Write? But I’m A Working Mum!
Whenever I trawl through past books I can’t help noticing how many women writers gave up because the demands of looking after a parent or children prevented them from putting their thoughts on paper. For many, writing was one of the few ‘respectable’ jobs for a young woman, on a par with being a governess, so they wrote short stories for small amounts of money and make a living.
Men left the house to work, and so were able to write at home in a different atmosphere, but for women with families the work never ended and could not be easily escaped. Men could be very condescending about wives who wrote, and it’s amazing how many women denigrated themselves by saying that they only wrote as a ‘hobby’, even though the hobby made them bigger earners than their husbands.
Wives often collaborated on husbands’ books but received no credit. One female author I spoke to while writing ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ told me that asking her husband for a co-credit actually ended her marriage. Publishers weren’t much better, speaking of ‘the Lady Writers’ as if they were a separate breed.
Other authors took out their frustration on the page. The great postwar American writers of domestic suspense like Very Caspary, Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong all wrote about women being blamed for crimes and finding the strength within themselves to fight back, and their readers were quick to find their own home situations reflected in these stories. The stifling conservatism of the 1950s that tied housewives to the kitchen could be broken when they wrote suspense dramas.
Some of the tales are more tragic; there were women who managed to produce work around the demands of family and working life, only to be overlooked and dismissed by publishers and critics who refused to take them seriously. Grace Metalious wrote the novel ‘Peyton Place’, which was considered too steamy to be published, but became a phenomenon, leading to a sanitised hit movie and and even blander TV series. But success damaged her. She said; ‘If I had to do it over again it would be easier to be poor. Before I was successful, I was as happy as anyone gets.’
Another wrote a pretty tame historical romance that to her horror was banned by the prudish Catholic Legion of Decency, mortifying her and her family. Other housebound women wrote of being thought helpless and repeatedly ignored or condescended to. Probably the best example of frustration coming out appeared from Marghanita Lanski, who wrote ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’. In this short novel a wife becomes literally imprisoned by her solicitous husband and family. The helplessness of these women bubbled out onto the page, and by doing so they found readers who identified with their plight.
Happily, there were many other women writers who found that writing liberated them from a suffocating home life and opened up new worlds. They travelled, made films, found critical success and were finally taken seriously. One such writer, Victoria Holt, died on an Egyptian cruise, still happily working in her eighties. ‘Never regret,’ she said. ‘If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.’