Book review: Her Brilliant Career

HERE journalist Rachel Cooke challenges preconceptions about the role of women in the 1950s, so often portrayed as compliant creatures who supported their husbands’ careers and thought little of their own.

Instead she highlights the lives of ten pioneers, who led involved private lives and impressive professional ones, and who eventually helped to usher in the era of the working woman.

Cooke is quick to point out, however, that this is not a feminist rewriting of history, and that she is dealing with extraordinary women who superseded social expectations.

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Nor is it a group biography. These women did not necessarily know each other. Cooke deals with some of them in the same chapter, but she is not interested in finding a group of women who collectively challenged social norms so much as celebrating exceptional individuals.

The life of Patience Gray, for instance, known for her 1957 cookbook Plats Du Jour, fits naturally alongside that of Elizabeth David who, dismayed by the bad food of post-war Britain, wrote so well about the delights of Mediterranean cuisine that she became influential in widening British culinary expectations. Similarly, broadcaster and writer Nancy Spain, her partner magazine editor Joan Werner Laurie and rally car driver Sheila van Damm, who lived in an extended household with them, are written about together, as are Oscar-winning screenwriter Muriel Box and her film producer sister-in-law Betty Box, who together worked on propaganda films during the war and feature films after it.

The historiography of the 1950s used to be a largely male affair, and female achievement from the decade is under-appreciated. With this informative and enjoyable book, Cooke provides a witty, inspiring glimpse into a world we are continually learning more about – where ten women could be hailed as pioneers making their own way through life on their own terms in a way that was unusual then and all the more worth celebrating now.