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.