If dead mothers abounded in Victorian fiction then, in reality, living, breathing, would-be mothers were queuing up in abundance in the aftermath of the Great War. The dearth of available young men forcing many women to abandon the predicted path of marriage and child-bearing and forge new trails in that unwanted and uncharted territory of singledom.
I know I may have thought about all this before, known about it in an approximate way, but never quite so completely until now.
I am reading Singled Out : How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War by Virginia Nicholson and thus far it is heart-wrenching. There was no other available role for women, their lives were defined by men and by marriage and that was all they had been prepared for.The panic and despair seems difficult to imagine in 2007 when the problem is deemed not so much the dearth as the difficulty of finding the right one.No such problem of choice in the 1920's, if he was male he would do.
I am now starting to realize that we probably owe these single women a huge debt.Often scorned, humiliated and reviled many blazed new and exciting trails against all the odds, others quietly and sadly got on with life.The descriptions of the public torment and victimisation they were prey to are profoundly moving and I now feel dreadful for playing outside Old Miss Garrity's house at the top end of Queen Anne's Gardens when we were roller skating eight year olds.
We knew full well the sight of children enraged her and if we kept at it long enough she'd totter out and scream at us and as soon as she'd gone in, shame on us, we'd do it again.I'd better do the Miserable Offender routine and say the General Confession twice which is the best a lapsed Anglican can come up with forty-six years on.
The first fifty pages read so far have elaborated in detail just how heartbreaking the situation was, often short extracts from private diaries portraying, in just a few lines, years of anguish and sorrow.
There are countless literary references too and it would be easy and of interest to compile a wide-ranging and fascinating reading list from Virginia Nicholson's examples.
A quote from Elizabeth Bowen's 1955 book A World of Love instantly reminds me that I have yet to read anything of hers and must. A description of 'the sabotage wrought by one soldier's death on two generations of living women' surely some of the most succinct and moving words that could be written to describe any premature loss of life,
'[Guy] had it in him to make a good end, but not soon; he would have been ready to disengage himself when the hour came, but rightfully speaking it had not ... it was simply that these years she went on living belonged to him, his lease upon them not having run out yet. The living were living in his lifetime; and of this his contemporaries ... never were unaware. They were incomplete.'
My first introduction to the writing of Virginia Nicholson Among the Bohemians : Experiments in Living 1900-1939 and I immediately added her to my list of current women writers who are offering immaculately researched and accessible books on a wide range of historical themes. Judith Flanders, Pamela Norris, Frances Spalding, Kate Williams and probably countless others are writing books which both inform and entertain; page-turning narratives that keep me engrossed and leave me feeling a whole lot wiser by the final page.
New trails have opened up and I'm off on a frolic of my own after the initial signposting, books like this are worth their weight in future reading.