Set in Rosenau, an isolated alpine farming community in Austria, Homestead by Rosina Lippi begins with a mysterious love letter – its intended recipient potentially being any one of a number of local ladies – and proceeds to recount the life of several village women, through short stories set between 1909 and 1977. These h(er)stories of ordinary women and their relationships, passions, conflicts, aspirations, frustrations et al, powerfully demonstrate how much women’s lives changed during the 20th century and how the darker side of its history crept into the most remote of their communities and lives, in particular through the impact of war (the story of a betrayal that brings the horror of the Nazi extermination camps to Rosenau broke my heart). The force of Lippi’s prose is in the inferred rather than the explicit, and the wonderful evocation of the environment and changing seasons of Rosenau brings light relief to occasionally dark moments.
By the end of the male slaughter of the First World War there were almost two million more women of marriageable age than there were eligible bachelors. In Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson explores the fate of these so-called ‘surplus’ women who, faced with slim chance of marriage, were forced to reassess their hitherto-taken-for-granted life plans. Nicholson celebrates their achievements and contributions to feminism, while remaining realistic about the hardships they faced. She writes movingly of their heartbreak for fallen fiances and unborn children, and exposes their endeavours to fly solo in a society that was prejudiced against spinsters and refused to adapt to this population revolution. As ‘business girls’ they worked insecure, low wage jobs for employers conditioned to women working for pin money rather than sustenance, and a society committed to chastity before marriage sentenced these women to further misery. The book is full of individual stories of fascinating women and I especially valued Nicholson’s efforts to go beyond the obvious source material to tell the working-class story, including through interviews with some of these ‘surplus’ women in their old age. During the centenary of its close, it is timely to remember the colossal impact of the First World War in social terms.
Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia is a work of fiction based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), the first woman to become a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Research combined with sisterly empathy for how Gentileschi might have responded to events in her life go some way towards allowing Gentileschi to tell us her story. The chapter on the trial where she sought to prosecute a fellow artist for rape is based on court records and is shocking – not least because, although we no longer use thumbscrews to test whether a woman is telling the truth, the fact the ‘she shagged loadsa blokes, your honour’ line was employed 400 years ago suggests that it really is outdated now, y’all. But there is also plenty here about the vital thing this male act of violence overshadows when we discuss Gentileschi: her art. I fist-pumped reading this interlude between Artemisia and her mother, concerning the daughter’s fear that locals will not believe her:
‘Don’t give a fig for what they think. The world is larger than Rome, Artemisia…Think of your Susanna and The Elders. When that painting becomes famous, the whole world will know your innocence.’
‘Because in that painting you showed her intimidation at the lewd looks of those two men, her vulnerability and fear. It shows you understood her struggle against forces beyond her control…’
Maud Pember Reeves’ social survey Round About a Pound a Week, published by Persephone, is a sobering read about the struggles of working-class women in a pre-Welfare State Britain. Between 1909 and 1913 Pember Reeves and the Fabian Women’s Group surveyed 42 working-class families living around the Lambeth Walk to record their day-to-day existence and this is the result – where they live, what they eat, and how they manage their budgets, in minute detail. These were not the poorest families but what would have been considered the backbone of the working-class – regular workers earning the standard wage of a pound a week – yet they struggled against the tide of poverty, with women often bearing its brunt:
The women seldom get new clothes; boots they often are entirely without. The men go to work and must be supplied, the children must be decent at school, but the mother has no need to appear in the light of day. If very badly equipped, she can shop in the evening in The Walk, and no one will notice under her jacket and rather long skirt what she is wearing on her feet.
Whatever your politics, such testimony reminds us of the positive impact of the modern Welfare State on working-class women’s lives and their particular vulnerability during times of austerity.
Finally, if reading about the struggles of our sisters propels you into a spiral of despair, then cheer yourself up with Angela Carter’s The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. Drawn from countries and cultures far and wide and rooted in a pre-industrialized past, all of these by-varying-degrees-bizarre tales feature a female protagonist; pay homage to the European tradition of Mother Goose, the female story teller; and are far more interesting than bears having their porridge nicked or grandma going feral. Carter’s super introduction to this anthology tracks the history and importance of oral storytelling and the fairy tale, and in particular how women can use these tales of female heroism to ‘validate (a) claim to a fair share of the future by staking (our) claim to (our) share of the past’, in the same way, for example, emerging nation states of the 19th century collected oral tales as a way of establishing a nation state with its own, exclusive culture:
I don’t offer these stories in the spirit of nostalgia; that past was hard, cruel and especially inimical to women, whatever desperate stratagems we employed to get a little bit of our own way. But I do offer them in a valedictory spirit, as a reminder of how wise, clever, perceptive, occasional lyrical, eccentric, sometimes downright crazy our great-grandmothers were, and their great grandmothers; and of the contributions to literature of Mother goose and her goslings.
If they could pep-talk us in 2018, I think our great-grandmothers and their great-grandmothers would probably lament the fact that we are still protesting this sh*t (‘#MeToo? Yeah #usasquillionyearsagotoo. FFS! Bored Now!’) but would tell us to #PressforProgress. Let’s finish the job they started. Onward!