. The countryside was littered with wartime military bases, some abandoned and others reactivated because of the Cold War.

Such was the context in which Lesley Blanch was working and travelling. When asked in 2004 what inspired her to write The Wilder Shores of Love about four women heading East, she answered: “Seeing young Englishwomen spoiling their lives tapping away at typewriters, and then watching them trudge home over Waterloo Bridge. I wondered how different their lives would have been if they’d managed to get away.” She understood her audience and its aspirations, so in books like Round the World in 80 Dishes she blended entertaining traveller’s tales with exotic recipes, since “all kinds of travel restrictions that had been applied during World War II and lingered on to frustrate the would-be voyager. Many people had come to share my childish longings for ‘Abroad’ ― for other scenes and skies, and I was even told that what I had written acquired a forbidden, or hallucinatory, flavour for the frustrated stay-at-homes. ‘Abroad’ was not for most British citizens just then. They had only lately emerged from the stress and trauma of those grim war years . . .

So who are Rachel Cooke’s trailblazing women, making the fifties an era of Firsts?

Patience Gray predated Elizabeth David, writing about olive oil and making it acceptable make a casserole and plonk it on the table. Plats du Jour was one of the earliest international cookery books aimed at the mass market, selling more than 50,000 copies in its first year. She had learned to cook after being dumped by her errant husband after the war, and having to feed her children while living in a bedsit; boiling a sheep’s head for dinner. Gray fell in love with the artist and sculptor Norman Mommens and the couple ended up in southern Italy, in Apulia, in a farmhouse called Spigolizzi where a second bestseller, Honey From A Weed, was produced.

A tough cookie

The broadcaster and journalist, Nancy Spain, was a sensational household name by the time she died in a plane crash near Aintree racecourse while travelling to the 1964 Grand National. She set up house with Joan Werner Laurie, the editor of She, an unconventional, risqué magazine in which sex was freely discussed. Each had a son. Spain’s was born after an affair with Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham. They were woefully neglectful mothers, leading busy lives, so the boys were cared for by a series of nannies. The rally driver Sheila van Damm, who ran the Windmill Theatre in Soho with her tyrannical father, joined them to live in a flagrantly open ménage à trois. Friends of Marlene Dietrich and other celebrities of the time, theirs was a star-studded life. The Beatles came to their housewarming in Clapham.

Discomfort by the sea

The architect Alison Smithson, whose “Russian doll face and avant garde clothes” were striking, and her husband, are best known for Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar which was built as a council housing estate with homes spread across “streets in the sky“. She coined the term “New Brutalism“. Friends dreaded a weekend invitation to stay by the seaside in the couple’s Hunstanton cottage since it lacked comfort and warmth.

Eco garden glory

The gardener Margery Fish married her boss, the tyrannical editor of the Daily Mail, and they moved out of London to East Lambrook Manor where a regimented, formal garden was created. After he died she uprooted the lot and started again, to create a romantic oasis, now designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed ‘cottage garden’.

Early Sitcoms, Nature and The Law

Men were made to wear the pants, and the pants were made to carry the dough,” says Myrtle in the film To Dorothy a Son. Its director was Muriel Box. She and her sister, the producer Betty Box said they wanted to be paid the same as men and duly made a wad of their own. Betty discovered Dirk Bogarde ― usually cast as a spiv until she spotted him and put him in Doctor in the House, making him one of the biggest British stars of the 1950s.

The poet and archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes’ book, A Land, illustrated by Henry Moore, unusually combines geology, archaeology and memoir. Unhappily married to a fellow archaeologist who was a leading authority on Celtic Britain, she met the playwright J. B. Priestley while working at UNESCO. The pair married after messy divorces.

Pretty woman
Pretty with brains

Cooke concluded that the most important of all her women was the barrister, Rose Heilbron, who became a QC. Initially she was turned down by the Liverpool chambers she applied to because she was a woman. A beauty under a wig, the tabloids loved her ― not just because of her looks, but because of her brains. ‘That girl Rosie, the greatest lawyer in the world’ played a crucial role in murder trials since the Death Penalty was not abolished until 1965. Heilbron most famously defended Vicky Clarke in 1956, accused of killing her twin toddlers in a houseboat fire. Said Cooke, “A bit like the heroine of Legally Blonde, Heilbron turned to the female knowledge of hair care to persuade the jury. She claimed that Vicky Clark could not have murdered her two baby sons because she would have hated to be seen by the firemen wearing her curlers after escaping the houseboat blaze that killed them.” More than likely guilty, Clark was let off the hook thanks to Heilbron’s brilliant defence. Curlers? Only in the 1950s!

Reading about and discussing the lives of these women, I was struck by how they all, one way or another, had a rackety, messy time of it, with troubled marriages and affairs, occasional neglected children, and disasters to overcome. The war had left scars. The boundary between work and personal life was hugely blurred, and men were instrumental in helping many of them to get their careers off the ground.

The Authors’ Club discussion also highlighted how today, still, a woman who does not marry or have children is covertly seen by many to be ‘selfish’ as though her raison d’être is to give birth to and rear future generations. And it threw a new light on both my mother’s and godmother’s gypsy ways of life, tumultuous relationships and paradoxical view of children.

Gael Elton Mayo, journalist, novelist and artist, was caught, age 17, with her Russian husband, in the June 1940 Exodus as German armed forces approached Paris. The couple escaped from the chaos of war to America. She married again at 21 ― and for a third time twenty years later, having had various affairs betwixt and between husbands, (a child with each). All the while she pursued an erratic career as writer-researcher for Magnum Photographers with Robert Capa, David Seymour and Henri Cartier Bresson; was a columnist for Picture Post and the Spanish American Courier; and had four novels published. Encouraged as an artist by Moïse Kisling, she exhibited her work alongside that of Bernard Buffet in Paris, and later, that of Angelica Garnett in Sussex. She suffered numerous setbacks, survived cancer of the head and neck for 20 years but ultimately her star dwindled and died.

My godmother Lesley Blanch’s life was no less chaotic, though as she reached stellar heights as a bestselling author on both sides of the Atlantic, and enjoyed the high life in fifties Hollywood ― with the likes of Cecil Beaton, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, James Mason, Sophia Loren and others coming to dinner ― her setbacks were more visible and ‘public’. Her divorce from Romain Gary, the Russian-Polish-born French novelist and Prix Goncourt winner, after 18 years of marriage, was particularly unpleasant and painful for both parties. (He left her for a much younger woman.)

Mayo and Blanch both had avant-garde mothers who believed fervently in educating their daughters who were sent to good schools, so they could be independent. Yet they were expected to marry and ‘settle down’. One of my mother’s favourite maxims was “Do your own thing” while my godmother’s was “Get up and get on with it.” Success is luck and timing, not just brains and character. Neither was particularly maternal. Both were glamorous with a wild streak. War gave them an inner resilience and a relentless desire to move on.

I would want to add novelists Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Elaine Dundy to Cooke’s inspiring group of trailblazers. As a child I remember being intrigued by the words on the orange spines of their novels which I came to relish later: Memento Mori, A Severed Head, An Unofficial Rose, The Dud Avocado . . . Will there be a sequel to Her Brilliant Career? I certainly hope so.

On March 19-20 there will be a weekend celebrating Bletchley Park, at Firle near Lewes in Sussex.

BUY Her Brilliant Career

BUY On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.