Cake by Stella Gibbons
from the collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm
story published 1938, collection 1940
As the taxi moved steadily northwards through the quiet Bloomsbury squares, the light coming through the window showed a slender young woman of 28, dressed in about a hundred and fifty pounds’ worth of clothes. Every trace of exuberance, childishness and indecision in her manner had been planed away, and replaced by an expensive quietness in dress, and the simplicity of a sophisticate. Her black broadtail coat and Mainbocher suit matched her low voice, small movements and unaffected glance. She was a very perfect specimen of the Successful Careerist, 1938 Model, and she was all her own work…
[she is visiting a former suffragette, a Miss Allworton] Miss Allworton stood up, leaning her arm on the mantelpiece and looking down at the girl in black with the tan chiffon scarf tucked at her neck, sitting groomed and young and successful in the shabby old chair… ‘You’re not a bit like a feminist to look at. You’re well dressed (oh I know how a woman ought to look, though your sort of clothes never suited me; I’m too big) and I like that little hat, and you… I don’t know. Thirty five years ago there simply weren’t women like you, Miss Roscoe, anywhere in the world… Women were either fools or feminists. But you don’t seem to be either….’
observations: So even in 1938 there was discussion about who was a feminist, and whether it affected how you dressed: it is quite surprising to read such modern-sounding dialogue. But this short story is rather discomfiting for modern eyes. Jenny Roscoe has just split up from her husband, after she discovers he is having an affair. The authorial voice is clear: Roscoe is wholly to blame, she has tried to have everything (hence the name of the story) but has not worked to keep her man, and hasn’t agreed to have children. The former suffragette is going to make her see how she’s missing out, and send her off to recover her man. It does not make a great read for modern women, though it is possible that Roscoe does not have to give up her entire career...
Using a splendid currency converter provided by the UK National Archives, we can say that £150 in 1938 would have the purchasing power of £5,500 (approx. $8700) today. The construction – giving us the value of her clothes - is admirable, and could be used to advantage in more books.
The picture is of a woman called Vivian Kellems, a very successful and apparently very happy ‘career woman’ who ran an industrial manufacturing firm with her brother. It comes from the Smithsonian Institution.
Links up with: There’s a picture we used before - this entry , Harriet Vane being given a fur coat by her fiancé – that would fit well with this story. Stella Gibbons is a blog favourite: click on the label below to see more.