Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Strong women and grim years

Went to Charleston Farmhouse the other day; this is the Sussex retreat where the Bloomsbury group hung out during and after the First World War, and is maintained as a sort of shrine to them. We have little interest in this bunch of posturing ninnies, but there is an annual festival there, now in its 19th year, featuring writers, performers and artists in debates, interviews, discussions, readings, illustrated talks and dramatisations in a marquee in the grounds.

This year we wanted to go when Tony Benn or Polly Toynbee were there but were too late for these stars and settled for biographer Virginia Nicholson, daughter and grand-daughter respectively of Quentin and Vanessa Bell, and historian David Kynaston, talking about books they have recently published: both were fascinating, perhaps more so than Tony or Polly would have been.

Nicholson's examination of the way in which two million women survived without men after the First World War showed that they did not merely cope courageously with poverty, childlessness and frustration, but challenged conventions, campaigned to better their lot, proved that there is more to life than men and helped to change our society. I asked her whether she had any knowledge of how the achievements of the 'surplus women' in, for example, France and Germany, where the losses were even greater, compared with those of the British women she had written about; her answer, quite reasonably, was 'No'—she had decided not to write the much longer book that wider coverage would have entailed. As it is, Singled Out fills an absorbing and inspiring 272 pages.

We bought the paperback and got her to sign it, but when it came to David Kynaston's mammoth and equally absorbing Austerity Britain 1945-1951 we thought we had spent enough on the evening, and I only hope that Kynaston gets some benefit because I got his book out of the library—the Public Lending Right's website doesn't tell you what the current pence-per-loan rate is. Anyway, two weeks later I have reached page 106 out of 633, and have already found on page 19 something worth quoting in the next post, on Friday.

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