Kick starter: Sheila Van Damm in 1964. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Who were the most extraordinary women of the fifties?

Those who made dangerous choices when the only choice seemed to be "marry or die".

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties
Rachel Cooke
Virago, 368pp, £18.99

Marry or die. If we think of them at all, that is the mantra by which we assume the women of the 1950s lived. Marriage was essential, not least because the alternative was . . . what? Having a job as a secretary or a nurse was acceptable but only as a means of finding a man who would open the door for you to that most desirable of careers – wifehood.

Yet even a moment’s consideration exposes the absurdity of the idea that a whole generation of women was married, occupied with no greater ambition than to make sure their husbands had a hot dinner waiting every night. What of the single women, the working women, the widowed women, the divorced women? Who were they and how did they fill their days? Rachel Cooke’s book is an attempt to answer such questions, to fill in the blanks with what interesting and ambitious women were actually doing between the end of the war and when sex began in 1963.

Her Brilliant Career profiles ten women who lived in ways that resist lazy characterisations of the 1950s. At first glance they have little in common, apart from the decade in which they thrived. Their professions were as varied and unexpected as it is possible to be – from Sheila Van Damm, the rally car driver and theatre manager, to Rose Heilbron, Britain’s first female KC.

Some had private lives we feel a Mad Men-inspired familiarity with, as in the case of Margery Fish, who started off as a secretary at the Daily Mail and ended up marrying her boss, the paper’s editor. Others, such as the cohabiting lesbian trio of Van Damm, the gossip columnist Nancy Spain and the magazine editor Joan Werner Laurie, would probably be considered gloriously unconventional today, too.

“Groundbreaking” feels too stale a word to apply to these women. They weren’t necessarily always happy in their choices – there were setbacks, sexism and suffering – but what unites them is that they were at least making choices. Against the odds, they were in control. Here, Cooke has laid out their lives in seven interconnected essays, with the women’s work contextualised by interviews, diary entries and contemporary press cuttings.

Photographs, too, play an important role in telling these stories. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a 1964 snap of the architect Alison Smithson, sitting at a desk in the garden of the weekend home she shared with her husband and business partner, Peter. She is completely absorbed in drawing, the epitome of the driven career woman our understanding of the decade lacks.

Yet, as Cooke draws out, all is not as it seems. Look closer and you can see the box with handles off to one side that surely contains a baby, while in the background a small boy is clambering along a wall. Suddenly Smithson’s absorption takes on a new dimension. Here is an architect hard at work but, at the same time, she is a mother watching over her children. The duality of this image is thrilling – it’s just a shame that the pictures in this book are printed on the same ink-absorbent paper as the text, sometimes making it difficult to make out the finer details, rather than in a dedicated plate section.

Her Brilliant Career is not intended to be a comprehensive account of female life and work in the 1950s; rather, it is starting point, an appetiser of the delights to come, if only they are sought. In this, Cooke’s chatty footnotes and informative appendices are superb – with a deftness that comes from a complete mastery of the material, she tells us which forgotten films and books are lost gems in urgent need of rediscovery and which are to be avoided at all costs. Discussing Smithson’s relationship with brutalism, Cooke touches on the critic Reyner Banham’s book on the subject and its role in popularising the term, and then exhorts the reader: “Don’t, whatever you do, try reading it.”

Some of the attraction of the 1950s as a period of history is that it is both near and far at the same time – near in terms of time but far in the sense of how much progress we have made in women’s ability to live, work and love as we choose. At the outset, Cooke states that part of what motivated her to tell these stories was “a sly kind of feminism”. By the end of the book, you finally catch on.

More than five decades later, we do not live in a utopia of equality and understanding. There are vast amounts still be done about how few women make it to the top of their profession or feel completely at liberty to make decisions about their body. Institutions are slow to change, even where the will exists.

Perhaps it’s time to do as these women did and just write that book, fly that plane or sing that song exactly as you have always wanted. One day, society will catch up.

Caroline Crampton is the web editor of the New Statesman

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era