This week’s BotW is a non-fiction book which has been on my to-read list since it was reviewed in hardback in the Sunday Times in October 2013 – and has been on the actual pile since soon after its paperback release in back in May. Which, to be honest, tells you all you need to know about the to-read pile…
But Rachel Cooke’s book – which is subtitled “Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties” – shouldn’t have languished on the pile for so long. It is really good. A series of essays about fascinating women that I’d never heard of, but who had lead fascinating and trailblazing lives. They’re not all tremendously likeable – Alison Smithson and her jumpsuit must have been very difficult to live with – but they all tried at least to live lives on their own terms, despite the constraints of the period.
The ten women worked in different fields and had differing degrees of success, but they all did something. They challenge the idea that after the war women went back to the home until the sixties came along and shook everything up. As I said when I reviewed Viv Albertine’s autobiography, I can live my life the way that I do because of trailblazing women in the past who were prepared to put themselves out there and stand up and be counted in a way that I know that I would be afraid to do.
Rose Heilbron was my favourite of the women – the first female barrister, the first woman to lead a murder trial – and part of the group that changed rules about rape so that the complainant could remain anonymous and not have to answer questions about their sexual history. The pictures of her show that she also looked impossibly glamorous in her wig and gown. Attagirl.
But all the women’s lives are interesting – if not always happy. Nancy Spain, Joan Werner Laurie and Sheila Van Damme’s ménage sounds completely fraught. But it is gripping reading. You can get Her Brilliant Career from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones and you can even listen on Audible. Don’t leave it as long as I did to get around to it.