Friday, November 16, 2018

A 1950s career woman: GWENLLIAN MEYRICK, Against the Stream (1953)


"You're taking a job?" exclaimed Mrs. Wilmot to her daughter, Diana Pemberton. "Oh dear, what has happened to make you decide to do such a thing?"

We can be pretty certain from this opening that Diana's efforts to claim a career for herself, now that her children are all at school, aren't going to go swimmingly. It's not terribly hard to predict just how things will go wrong either (indeed, her mother among others fairly accurately predict the way it will go). But though there's nothing very revolutionary or surprising about Against the Stream, it's an entertaining window on a time from which there aren't a lot of portrayals of career women.

Diana's discussion with her mother follows familiar lines, but occasionally sheds some interesting light on postwar domestic life:

"Family life isn't so uncomplex and one-sided now: girls are given the same education as boys, women don't wait on men, they compete with them for jobs. And there's another thing, Mother. For various reasons, home-making has lost a lot of interest for many of us. We live in small houses with small gardens because we can't afford anything bigger, and if we could, we couldn't get the staff. As for the traditional interests of the housewife—preserving—where's the sugar? The linen-cupboard? We can only afford enough to fill a shelf instead of a cupboard. What's our larder? A row of tins. We can't entertain often, it's too expensive; our houses are too small to have visitors for more than a couple of nights, and anyway, what can we give them to eat? Running a home as one's sole interest can be very dull, Mother. One is reduced to the bare bones of home-making—housework, washing, ironing, shopping and cooking monotonous meals with indifferent materials."

Fortunately for Diana, however, a dream job exactly fitting her qualifications and interests more or less falls into her lap. (Some people have all the luck—why hasn't a lucrative job requiring extensive knowledge of British women writers just happened to fall into my lap, dammit?)

Diana and her husband Rupert live in the fictional village of Hirst, outside of Canterbury, a place known primarily for its nearby Roman fort. During the war, a bombing raid brings to light further evidence of the town's history:

For, during the Baedeker raid upon Canterbury, a stray bomb fell upon a furniture depository in Hirst. It was an odd scene next day: the stuffing out of mattresses hung like macabre blossoms in back-garden fruit-trees, the air was white with down out of burst pillows; a bicycle hung by its handlebars from the sign of The Bull and Butcher; brass-ware from Benares littered the entrance to the County Library, and iron bedsteads, twisted into unlikely shapes by fire, reminded one of the obscurer modern sculptures.

The bomb was, of course, unfortunate for the people who had stored their beds, their bicycles, their Benares brass-ware and so on in the wrecked depository, but had dramatic and exciting results, for it revealed what no one had known before—that there had been a Roman town as well as a Roman fort.

As a result, a wealthy resident has financed the creation of a new museum, and guess who (after 14 years of housewifery and with apparently no other work experience at all) is made the first curator? No, it's not terribly plausible (though in all fairness the position is poorly paid and so perhaps only feasible for a woman with other means of support), but it ensures that the reader, at least a reader interested in historical knowledge, will become invested enough in Diana's work, which we get intriguing glimpses of, to then share her frustration at the thought of losing this stimulation.


In some ways, in fact, Meyrick's strategy here is kind of brilliant. Every time the reader becomes excited about her professional successes (she has great ideas for the museum, she makes an important discovery at a construction site, she gains an admirer in a world-renowned scholar in her field), the reader gets pulled up—like Diana herself—by another domestic conflict or misunderstanding. Thus, the reader's experience echoes Diana's, which means that we pull for her and want her to find a way to keep the job. Of course, the risk is that visiting the heroine's frustrations on readers can compromise their pleasure in reading, but by and large I think Meyrick gets away with it.

The novel doesn't have any solutions to these problems, not surprisingly, and although it has a happy ending of sorts, it's an inevitable compromise (and perhaps no more realistic than her getting this plum job in the first place). But it makes for an interesting read, and Diana's mother in particular is a high point. Much is made of Mrs Wilmot's telephone manner. First, we learn that Diana's father used to have the eccentricity of shouting deafeningly into the phone, unable to believe that his voice needn't be modulated according to the distance he wanted it to cover. But her mother's phone manner is even more striking:

At last she heard someone, and her mother's voice said very crossly:

"Yes?"

Mrs. Wilmot had not a good telephone manner: she had been brought up to write well-worded letters at a writing-desk, not to use the telephone. She had never grown used to it, and her discomfort expressed itself in a furious manner of speaking, quite out of keeping with her character. Diana was used to this furious voice, and was not in the least quelled by it as others were apt to be. Indeed, one timid lady had been so upset by the accusing, abrupt "Yes?" that she had replaced the receiver without ever daring to give her name.

"Mother, something's happened, and I want you to help me."

"Whatever is it?" demanded Mrs. Wilmot, sounding extremely angry, but actually longing to be able to help her family.

And sometimes reading this sort of book can put other books from the time into perspective. Diana is required to go to a conference in York and spend the night, and her reaction seems extreme to modern readers used to occasional travel:

It was so unusual for Diana to be going away without either Rupert or the children, that although it was only a matter of one night she found herself becoming quite dramatic about her departure. She hugged the little boys when she said good-bye to them; she walked to the bus-stop with Marian and kissed her lovingly good-bye in full view of several schoolgirls in the bus, much to  arian's discomfiture; she said to Rupert, "You will meet my train tomorrow night, won't you?" as though she was arriving at London Airport after a dash of thousands of miles across five continents. By the time Joyce arrived she was quite strung up, and felt like tearfully imploring her not to desert the children, on the emotional level of Mrs. Micawber's declaration of her own fidelity to Mr. Micawber—which would have surprised Joyce very much.

For me, this scene evoked the Provincial Lady's fretting over her departures for London and, later, America, which I always thought were merely meant as exaggerated and self-deprecatingly humorous. But as PL was making such departures two decades before Diana's, and furthermore was leaving her husband and family for literary pursuits, it becomes a bit easier to see how conflicted she likely would have been.

Going into reading this novel, the sum total of my knowledge of Gwenllian Meyrick was:

1) Born 5 Sept 1908 in Norwich, married Orrell Hamilton Strafford 1934, died Gloucestershire 21 Feb 1997, full name Gwenllian Clara Richmond Meyrick/Strafford.

2) Listed as a teacher on a 1930 passenger list.

3) Author of six novels 1950-1961. The fourth, The Disastrous Visit (1956), was described by a bookseller as "Novel set among an ordinary family in London in the 1950's." I also found a blurb about the last, Shed No Tear (1961): "Catherine, a twenty-year-old art student, married Hugo Thornton knowing that he had been attached to the elegant Mrs. Olivia Seymour, but after a while Hugo begins to tire of family life."

4) Some of the dustjackets of her books are adorable, and her name is distinctly melodious (though I learned from a web search that if her first name is pronounced in traditional Welsh fashion, there is no earthly way I can make the required "ll" sound).

So, there wasn't a lot here to really justify my flagging her to track down her books, but for whatever reason (honestly, it was probably the dustjackets) I've intended to do so for ages. Will I be tracking down more of her novels? I think I might actually. I can't help but wonder if her other novels are as "issue" oriented as this one. If they are, they could be similarly interesting time capsules, and if they're not, it would be interesting to see how entertaining she can make a more conventional plot.

Stay tuned!
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