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The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939

Regular readers will probably know that I rarely read nonfiction, and when I do it is still quite narrative driven – memoirs, biographies, or essay collections. Which is why I had let this book languish on my tbr for a year since Liz bought it me for Christmas in 2019. I had known I wanted to read it – but this year I have read even less nonfiction than usual and so there it sat.

The week before Christmas I was casting about for something new to read and pulled a pile from the shelf to look through. I read the first few paragraphs of A Very Great Profession and was surprisingly hooked – I hadn’t known I wanted to read something like this at that moment. It is described as a book of literary criticism, which perhaps makes it sound a little drier than it is. Subtitled ‘The Woman’s novel 1914-1939’ it really is right up my alley. I found it completely absorbing, a real celebration of many of the kinds of books I love – written by the founder of Persephone books and originally published by Virago in 1983.

In this book Nicola Beauman looks at women like Katherine in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and Laura in the film Brief Encounter. These were women who borrowed books from the circulating libraries, and whose lives were so often recorded in the very fiction that they read.

“Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a café lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O’Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading during her life as ‘a respectable married woman with a husband and a home and three children.’ (This was how she describes herself in Still Lives (1935) the Noel Coward play upon which Brief Encounter (1945) was based.)”

Following her introduction – in which Beauman explains how the book was conceived and written, each of the eight chapters takes a different theme, war, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis etc. Drawing on numerous novels from this period between the two wars Beauman explores the lives that were being led by the middle class women who would have read them.

In the first chapter Beauman illustrates how war influenced not just the lives of men – but also, and in different ways the lives of women too. These novels often reflected the changing lives of women – and what the middle class concerns of many at this period were – and discusses the propaganda type of novels such as some of those by novelists like May Sinclair. Novels such as Mr Britling Sees it Through and The War Workers, come in for some discussion, and throughout this book I loved reading the extracts from these novels I had previously enjoyed as well as encountering many I had never heard of.

The surplus women that feature so prominently in women’s novels of this period are the subject of another chapter. After the first world war, many women who might have married and might have wished to simply couldn’t because of the loss of so many men of their generation in the war. These women began to turn their energies to other things. Novels discussed here include Woolf’s Night and Day, F M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter and Delafield’s Consequences.

Women’s domestic lives, romance and sex take up other chapters, continuing the portrait of middle class female life during this period. She discusses how gradually women’s lives had started to open up a bit, and how some writers had begun to approach the reality of passion and women’s sexuality. These chapters all contain too much fine detail for me to discuss it adequately in a review – but each chapter is just wonderfully immersive for the lover of novels from this period – largely those written by women though one or two by male writers are included.

The final chapter is about love – and it seems a fitting chapter for this wonderful book to end on somehow. It begins with a detailed discussion of a novel from just outside the time period of 1914-1939.

“The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford is the apotheosis of the woman’s novel about love. In some ways it rounds off everything that was written on this topic during the inter-war period, mingling tenderness and wit into an unsentimental but deeply emotional whole. There are few novels which explore with such insight women’s real natures, and critics who condemn Nancy Mitford as catering entirely for a snob-public are sadly missing the point.”

This book was an easy five star read for me; I knew that when I had only read a third of it – I was so thoroughly absorbed I gulped it down quickly. It is surely a must for any lover of the kinds of novels published by Virago and Persephone. Nicola Beauman is an able literary critic she fully understands these novels and the women who read them and how inextricably linked the readers and the novels were – and I dare say still are.

List writers beware however, there are just so many fascinating novels mentioned in this book that it is tempting to start jotting them down – I didn’t do that, I just didn’t dare! Many of the novels mentioned I have already read or got waiting to read – many others were completely unknown to me. This book is now my favourite book about books I have read for some time.

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