Don't Put Me in a Skirt

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Review: Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, by Rachel Cooke (HarperCollins, 340 pages).

This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on December 15, 2014.

 

In London, 1951, a crowd gathered as a woman attempted to board a bus while wearing one of Christian Dior’s newest creations: the New Look. “Her skirt was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door. At first I laughed along with everyone else,” recalled Grace Robertson, a then twenty-one-year-old aspiring photojournalist. “But then I suddenly thought: are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?” [xix] Only one year into the decade and already some women were starting to get the hint.

In Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties, journalist Rachel Cooke reveals that British women’s experiences during World War II radically rearranged their expectations of what life would be like afterward. Having survived the Blitz and served their country during wartime, the idea of turning their backs on engaged, professional lives was often unthinkable.

Her Brilliant Career aims to dispel the myth of what a “Fifties woman” was: “old-fashioned, unambitious, docile, emollient, inhibited, clenched, prudish, thwarted, frustrated, [and] repressed.” [xii] Cooke tells the stories of ten vibrant, fascinating women who came into their own after the war. While a few of them were frustrated, thwarted, and even repressed at times, they never stopped trying to lead meaningful lives.

Patience Gray, author of the best-selling British cookbook of the 1950s, Plats du Jour (1957), guided a nation emerging from years of rationing (Cooke describes wartime cookbooks that offered recipes for cooking crows, sparrows, and “eggs that are really tinned apricots fried in bacon fat” [3]). Gray is notable not only for her salutary influence on British cooking, but for the unorthodox choices she made later in life.

A single mother who once gave her teenagers money to hitchhike back to London—they were vacationing in Italy at the time—Gray was always a little different. [35] At age 46 she decamped for Italy with the great love of her life, the sculptor Norman Mommens. “We shed a snakeskin of fuss, plans, hesitations, and other people’s claims,” [39] Gray explained, and they left.

The couple lived together “hand-to-mouth” [39] in a rustic Italian barn with no plumbing for the next forty years (“It was with some reluctance,” Cooke writes,[40] that electricity was installed in the 1990s). This experience informed Gray’s next and equally influential cookbook, Honey from a Weed (1986), which predated twenty-first century foodies’ interest in foraging and eating locally, remaining in print and influential to this day. Gray wasn’t totally averse to traditional ideas, however; thirty years after they met, she and Mommens were married. She never returned to England.

Not every woman was as Bohemian as Patience Gray. The pioneering architect Alison Smithson’s adamant sense of modernity, exemplified in the landmark buildings she created with her husband and creative partner Peter Smithson, brought her admiration and controversy. “We’re the best architects in the world,” she liked to say. It wasn’t merely an unusual statement coming from a woman; as one of her contemporaries recalled. “It wasn’t very English at all.” [105]

Film producer Betty Box demanded the same pay as her male counterparts and became one of the most successful producers in history—her nickname was “Betty Box Office.” [206] And while the celebrated archaeologist and author Jacquetta Hawkes enjoyed a series of professional achievements and affairs with both men and women, her life was conducted “with a careful public smoothness” [248] after marrying writer J.B. Priestley at age 43. “Let me have the guts to behave badly,” Hawkes wrote to a friend, and [249] eventually at age seventy, she published a scandalous sexual quasi-memoir entitled A Quest for Love, and did. [252]

It’s Rachel Cooke’s intention to “make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the war and feminism” and to “pull the reader along” with these tales of “derring-do.” [xxv] She succeeds on every count. Thanks to Cooke’s deep research, buoyant storytelling, and her sincere affection for the ten remarkable women portrayed here, Her Brilliant Career is both entertaining and touching. Give it to any enterprising, smart woman you know: although she may never have heard their names, she’ll recognize these women right away. Women who, like journalist Nancy Spain, “didn’t want to meet anyone who would make me put on a skirt.” [52]