We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars by Martin Pugh

14 January, 2010

Last year I read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson about the so-called surplus women (all 1.9 million of them) who were left to fend for themselves after WWI once marriage was ruled out for them following the deaths of so many young men in the trenches. They carved out new lives, found jobs and settled for a life without love or children, something none of them expected when they were growing up, having been drummed into them at school and home that a woman’s duty was to find a husband and provide children. With this option taken away from them, they were setting forth into uncharted territory, fighting prejudice and having to proved themselves in what was a man’s world. This was a non-fiction social history which I enjoyed tremendously and found enlightening as there were many aspects to the women’s struggles which I could understand and empathise. Of course things have moved on since then, but there were several examples which made me feel that a lot of what women go through now stem from that era and are still ongoing.

I enjoy reading popular history, something that’s not too academic and dry, and which provides an introduction to more serious work if your interest is piqued and you want to rifle through the references to find out more about the subject. And it’s been a pet project of mine to research and read about life during the interwar years, not just in Britain but world wide. I’ve been concentrating on Britain because of the wealth of research that’s been done and the books that are available here.

So I jumped at We Danced All Night by Martin Pugh when I caught sight of it at the library. This was more a general history rather than a focus on women, but there were a couple of very interesting chapters regarding feminism and the struggle faced by countless women in being taken seriously and ultimately getting the right to vote. But it’s not just about that and the book discusses all aspects from colonialism and empire through to politics, culture, sports, food and leisure in an engaging and highly enjoyable manner. There were also liberal references to Vera Britten and E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (both of which are on my TBR pile and am looking forward to reading this year).

I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the bright young things and flappers (notorious because they were care-free) as much as the chapters on food, marriage and education as well as class conflict and the monarchy. We Danced All Night is a general book that goes into enough detail that you will learn something new in each chapter. At around 450 pages, it took me a while to read this book partly because I was in a bit of a reading slump post-Christmas, but every time I dipped into this book while commuting or before bed, I found it a gripping read.

15 Responses to “We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain between the Wars by Martin Pugh”

  1. Thank you for sharing a non-fiction book. I love finding out about the History of Britain and this certainly looks like a period of History I would like to know more about. Have you seen the film Bright Young Things? It is one of my favourites.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I loved Bright Young Things too! Although I have yet to read ‘Vile Bodies’ by Evelyn Waugh on which the film is based. ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Waugh is also one of my favourite books. If you are interested in this era, I can recommend ‘Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940’ by D.J. Taylor which is a similar sort of social history book to ‘We Danced All Night’ and which was also a highly enjoyable read.

      • Yeah I’m the same I haven’t read Vile Bodies either, it is there on my TBR list along with Brideshead Revisited. Oo I will have to make a note of the D J Taylor book thank you.

  2. eriko Says:

    happy new reading year, sak : )

    this book sounds very interesting with seemingly lots of actual information.
    i’ve read “brideshead revisited” when i was in the uk, and bought back an audio-version for my mum too.

    i’ve just finished “when we were orphans” by ishiguro. enjoyed the long approach based in longon, but found the ending in shanghai a bit too intense and sudden… (i probably feel differently if i re-read it.)
    thinking what to read next.

    anyways, i’ve been trying to find some writings about life in vienna and prague around the interwar era. my grandparents were living there and my mum was born in prague. my mum and grandma were forced to move to germany when WWII was about to end. my grandpa joined them in munich, after coming back from war – he was sent to the front despite his old age coz he was against hitler. they had to leave their house and belongings in prague, except 1 small suitcase each. i want to know more about that time and how history has drastically changed ppl’s lives. and revisit prague after that. maybe you have encountered some books/movies related to this??

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hi Eriko! That’s so interesting about your family. I visited Prague a couple of years ago and but only read a travel book about the city as I didn’t really know and have not read much about its history. But I’ll try and see what I can find. Why were your grandparents living in Prague? What a drastic and dramatic change in circumstances it must have been for them. Did they speak much about that time?

      • eriko Says:

        hey, are you already there for the lit festival?

        my grandparents were from vienna, but moved to prague probably just like moving to another city cos they were under the same austrian-hungarian empire, previously. germans started moving into eastern europe in the medieval era and have been quite dominant in a fairly peaceful way, up until hitler invaded those countries. when WWII was about to end, all the eastern-germans were deported out of eastern europe.

        unfortunately, both of my grandparents were not alive anymore when i was born. i’ve heard stories from my mother, and regret that i should have asked much more in detail.

        anyways…i am re-reading “the unbearable lightness of being” now, and look forward to start on “the joke” by the same author after that.

        there is a czech centre, within the czech embassy, not far from where i live. they seem to have some good art exhibitions and film events occasionally – must try.

        • chasing bawa Says:

          Hi, your family history is so fascinating. Btw, have you read any Kafka (he’s from Prague)? I haven’t yet, but I’m waiting for a Eastern European challenge so that I can immerse myself in their literature, as I’m sorely lacking in that department. I loved ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, it was pure genius.

          • eriko Says:

            I’ve only read excerpts of Kafka at school, i think. Yes, he is from Prague. Saw lots of souvenir T-shirts with Kafka’s portrait when I was there in 1991 : )

            I once started reading “The Metamorphosis” in Japanese but stopped after a few pages. Maybe it was the translation.
            Although, I got to know somethings about Kafka – He practiced law in the morning as a bureaucrat, and spent his afternoons writing or at his father’s business. (Ideal, isn’t it?)
            He believed that solitude is a must to pursue literature, and could never commit himself for marriage.
            He kind of suffered under the strong influence of his father, and this theme appears often in his stories. So does his criticism against bureaucracy.

            Want to try “The Castle” and “The Trial”. Better not in Japanese…

    • Fëanor Says:

      Eriko: you might find Geert Mak’s In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Centuryvery useful in this regard. It’s mighty tome dealing with almost all of Europe, but has interesting sections dealing with Central Europe. Also there’s Stephen Brook’s The Double Eagle: Vienna, Budapest, Prague, which is a more sweeping discourse for three cities of the Hapsburg Empire. As for films, perhaps you saw the blackly humorous Divided We Fall set in Czech during WWII.

  3. Danielle Says:

    Am definitely adding this to my list. I loved Singled Out! And I am the same way with nonfiction–I love social history that I can relate. History doesn’t need to be dry, but so often it is. Thanks for the heads up!

  4. Fëanor Says:

    Hiya. Nice writeup on Pugh’s book. Just wondered if you noted his analysis of Nicholson’s various assertions about the status of women? E.g. he shows that more women got married in the years after the Great War than at any time before 1914, surely something that contradicts the supposed shortfall in men that Nicholson claims?

    • chasing bawa Says:

      That’s very interesting. I did note it (but I didn’t really think about it properly, bad me). But do you think that the women who married managed to get the remaining eligible men leaving the rest without any prospects? I do think that Nicholson’s claims, although interesting and pertinent, is probably exaggerated. But I feel the focus of her assertions is more on the possibilities that have opened up because of this (both good and bad).

      • Fëanor Says:

        If a larger number of women than before got married, I guess that means that a smaller number of women remained single. If so, the marginal effect by these singletons on societal transformation should thereby also be lessened, I think? After all, if a large number of single women before the war didn’t cause conniptions in society, why would a small number of them do so after the war? I suspect the reason for the larger visibility/influence of women after the war was that they were employed in large numbers during the war, obtained a measure of independence, and so saw no reason to cede this ground when the men returned home. What do you think?

        • chasing bawa Says:

          I agree about the increased visibility of women during and after the war. Once they’ve tasted a modicum of freedom, why would they want to relinquish it? It could never really go back to the way it was, could it? They were given tasks that were never allowed them before and found that they could perform as well as men. And get paid too. Plus they had the vote (well, women over 30 anyway.) I know that many critics were unhappy with Nicholson’s figure of surplus women (I think it was around 1.8 to 2 million) and I feel that it was probably on the high side. But, I also think that society after the war, and especially WWII, had changed considerably because women knew they could fight back. Especially single women who had no voice before WWI and were virtually ignored and brushed out of history (unless they had a great deal of money or were married to money). Great analysis and questions, by the way.

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