Write? But I’m A Working Mum!

Books

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.’

7 comments on “Write? But I’m A Working Mum!”

  1. Roger says:

    It was Cyril Connolly who complained about the effects of the pram in the hallway!
    There were also women who took up writing because ” he demands of looking after a parent or children” meant they couldn’t learn to do any other job – apart from prejudices about whether they could do any other job. Mrs. Trollope was one of the first.

  2. Denise Treadwell says:

    I have read Victoria Holt ‘s books. I had no idea she died on a trip. Her books were quite interesting, a mixture of romance and mystery, considered historical novels, they were always in the historical novel section in the book shops .It seems such a long time ago when I read those I am not sure they are available. I also think she wrote another series under another name.

  3. Brian says:

    Denise, you are right.

    Victoria Holt was but one of the names used by Eleanor Hibbert to write books of varying styles and themes. She was probably published under at least half a dozen names but Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy might have been the most well known.

    I preferred her novels written as Jean Plaidy as they were historical novels which for a few years was a favoured genre for me.

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Peyton Place is also on the short list of works of fiction that have provided names for articles of clothing (the “Harrington” jacket)

  5. Helen Martin says:

    My mother introduced me to Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy came along for me about the same time, but while I remember the names I don’t remember the books. That is rather shocking. I wonder if the books would regenerate in my mind if I picked them up and started the first chapters.
    A generation ago I asked a friend with four daughters how she ever found time for the wonderful calligraphic art pieces she did. Her reply was that she went up to her studio once the girls were asleep and worked till long after midnight. Her husband recognised her need for a working place and did a lovely addition to their house that gave her all that she needed and then some. It was a welcoming place to visit.

  6. Denise Treadwell says:

    Helen, what a lovely story, unfortunately our house couldn’t support an additional room. Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy and Phillipa Carr are just three of Eleanor Hibbert ‘s pseudonyms, she had several more ! She was a prolific writer. Apparently some people thought Victoria Holt was really Daphne Du Maurier! Mainly due to the similarity between Rebecca and The Mistress of Melyn. I have not read her books for a very long time it would be interesting to revisit her books to see if I enjoy them as much as I did in my 20s.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, I haven’t read them for almost 50 years and would certainly bring a different mind to them.

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