As every upstanding, respectable and notably patriarchal male of Victorian times knew, the popular image of the angel in the house was not just an image, but mandatory. His wife had to aspire and fulfil the demands of being passive, powerless, pious and pure. At the same time, she was also expected to be charming, graceful and sympathetic without fail. At all times.
No challenge there, then.
This meek model of perfection was celebrated in Coventry Patmore’s poem of the same name written and widely admired in the 19th century and rightly attacked by Virginia Woolf in 1931 when she declared Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
With my third novel, MILLER STREET SW22, currently out of my hands as it’s at the editing and proof-reading stage, it’s time to turn to my next one – and as I had the idea for it over a year ago, that’s an easy task – especially with the grant of more hours to devote to it given this current era of strange times.
Set in London in 1983, I assumed there would be little research since I was very much alive and living and working in the city at this time.
But I had not considered the fact that a lot of my characters – in middle or old age by 1983 – would have been born several decades before me and therefore the era in which they had grown up would be of importance if I was to draw convincing, faithful characterisations. I need to know about the social and political contexts in which they have spent their childhood and working years.
And as often seems to happen, characters who I had intended to be periphery and incidental to the story are already insisting on larger, more dominant roles. And I’m only 5,000 words or so into the novel …
Take Dorothy, for example, aunt to my protagonist, Lily Page.
Dorothy Page is a woman born around the turn of the 20th century and she has been single all her life. A conscious choice on her part since she enjoyed her work as a civil servant and as women were required to resign when they married, she clearly saw work as superior to the possession of a husband and made her choice.
It was not until 1946 that the preposterous bar on married women in the civil service was lifted.
And of course it was not only female civil servants who faced such discrimination.
The nursing and teaching professions were also seen as ones that sat at odds with marriage. The Court of Appeal in 1925 rejected a case brought by a married woman teacher who faced sacking by saying that women teachers were needed who were devoting their lives and energies entirely to the business of teaching without assuming the privilege of domestic ties.
That ‘privilege’ was, of course, afforded to male teachers without question. The Angel in the House might have been a Victorian creation, but the shadow of it hovered over the first half of the 20th century.
Reading about this reminded me of when I first went into teaching in the late 1970s and early 1980s when staff rooms still had their cohorts of single female teachers nearing retirement. They would have begun their careers close on 40 years earlier when the ‘spinster teacher’ was still a regular feature of the profession. They all seemed to dress, I remember, in similar ways: pleated, long navy skirts, aertex shirts, flat, navy or black lace-ups in winter, curious sandals in summer. These women were some years younger then than I am now …and I recall feeling sorry for them, pitying them their dedication and what I imagined to be lonely, solitary lives. A very patronising attitude, but one that seemed entirely fitting to me at the time.
All this trawling of women’s lives earlier in the 20th century has brought me to a discovery of something that I have long misinterpreted and understood.
The conventional thinking of why women finally gained the vote in early 1918, I have always believed, was that they had proved themselves by their capabilities of taking on formerly traditional male roles during WW1. They had easily and efficiently slid into male roles out of necessity as the men were sucked up by the battle fields of war.
We have to give them the vote, lads, because it seems they can do a lot of our jobs. That’s what I’ve always imbibed as the attitude – and really, rather a patriarchal one when you think about it.
This is not what happened at all.
Instead, with the vote in Parliament gathering opposition to the absurd idea of granting women the chance to be enfranchised, Millicent Fawcett, resolute, dedicated suffragist, had a quiet and brief word with one trenchant anti-enfranchisement member of the cabinet. She told him that renewed women’s militancy, suspended since the outbreak of war in 1914, would be a most inconvenient and unattractive consequence of the vote failing to carry – not what people would wish to see on the streets while the war was still in progress…
He evidently capitulated. As did others.
The final vote in January 1918 saw the bill carried by a majority of 63 and the result was immediately delivered to a large crowd of women waiting in the precincts of parliament – ready to respond if need be.
It was not until 2018 that a statue to Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in Parliament Square …
I could bore you endlessly about what I’ve discovered since I began my research for novel 4 – already with a title, but I’ll keep that to myself for a while.
But instead, I am going to recommend a book that has become my bible and that I’ve already read and dipped into again and again since buying it some months ago.
A WOMAN’S PLACE 1910 – 1975 by Ruth Adam is a fascinating and highly readable account of this period. Published by Persephone Books, the wonderful company that specialises in books by women writers who are either largely forgotten or overlooked, it is well worth acquiring. And it is also worth noting the progress – however imperfect – that has been made since 1975.
In the meantime, back to life with my new characters in my work in progress who I am slowly getting to know and trying to keep under control.
It always sounds such a cliché and really quite pretentious when writers talk about their characters having lives and wills of their own.
But the trouble is, it’s entirely true.