Monday, 10 February 2014

Last-Year Reads: Her Brilliant Career by Rachel Cooke

At the start of the year I vowed to keep up my reading and try and read fifty books this year. I’ve been reasonably successful so far (well, more than at updating this blog anyway), and I’m keeping track of my progress here. One I wanted to write about in more detail, however, was Rachel Cooke’s Her Brilliant Career.

Her Brilliant Career sets out to challenge the repressed housewife cliché that often goes hand-in-hand with our perception of the fifties. Sandwiched between the relative freedoms offered to women in the Second World War and the Youthquake of the sixties, picture that poor fifties woman, chained to her kitchen sink, albeit in a beautiful full-skirted Dior-inspired number. Cooke’s challenge comes in the form of the biographies of ten different women, selected for being “revolutionaries and taste makers”.

Jacket of Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd. Via

This approach gives a vivid sense of the patchwork of life in Britain in the fifties and it’s far more invigorating that you might expect. I remember when I interview the textile designer Pat Albeck for Oh Comely magazine a couple of years ago and she described this period as an amazing and inspiring time, when “people were on a crusade to make life more lovely.” You get something of a sense of that possibility here but that also, with no set examples to follow, each woman had to forge their own, often wayward, path to success. There’s the image of Rose Heilborn sat at her books, carefully and deliberately working her way towards achieving her ambition of being Britain’s first female high court judge. Or Patience Gray – who was once more famous for her recipes than Elizabeth David’s in Britain – whose success came about after an instinctively-governed series of adventures and misadventures.

All the women, with the possible exception of Heilbron, make no attempt to mask their passions, whether it’s as explicit as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes’s bestselling book A Land, a surprisingly sensual exploration of Britain’s archaeology and geology, or the more relatable pleasure Margery Fish discovered when cultivating her garden at East Lambrook.

This approach also makes it apparent that the path of a “successful” woman is never as straightforward as it might appear. Filmmaker Muriel Box survived on a diet of sausage rolls and biscuits with cardboard to patch out her shoes to be able to make her strike for independence. Though more well known than Box today, Alison Smithson’s stark architectural work, designed in partnership with her husband Peter, faced criticism on a national level and they spent long periods with no commissions at all. Today, when we are surrounded by stories by people who have “made it” by the age of 30, or snapshot reports of success, it’s wonderfully refreshing to be able to see the long view.

The book is bursting at the seams with anecdote and additional information. Cooke clearly had a tough choice in whittling it down to her ten women. Lengthy footnotes expand on the culture of the time, and introduce a whole new cast of characters. Ginette Spanier, another extraordinary woman, for example is mentioned only in slightly more than passing as the lover of Nancy Spain (who helped her write It Isn't All Mink). Then there’s the timeline of key events in the fifties, a list of brilliant novels by women from the decades, and an endnote devoted exclusively to fashion in the period.

This approach to fashion is one of my few criticisms of the book. Of course picking ten women is going to be problematic, and there are notable professions excluded. Where are the scientists? There aren’t really any journalists either, except Joan Werner Laurie – a magazine editor whose achievements get slightly overlooked by her complex living arrangements with Sheila van Damm and Nancy Spain - and Patience Gray - better known for her books than her journalism. That’s slightly understandable, as it’s Cooke’s own profession, and perhaps she wanted to bypass any accusations of naval gazing, but it was one of the first professions where women could really rise to the top – look at Anne Scott-James for example (she does get mentioned in both the introduction and the fashion section).

Madge Garland, photographed by Man Ray, 1927. Via

Fashion though … Cooke writes in the introduction “I didn’t want to get too hung up on fashion”. It’s a shame, because she’s missed some great stories. Her brief survey of fashion is very much fashion by couture headline – impact of the New Look, the sack dress etc – and she writes, “actresses and models, as ever, were hugely influential.” Well, not really. The fifties saw the rise of the first named celebrity models in the UK, such as Barbara Goalen. That was something fresh for that period. And, if one of the criteria for being selected for the book is being a tastemaker, what about people such as Madge Garland or Janey Ironside, the first professors of fashion at the Royal College of Art, both remarkable women in their own right and responsible for bringing subsequent generations of women designers into the world (in the fifties including Gina Fratini)? And on that note, what about Mary Quant, whose Bazaar boutique opened mid decade? Her experience of the fifties was something different yet again.

Last year I had the idea that Madge Garland was deserving of a biography. It’s no surprise someone had already beaten me to it – she’s one of the subjects in Lisa Cohen’s All We Know, next on my reading list. Once I’ve read that I’ll let you know if she does stand up as worthy of inclusion with the other extraordinary lives Cooke has highlighted. Because, my fashion grumble aside, these are fascinating lives, wonderfully told and I finished reading Her Brilliant Career feeling encouraged and inspired and, yes as per Cooke’s aim in writing this book, my perception of women’s lives in the fifties having subtly shifted.

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