A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman

26 December, 2010

A Very Great Profession was conceived ten years ago when I first saw the film of Brief Encounter on television. In it the heroine, Laura Jesson, goes into the local town every week to do a bit of shopping, have a cafe lunch, go to the cinema and change her library book. This is the highlight of her week. It was the glimpse of her newly borrowed Kate O’Brien in her shopping basket that made me want to find out about the other novels the doctor’s wife had been reading during her life as ‘a respectable married woman with a husband and a home and three children.’

Hooray! I’ve been meaning to finish this book for months since I first began it for the Persephone Reading Week way back in May 2010. Oops. It wasn’t that it was hard or slow to read, just that I got side-tracked by other novels. Because, you see, A Very Great Profession is a non-fiction, literary and social history of the woman’s novel from the interwar years. It all makes sense when you recall Nicola Beauman is the founder of Persephone Books and I’m reading the Persephone edition of her book. But it just shows how out of touch I am with reading non-fiction since I hung up my academic hat.

I do have to say that when I got back to reading A Very Great Profession I went right back to the beginning and started it anew. Beauman’s study is very candid, full of dangerous information for the serious bibliophile interested in women’s fiction or the interwar period and is immensely enjoyable to read. The book is divided thematically covering war, surplus women, feminism, domesticity, sex, psychoanalysis, romance and love with liberal sprinklings of quotations taken from novels written by women during this period. Beauman also discusses the growing freedom of women and their realisation that they can do things for themselves.

At once a feminist text and a social history of the woman’s novel in the interwar years, it is also a book about the middle class woman. Beauman doesn’t apologise for this and why should she? Most or all of the novels published by women during this period were written by and for middle class women. If you are chronicling them, then it must by so.

If you have read any Persephone or Virago books, you will be familiar with the themes Beauman addresses. What probably strikes one the hardest is that if you take away modern conveniences and the rise in female employment, education and marriage laws, many of the themes questioned by the women in these novels remain the same today.

Often described derogatorily as domestic or interior, the literary world did not take these novels seriously, something Virginia Woolf was also complaining about in A Room of One’s Own. Unless it was about war, sport, the aristocracy or politics, male literary figures were not interested. Perhaps that is exaggerating the point but I don’t think it’s something you can dismiss. And you all know what I think about the term ‘women’s fiction’. I do understand that they it’s a genre (and I’m becoming lazy and use it myself which makes me uncomfortable) but then why don’t we use the term ‘men’s fiction’ when talking about books written by men with male characters? Grrr.

Some of the themes she discusses include employment, single life vs marriage (spinsterhood vs imprisoned wife), domesticity as a yoke where increasing modern conveniences, employment and education meant women were saddled with more and needed to juggle all aspects of their lives (a dilemma also faced by many women today) and the ‘hidden life’ of many housewives, a very good profession that remained unacknowledged and unpaid.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s articulate, informative and makes you want to go out and get these books Beauman talks so enthusiastically about. Often the novels depict a tragic/oppressive situation and is often pretty dark. I hardly think they qualify as ‘silly novels written by women’. To the women who wrote and read these novels, the issues addressed are often serious and tragic for the female characters. As Beauman says, it’s the ‘drama of the undramatic’.

My favourite bit of the book is Beauman’s afterword written in 1995, 12 years after it was first published, where she describes the circumstances that led to her writing this book and the changes that were made to its first incarnation including the history and influences that affected her. What an inspiring woman and it’s making me look at my Persephone books with new eyes. Highly recommended and it’s a keeper.

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14 Responses to “A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman”

  1. Aarti Says:

    This sounds fantastic! I’ve never heard of this book before and I bet I haven’t heard of most of the authors, either. Great review.

  2. cousinsread Says:

    I wish I could get my hands on a copy of this! I am concentrating on interwar fiction this next year and would love to read more about “women’s fiction” of the time.

  3. amymckie Says:

    Sounds like a really remarkable book. This will be another addition to my wish list!

  4. Teresa Says:

    This one has been on my list for a good while, so I’m glad to hear you liked it. It sounds like exactly what I was hoping it would be. (But I may perhaps wait until I’ve made a good solid dent in my TBR before I read it. I’m not sure I need to read a book chock full of more reading ideas!)

  5. Nymeth Says:

    I do hate the term “women’s fiction” with a passion for all those reasons (though I don’t blame you or anyone for using it; it’s just a sign of how widespread it has become). I really need to get my hands on this book!

  6. novelinsights Says:

    This sounds brilliant. Thanks for the review Sakura!

  7. chasing bawa Says:

    Aarti: You’ll love it. There were a lot of titles in there that I had never heard of before either. But I think Beauman has published most of them as Persephone titles.

    cousinsread: You may want to try the Book Depository. It’s free delivery:) It’s a wonderful book especially if you like to read about the interwar period.

    amymckie: I would love to see what you think of it Amy. Especially within the context of your project next year!

    Teresa: It’s definitely dangerous for your TBR! But I’m sure you’ll get to it eventually as it’s definitely something you would be interested in Teresa:)

    Nymeth: I know, I always kick myself for being lazy and succumbing to that term… You definitely need to read this book!

    novelinsights: It is!:)

  8. Juxtabook Says:

    Lovely review of a lovely book. One of my favourite critical works.


  9. Oh, the afterword?! That doesn’t exist in my (older) edition…must find that! Thanks!


  10. I have 3 Persephone Books that I received for Christmas – I will need to order this one as well! I am excited to read my first Persephone!

  11. chasing bawa Says:

    Juxtabook: It’s definitely one I’m planning to re-read or at least dip into.

    BuriedInPrint: Mine is the Persephone Books version (grey cover) so you may have to look for that copy.

    Coffee and a Book Chick: This was only my second but I’ve got lots more on my shelves. Looking forward to reading more this year!

  12. Eva Says:

    This sounds so interesting! I hope my library has it. 🙂

  13. Lyn Says:

    Lovely review. This is one of my favourite critical books. Every time I pick it up, I love checking the index to see how many more of the books Nicola discusses have been reprinted by Persephone. This is one of my favourite periods for fiction & non fiction so it’s a resource I often return to.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I won’t be letting go of this one either. I think it’s a great resource plus it’s a book that I’d want to read again. I think quite a few of the books Beauman discusses have been reprinted (I’m sure she’ll make sure they are!) Wonderful!


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