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Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary…
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Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties

by Rachel Cooke

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Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke is a highly recommended collection of seven essays that cover the lives and accomplishments of ten widely diverse women and their careers in the 1950's in the UK. Many of these women were the first in their careers, to make a mark. Cooke observes that, “One of the great upsides of being the first was that guilt, as it pertained to working women, had not yet been invented.”

The women presented in Her Brilliant Career include a diverse group: Patience Gray, cookbook writer; Nancy Spain, writer and personality; Joan Werner Laurie, magazine editor; Sheila van Damm, rally-car driver and theatre manager; Alison Smithson, architect; Margery Fish, gardener; Muriel Box, director, and Betty Box, producer; Jacquetta Hawkes, archaeologist; and Rose Heilbron, QC., the first woman to sit at the Old Bailey. Her Brilliant Career also includes a Select Bibliography, Acknowledgements, and an Index.

In the introduction, Cooke points out "I prefer the idea of role models, inspirational figures who make you want to cheer. The extraordinary, mould-breaking women you will find in the pages that follow weren’t perfect. They were, like all human beings, flawed. They doubted themselves, they got in muddles, they made mistakes; feeling defensive, they sometimes seemed difficult and distant even to those who loved them. They certainly did not – dread phrase – ‘have it all’, or not all of the time, at any rate. Their children sometimes had a hard time of it. But they loved what they did and they got on with doing it as best they could in far less equal times than our own. If that isn’t encouraging – a kind of rallying call to the twenty-first-century battle-weary – I don’t know what is."
Isn't that the truth?

All the women lived in the post WWII UK, but readers not in the UK, should should still find inspiration from these ten women and what their accomplishments meant for the women of today. All the essays can be read as stand alone pieces, but as Cooke writes, "But if you read all seven of them there will, I hope, be a cumulative effect, the culture of the Fifties – its food, its architecture, its popular culture, its habits and its opinions – revealed through the lives of ten revolutionaries and taste makers who just happen to have been women. I hope these stories make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the end of the war and feminism. I hope, too, that they speak to readers everywhere, whichever city or continent they happen to be reading in."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.


( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
Interesting but a bit gossipy. I have no idea what the criteria was for choosing the 10 women, three of them were in a menaage too so it's a bit of a stretch because their lives were quite interwoven, and two others share a chapter too. Instead of it being about 10 women it's more about 7 women whose lives also intersected with others that are integral parts of their lives. While interesting I wanted more.

It started generally talking about a variety of women in the fifties and how the author had to exclude several people from her choice, some of whom I wish she had written about. I had never heard of any of the women included before and I found it interesting to read about them and see about their lives and it sometimes felt like they were very overshadowed by their partners.

In the kitchen with Patience Gray is about a cookbook writer who has lapsed from popularity.

The Show must go on featured Nancy Spain, Joan Werner Laurie and Sheila van Damm who had relationships with each other and were determined to make headways in their chosen careers. The chapter head "Three trouser-wearing characters" made me a little non-plussed, with Katherine Hepburn trouser-wearing while unusual was not as strange as some people would like to think. The author seems to use it as a shortcut to indicate that they were lesbian.

The chapter on Alison Smithson, Architect left me cold.

The chapter on Margery Fish made me want to visit her garden.

The Brontes of Shepherd's Bush was about Muriel Box and Betty Box, female director and producer respectively was interesting where these were women who carved careers out for themselves despite resistance.

Digging for Victory about Jacquetta Hawkes seemed to be more about her husband J B Priestly and their relationship than about her career.

Rose Heilbron QC was the final chapter, about a talented lawyer who carved a path for other women to follow and while she broke some barriers it still isn't easy for women in law.

Fashion in the 50s and some novels are mentioned and honestly I was left wanting. I wanted to know more about their careers, more about the balancing acts they had to have. Many of them had servants to help but others didn't and I wonder how they kept going.

It wasn't a bad read but I was left wanting more. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Apr 2, 2015 |
It's not really surprising that the women of the 1950's weren't all obedient housewives content to stay home while their husbands went out and conquered the world, but it is fun to read about some of the more outstanding rule flouters. The lively, enthusiastic style of writing makes this joint biography of unconventional women in a more conventional time very entertaining to read. Included among the ten women profiled is an archaeologist, an architect, a rally car driver, a magazine editor, a movie director, and Nancy Spain, who can best be described as a size large personality.

Spain is the only one I had heard of before, and all of the women (and the author) are British which means Her Brilliant Career gives its readers a glimpse of post-WWII life and cultural mores in Britain--another perk for me because I haven't read much about the era between the Blitz and the Swinging Sixties. Two other fun features of the book are its subversive novels list and select bibliography--I always love a book that increases my To-Be-Read pile. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Sep 22, 2014 |
This book aims at a popular readership; its style is racy, pacey and breathless. I think it is an excruciating read , but its written by an award winning journalist ( which awards?). The dust jacket blurb punts the portraits of these women as " witty, poignant and inspiring ( David Kynaston). It offers a cursory journalistic view of the careers of ten working women of the 1950s in Britain. Though since these careers extended from the 1930s to the 1980s its a bit of a stretch to pick the fifties to cluster their activities. There are separate chapters for some of the women - Patience Grey (chef), Alison Smithson ( architect), Margery Fish ( garden designer), Jacquetta Hawkes (archaeologist) and Rose Heibron (barrister and judge). One chapter groups together Nancy Spain (described as writer and personality), Joan Laurie (magazine editor) and Sheila Van Damm (rally driver and theater manager). The film producers and directors, Muriel Box and Betty Box ( only related by their relationship with Sydney Box), are written up in another chapter. Then there are two add on semi- chapters on Fashions and on Novels of the fifties. Its an odd choice of subjects .

The book is all based on secondary sources. We are introduced to a variety of women , who were ambitious, eccentric, determined and sometimes quite odd who achieved or reached their peak in a post war Britain. I wondered about the choice of these particular women and I don't think the author has the expert background to write up a professional assessment of these women and their long term legacies within their fields. To make the stories of these women readable there is a lot about their personal lives , their love affairs, their marriages and their divorces. The author likes penetrating the bedroom. Were they role models for later generations of sixties, seventies and eighties women? I don't think these women were feminists or gave much thought to advancing women's rights and careers. Each was personally ambitious and comes across as an eccentric character. As a group these were women who depended on other women to run their homes and bring up their children.

I bought the book because of the chapter on Alison Smithson and I found I liked the human angle sketch of Peter and Alison but why did the author not consult the books written by the Smithsons themselves? Awkward too in that the Smithsons were a couple of note and you cant consider one without the other. I also liked the introduction where there is some original reflections about what it meant to be a fifties woman.

In summary, treat this book it as a fun read of the period and look for other writing if you are actually interested in a fuller picture of any one of the featured women or if you are interested in the originality of their ideas and why they were really part of the social fabric of the fifties then probe elsewhere.

A clever idea ( the introduction is the best bit) but I don't think it quite comes off. Some of the women would have been mortified to be written up in this way. ( )
  Africansky1 | Sep 2, 2014 |
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