Thursday, 31 July 2014

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke

published 2013




NANCY SPAIN

But how had [Nancy Spain] hidden her pregnancy from her friends? With great difficulty, probably, though since those who knew her were in no doubt about her sexuality they would perhaps have seen only what they expected to see. There is a story that when Angus McBean came to photograph her for the cover of one of her detective novels, her pregnancy was so noticeable that he had to ask her to lie down so he could shoot her from above.



BETTY BOX

At Pinewood’s restaurant every head would turn when Betty walked in. And in a room full of movie stars! She was immaculate in Dior and Courreges and Balenciaga. Her jewellery jangled. Her honey blonde hair shone. There she would sit, surrounded by her coterie: [Dirk] Bogarde, [Kenneth] More…






observations: Where to begin with this wonderful book? Rachel Cooke herself suggested I might be interested in in it, and that turned out to be a wild understatement – I loved it. She picked ten high-achieving women to write about, including an archaeologist, a judge, a gardener and a cookery writer. She looked at their lives in enormous detail, talked to people who knew them, and then wrote this completely beguiling book, full of the fascination of gossip but the careful facts of scholarly research. 


The women are modern, real, characterful, determined. The difficulties they face are shocking and outrageous, but not quite as unimaginable as you would hope all these years later. They all sound like role models and poster girls – not by any means in every detail of their lives, but in the fact that they got on with it, they knew what they wanted. And, as Cooke emphasizes, if you ever thought complex love lives, dysfunctional families and Bohemian arrangements all arrived in the 1960s, then this book provides a valuable corrective. Cooke is a balanced and very funny writer, you respect her insights, and I like the way she is witty without being mean. I loved her little asides – such as her explanation of why cookbooks don’t really represent current life. 

[And so I am sure Rachel Cooke will like my favourite line from any cookbook or recipe ever:
Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

-- see the relevant blog entry here. Peg Bracken published it in 1960, but surely was an honorary 1950s feminist and working woman.]

Her Brilliant Career is also, through and through, a feminist tract ( that is a huge compliment from me, and it annoys me that still this idea might be off-putting to others). These women were talented people with something to offer, and the fact that they had to fight harder than men for their achievements was ridiculous then and now, and that’s all that feminism means.

Also, many Clothes in Books favourite books and people are mentioned in this book – click on the links, or go to the labels below the entry:

Stella Gibbons  Westwood

Anne Scott-James In the Mink

Margery Allingham

Vita Sackville-West – as a writer and also a gardening picture

Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House

Dirk Bogarde

Nancy Spain lying down is from my own Virago reprint of one of her books, though the photo was taken for a different title.

21 comments:

  1. I love "My Brilliant Career," although I saw the movie and didn't read the book. It's one of my favorites, and Judy Davis was brilliant in it.

    Interesting about the hit that "feminism" is getting over here, and that's spread by particular groupings for their own reasons. This issue was on a morning TV show yesterday where two newscasters were asked if they were "feminists," and that the word is being disparaged. They both said they were. One woman, Soledad O'Brien, explained it means being for equality of women in jobs, salary, opportunities, etc. (I'd add to this in being nominated for literary prizes, being published and having books reviewed equally, etc.) Over here due to the
    political ambience, what the word "feminism" means gets wildly distorted, but that has always been the case, as when the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed and then attacked and defeated.

    A colleague observed that over here women who have made scientific and medical discoveries, invented important things, and made huge achievements, often bypassed in important international prizes, are only recognized in their obituaries. When I read the obituary pages, I am amazed at many women's accomplishments that are unknown.

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    1. I know - it's a shame that we still can be surprised and shocked by how women are under-rated and under-valued. But it happens all the time.

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  2. Two in a row, just wasn't going to happen. Glad you enjoyed it though.

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  3. Straight on to my wishlist - this sounds wonderful. (I love that cooking anecdote - the number of pots that I've stared sullenly into... Fortunately never to that actual recipe.)

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    1. Excellent Vicki - I am certain that you'll love it.

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  4. Moira - I love that recipe! And it's so interesting to get a look 'behind the scenes' at these women. I'm not normally deeply into the 'women's stories' or even 'women's fiction' kind of thing. But these sound fascinating. And the writing style just flows very well.

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  5. Peg Bracken was soooooooooo funny! Try the I Hate to Housekeep book - it even has some tips on How to Dress.

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  6. Lucy and Margot: Blogger isn't letting me do proper replies right now...

    Margot: I think Cooke's a very good writer - an easy accessible style, but the research is solidly there in the background.

    Lucy: I love Peg Bracken. Big fan of her etiquette book, which contains very valuable child-raising tips. I wrote an etiquette book myself, she inspired me with the very contemporary feel of her books - she was writing for people as they were, not how they theoretically should be, or were in the past. But at the same time, as you say, hilariously funny.

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  7. I already wanted to read this book and now I'm desperate to -- thanks. Totally love the recipe book quote.

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    1. I can really recommend it. And also Peg Bracken - I often think about it when I'm cooking. Can't smoke, but can stare sullenly at the sink....

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  8. What a brilliant sounding book. I love the recipe and the fact that they all sound like real women with all the complexity that entails.

    http://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com

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    1. Exactly Cleo - it's an unusual kind of biography, but one that really resonated with me and I think will (and has done) with a lot of women.

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  9. This sounds very very good. I wish there was a corresponding (or similar) book for US women of the same time. (Maybe there is?) I will definitely look out for the book, it would be interesting from many angles.

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    1. I thought it was the perfect factual, enjoyable book with something to say - like reading high-grade gossip, but with a serious background.

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  10. And I meant to say that I read the Peg Bracken book ... probably in the 70's... and loved it.

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    1. She is much under-rated I think, must be due for a revival.

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  11. Thanks Moira. I have yet to read anything by Nancy Spain but great to have that anecdote about the cover photograph, all very telling. I think I read an extract from the book in the Observer - certainly the fine review by Katharine Whitehorn: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/03/her-brilliant-career-rachel-cooke-review

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    1. Thanks Sergio, and that's an interesting review - I think Katherine Whitehorn probably would be one of the candidates for such a book herself. I did read a couple of Nancy Spain crime stories, and really wanted to like them, but they didn't quite do it for me...

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  12. Great to see this book featured on here - I found it really inspiring and keep pressing copies on all my friends. Hugely readable and enjoyable, my one minor criticism of the title was that clothes/fashion did get a bit sidelined (and pushed to that separate section at the back) when there were many excellent women working in fashion in the 1950s who would more than have held their own with the other women featured in the book.

    Now I really need to check out some Peg Bracken. That sounds like my kind of cookbook!

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    1. so glad to find another fan: and yes I am going to be giving this one for Xmas and birthdays this year, I can think of so many friends who will love it. She should write a followup with another 10 women, and then she can include the fashion people.

      Peg Bracken definitely worth a look - she covered cooking, housekeeping and etiquette.

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