Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Blimey! Not Another Book Review

Well, I finished reading Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey about a week ago now and loved it so much, saw so many parallels between my own life and the lives of the women in the book, and was so very moved the trials and tribulations of the women featured that I thought I might recommend the book to you, gentle reader.

To say that the book is by Jenna Bailey is a bit of a fib. You see the book is a collection of articles and letters written to a "secret" women's magazine from 1935 until the late 1990s. Bailey found the articles whilst doing research at the Mass Observations Archive and was so moved by what she found that she, with the permission of the surviving members of the writing group, collated and published them in book form (no mean feet, I'm sure).

In 1935 a woman, under the pen name Ubique, wrote a letter to the popular mothers magazine of the time Nursery World, it was a cry for help of sorts.

Can any mother help me? I have a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books. I dislike needlework, though I have a lot to do! I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed and I am alone in the house. I sew, read and write stories galore, but in spite of good resolutions, and engaging company of cat and dog, I do brood, and "dig the dead". I have had a rotten time, and been cruelly hurt, both physically and mentally, but I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentments. Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude "thinking" and cost nothing! A hard problem, I admit.

One mother wrote back to Ubique and suggested that "letters are a wonderful help when one is lonely" and many, many readers of Nursery World obliged. Soon Ubique was inundated with pen friends and suggested that they all form a correspondence magazine. Women chose pseudonyms and submitted articles to the editor, articles were bound together in a hand embroidered linen cover and set to each woman in turn. The women would then comment on each others articles and send the magazine onto the next person on the mailing list. It seems that the content of the magazine was incredibly varied, reflecting the backgrounds and interests of the many contributors. So, there may have been an article on socialism, next to an article on flower arranging, women wrote on literature, child care, cooking, decorating, politics, religion, art and importantly, all about their everyday lives. It is the latter form of article that Bailey concentrates on, and really it is these letters which make the book so moving.

We meet the women when they are young mothers, we learn about their feelings on motherhood, how the births of their various children went, their concerns about educating them. We then move onto how they coped during war-time, when their men left to fight and some of them had their children evacuated. We learn about their middle years, their voluntary work, their creative work and finally we see them in their later years, widowhood and ill health for some and a vibrant and creative old age for others. Each aspect of womanhood is played out on paper and the verity of the words is moving and captivating. We feel as if we know these women.

Many of the contributors to the magazine were amongst the first generation of women to be university educated and although they loved motherhood (in fact the joy they found in motherhood and home really does shine through in their words) they longed for the kind of conversation and outlet for discussion they had during their university careers, hence the very varied nature of the articles. And, to be honest, when I read the book the similarities between the correspondence magazine and blogging just hit me square in the face. How many of us bloggers started up because we were perhaps a little lonely or felt we had something important to say? How many of us longed for the kind of in depth, informative discussion which went a little deeper than supermarket offers, how to deal with nits and the sale at Next and Marks and Spencers? It's not that we are snobbish about women's chit-chat (I love a good natter about nothing) but that sometimes there is a longing to go a bit deeper...and when you want to be deep, a certain amount of anonymity helps. I suppose what I am trying to say, is that even though these women were of my grandmother's generation, I understood their ideas and what motivated them to write about their lives and I think many of you reading this post would understand that too. Be warned though, if you do buy the book, you will be crying at the end of it. It is moving and very sad in places. However, just to give you a taster of the quality of the letters within the book, here is an extract of an article on small children by the contributor Accidia, it's beautifully written and quite timeless.

...the years of childhood pass incredibly swiftly (cliche number one) and I realise often that I don't enjoy my children as often as I should - the gorgeous sensuous thrill of Julian is easy to appreciate, but the older ones sometimes require more effort to enjoy, especially if I'm tired. Althea, the restless, inconsequent chatterer, the incredibly slap-dash and untidy...yet with an overwhelmingly generous heart and "go with the twain" attitude to the poor and helpless...Adrian, gauche, even uncouth from sheer acute shyness in the presence of strangers, yet deeply affectionate, thoughtful, conscientious to a painful degree...Humphrey, excitable, beautiful, intelligent, still near enough babyhood to enjoy sitting on my lap and being "loved"...


Niki RuralWritings said...

Oh it sounds good! My library has a copy, I think I'll take it on our road trip and read it aloud.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Niki

I hope you enjoy the book. I think Jenna Bailey is a Canadian too!

Still at Home said...

Sounds good. I have reserved this at the library. Looking forward to reading. Thanks,

Dulce Domum said...

I hope you enjoy it Ann!