The Working Mother Writers
While I was selecting the authors who have now vanished from family bookshelves, I couldn’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, so they wrote short stories for small amounts of money to make a living.
Men left the house to work, and so were able to write at home in a different atmosphere, after children had gone to bed, in studies or offices, 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 on their project actually ended her marriage. Publishers weren’t much better, speaking of ‘the lady writers’ as if they were a separate breed of genteel spinsters in country cottages.
Other authors took out their frustration on the page. The great postwar American writers of domestic suspense like Very Caspary and Charlotte Armstrong 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. After a distant war during which women gained more power in the home, the stifling conservatism of the 1950s that tied them to the kitchen once more could be broken when some turned to suspense stories.
Some of the tales that make it into the book were 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. One woman wrote a novel that to her horror was banned by the prudish Catholic Legion of Decency, mortifying her and her family. Others wrote of being thought helpless and repeatedly ignored or condescended to. Marghanita Laski (above) wrote ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’, in which a wife becomes literally imprisoned by her solicitous husband and family. The frustrations 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 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.’