Sunday, September 09, 2007

A penny bun or a Marmite sandwich

John Carey reviews Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. It starts out pretty bleakly:
The slaughter of a generation of young men in the first world war left a generation of young women without their normal chance of marriage and motherhood. Their fate was already apparent before the war ended. In 1917, the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls stood up before the assembled sixth form and broke the news: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of 10 of you girls can ever hope to marry.” Her estimate, a former pupil later recorded, proved exactly right. What this generation of women made of their diminished lives, and how the rest of the population regarded them, are the questions that Virginia Nicholson’s pioneering book confronts.

The answer to the second question is – with astonishing spite, resentment and lack of sympathy. When the 1921 census revealed that women outnumbered men by almost 2m, it unleashed a frenzy of vituperation. “The superfluous women,” proclaimed the Daily Mail, “are a disaster to the human race.” They were labelled “limpets” and “bread-snatchers” for taking jobs from demobbed soldiers. They were reviled for forming “unwholesome female friendships” and mocked for lavishing their stifled affection on cats and lapdogs. Sexual psychologists pronounced them unnatural, and Oswald Mosley found them “distressing”. A popular solution was that they should be exported to the colonies. Canada, it was pointed out, had an excess of male trappers and lumberjacks, and even Australia offered many “simple pleasures”.

When, desperate to fill the gap in their lives, they wrote for advice to women’s magazines, they met with heartless optimism (“Cheer up, dears”) or insulting tips on man-catching (“If you use a henna shampoo, don’t overdo it”). Self-help books, with titles such as Sex Philosophy for the Bachelor Girl and Live Alone and Like It, prattled on about taking up folk dancing, astrology or amateur dramatics. But for women whose men had died, the need was to find some way of appeasing their desire for love and their guilt at surviving. An advertisement in the Matrimonial Times read “Lady, fiancĂ© killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”


  1. My God. The Daily Mail is the killer -- if Britain was to lose a generation of young men, it seems, it would have been better off losing a generation of young women as well.

  2. This explains an entire sub-genre: Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner (later, I know), et al: what I've always thought of--probably not originally--as the bed-sit school of British fiction.