It's a bit like that moment when I was asked to name a few great women artists.
All enough to make me sign up for an art history year with the OU even though I was supposed to be doing the English degree, but it certainly raised my awareness. I learned a huge amount and at least I emerged able to spout a few names.... I rattle off Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun and save Sofonisba Anguissola for special occasions.
So now name the brilliant women of the 1950s...
...and I am stuck again.
Whilst the Angry Young Men were stamping around, leaving huge indented footprints on the decade, I assume at my peril that the women were all doing nothing beyond polishing the lino and playing with the latest kitchen gadget before heading off to the Ideal Home Exhibition.
As always with books like this, and I think part of the reading pleasure for many of us, is the way a small mention will trigger a huge memory.
I had no idea that the Kenwood Chef food mixer was invented by Mr Ken Wood and it was years before my mum had one of those, there were other priorities and a wooden spoon and a bowl sufficed, but I do remember my mum being tickled pink with her Flatley Clothes Drier (not mentioned in the book, but you needed to be there to know of such things).
Does anyone else remember them??
It must never be forgotten what a godsend these things were in freezing cold 1950s homes and what a release from drudgery the now derided new fabrics were. For all that we may ridicule it now, imagine the freedom of Crimplene.
As for the Ideal Home exhibition, my mum went to that every year and would always come home with a bag of mini Hovis loaves which we started talking about before she had even walked out of the door, and one year this little Peek Frean biscuit tin filled with tiny biscuits, which I STILL have....the tin that is, biscuits probably gone within half an hour.
Of the cohort of notable women featured in Her Brilliant Career, eventually selected from a cast of many who all popped their heads up once Rachel Cooke started looking for them, I had heard of a few but knew very little about any of them...
Patience Gray, Nancy Spain, Joan Werner-Laurie, Sheila van Damm, Alison Smithson, Margery Fish, Muriel and Betty Box, Jacquetta Hawkes and Rose Heilbron.
Chefs, racing car drivers, architects, film directors, archaeologists, barristers all swimming against the tide of convention and assumption to achieve, and many eschewing realtionships with men in order to do so. Those who married often found no freedom until the husband had died, Margery Fish sensibly choosing a man twenty years older and therefore increasing the odds. When Walter, her autocratic, domineering and controlling husband died, Margery's garden sprang into life, burgeoning into an extraordinary canvas for her previously stifled creativity.
Those who didn't marry often entered into relationships with other women which could be equally complex and with a price to pay, mental illness and depression often followed. I was heartened to read of Muriel Box and her blissfully happy marriage to Sidney. Supportive and encouraging of his wife's talents I could hardly believe I was reading of a fifties dream marriage story. Well... I'm not going to spoil the moment in the book when Rachel Cooke drops the bombshell on the reader, and in much the same way it must have been dropped on Muriel, but I was upset for poor Muriel for days afterwards.
It was left to the final Extraordinary Woman, Rose Heilbron, to save the day, and she did. Born in Liverpool in 1914, happily married for sixty years, top notch barrister and QC who made her name over the Canvey Island Curlers case.
Right, who remembers 'curlers' or 'rollers' as we called them??
And that terrible night of sleeping sitting up in order to have a slight flick (as in my case) of curl for the next day's function. I look at myself now, as that Buttercup escort for the Mitcham May Queen celebrations (I think this was circa 1958-9) and can confirm that my dead straight hair did not achieve this degree of curl without a night of agony beforehand.
Please note my doll's pram too.
Moving swiftly on.
In the case of the woman accused of deliberately torching the Canvey Island houseboat on which she was sleeping in order to do away with the family she was staying with (it's complicated), Rose Heilbron argued that no woman would put her hair in curlers the night before (as the accused had done) if she thought there was the remotest chance of anyone, especially a crew of firemen, seeing her in them at 3am.
Clever eh, spot on, and surely only a woman would have advanced a case on those grounds and argued it succesfully, which Rose Heilbron did.
The book mountain that has accumulated as a result of reading Her Brilliant Career is still growing, so far just Daddy's Gone a-Hunting read this time round, several read in the past and some written about here already, One Fine Day, The Tortoise and the Hare..
...and plenty I don't have and must keep an eye out for...
School for Love by Olivia Manning, The Sugar House by Antonia White, The Echoing Grove by Rosamund Lehmann and many more.
Rachel Cooke's journey through Her Brilliant Career began with the purchase of a 'timelessly modern' 1950's Ercol sideboard on eBay; for those of you who, like me, were there too, I'd love to know what might trigger your memories of that decade...