I’m certain that I’ve said this before, but this is one of my favourite kinds of books about books. Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession is obviously written out of a passion for women’s literature of 1914-1939 and certainly draws attention to many neglected works and writers.
For me, it simultaneously celebrates writers’ works that I already know and adore and introduces me to new material, making me want to reread old favourites and go bookshopping for new must-haves.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the works of writers whose names pepper the catalogues of publishers like Virago and Persephone (ironically this work by Nicola Beauman’s has been published by both presses), but when A Very Great Profession was first published, the works of writers like May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, E. Arnot Robertson and Winifred Holtby could only have been found on the bookshelves of readers’ mothers and grandmothers and in second-hand bookstores.
Beauman’s work clearly and unapologetically states that her interest is in women’s fiction (not general fiction) and although she does place her favourite writers in a wider literary context, that context does not include traditional canonical writers; when she refers to writers who may have been critically lauded and/or popular (for instance, H.G. Wells), she refers to them because their work (or specific elements of it) considered women’s roles in society in a somewhat revolutionary way. Therefore, H.G. Wells is discussed for his ideas about the New Woman in 1909’s Ann Veronica, but there is no discussion of his oft-studied traditional classics.
So this is not a work designed to fit these authors into the sphere inhabited by Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, or W. Somerset Maugham, but a work which declares the inherent relevance of these women’s words; Beauman considers that these works matter simply because of what they have to offer their readers on their own terms, not in terms of their relationships to canonical writings. If you share her passion, you will be pleased with her approach and find her synthesis of information (including brief commentary on women’s changing economic, political, sexual, and social roles) of interest.
This work is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, but you certainly have a clear sense of the shifts over this period of time. Below are some quotations which reveal the matters and trends discussed in A Very Great Profession.
The emergence of the New Woman novel:
With the recognition that it was no longer necessary to have large families, a few brave women began to look for other ways of controlling their lives, and a new kind of heroine began to appear in the ‘New Woman’ novels as well as in those of writers, such as Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who were opposed to some aspects of feminism, for example votes for women. And by the 1890s writers such as Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895) and George Moore in Esther Waters (1894) were, too, describing women as ‘complete human beings with individual and sexual rights’. 122
The lingering losses after the Great War:
For many women who came to maturity during and after the First World War no living man could ever have the golden qualities of the dead, an attitude which has had far-reaching effects on the cultural and social life of England in the present century. There were too the ‘surplus’ women who never married, those with dead fiances and those who never found a husband after so many millions had been killed — and whose lives were spent working or caring for elderly relatives. The past, and the dead that were part of it, became for many of far greater interest and glory than the unspectacular tawdriness of the present. 36
A new female reader in the 1920s:
But, during the 1920s, women writers gradually began to write about basic, everyday middle-class female preoccupations such as married love, the bringing up of children, the finding and keeping of domestic help, the choosing and enduring of schools — describing the pleasures and pains of a generally rather steadfast daily life. A new kind of female writer was for the first time addressing herself to a new kind of female reader… 95
Seemingly more choices nearing and during the 1930s:
By the 1930s, then, women’s lives were less constricted. On the one hand, their chances of marrying had greatly increased, for the men who had been schoolboys at the end of the Great War were now of a marrying age, while in addition some half a million men who had emigrated overseas in the difficult days after the war had now begun to return. On the other hand, if they chose not to marry, the attitude of society was kinder than it had been before the Great War. 61-2
But not really as many choices as it seemed:
Very few novels by women in the period 1914-39 described a woman finally giving up love and marriage for her career. The moral was almost always that in order to be happy, to fulfil herself as a woman, it was important for her to sacrifice, to dote and — eventually — to self-abnegate. 82
And alongside general statements, many individual works and specific experiences are referred to, as is revealed in the two passages quoted below.
Foolish love and morning sickness:
For The Weather in the Streets is one of those rare novels which enters into a woman’s mind fully and intimately without being obscure. Olivia appeals to anyone who has ever loved foolishly and recklessly; and, apart from Kay Boyle’s Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), is the only novel in English describing pregnancy sickness, an agony which for some women far exceeds that of labour and delivery. 155
Of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage:
Miriam is inward looking; her kind of feminism is a private one because she has freed herself from the male version of reality, and she is one of the first women in fiction to be shown other than in relation to a man. 153
Ultimately Nicola Beauman’s thesis demands respect and recognition for the works of writers too-long overlooked; these books have too rarely appeared on course syllabi or lounged on beside tables, and this is a shame because it is A Very Great Profession. If the text reads a little like she’s crammed OneAmazingThingAfterTheNext, and lacks the smooth textual transitions that one might have liked, I guess we can assume it’s because she had to pare her manuscript substantially for publication; likely, once she finally had the chance to publish this work, she wanted to cram in OneAmazingWriterAfterTheNext, and was willing to sacrifice style for substance, in hopes that readers would find their style (and more substance) in the many works mentioned therein.