Saturday, 13 February 2016

Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and all the single ladies



Despite the title, this isn’t a Valentine’s-themed post – but if you happen to be single, it’ll probably make you grateful for some of the advantages of 21st-century life. Last weekend, I went to a study day at City Lit that was inspired by Virginia Nicolson’s Singled Out, a book telling some of the stories of the “surplus women” after the First World War. Although this was a period when opportunities for women were growing enormously, they still had to battle with inadequate wages, or living situations. For every inspiring career woman, or bachelor girl striding forth, twenty more would be agonising over whether they could afford anything more than a bread roll for their lunch.

You don’t need to look far to find such women in literature of the period – think of the almost destitute Miss Pettigrew, who gets to “live” for one day, or Muriel of Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, who eventually rescued by her friend Delia from a life of waiting at home for a husband to show up. Appropriately enough, by chance the next book I picked up – The Town in Bloom by Dodie Bloom (set in the mid-1920s, but published in 1965) – also charted the bid of an interwar heroine to strike out on her own.

Not that the family-less Mouse has much choice, but – despite her name – she’s certainly given more confidence and faith in her own abilities than the other characters above. She arrives in London, from Manchester, with a little cash determined to become an actress and installs herself at the Club – a hostel for other single women – in “a rather handsome building with a lot of heavy stonework”.  She’s swept up by the fashionable Molly and Lilian, who work as “glorified chorus” girls, to join their “village”. We learn, as does Mouse, that means “one of the groups of cubicles into which some of the big rooms are divided.”

Mouse goes on to describe her cubicle:
“It is almost private as the partitions are solid and go up to within a foot or so of the ceiling. And I have a good big cupboard, a washstand, combined with a dressing table which has long drawers, a folding table and a chair. There is a large window (some of the cubicles don’t have windows) and from my bed I can see tall trees in the quite large Club garden.”

From the “almost private” bedroom to washing to eating, their space is not their own: Take washing, for example:
“After breakfast I was initiated into the never-ending Battle of the Bathroom Door. There were plenty of ‘cold bathrooms’ where there was hot and cold water in the wash basin but only a cold tap for the bath. Access to cold bathrooms was free, but one could only get into a “hot bathroom” by putting tuppence into a slot-machine on the door. Molly believed cleanliness should be free, always left bathroom doors open, and took advantage of any she found open.”

Mouse’s account is almost an exact replica of that of Mary Margaret Grieve, a trainee reporter on the Nursing Mirror, and one of the women quoted in Singled Out:
“It was a great gloomy mansion block, but from her minute first-floor cubicle she could just see stars between the chimney-pots. Hostel life was full of shifts and expedients. The mean manageress charged threepence for a bath; for this sum the geyser produced a barely tepid puddle at the bottom of the tub.”

Mouse’s living situation at least seems jolly – although her meals “were apt to be a bit meagre”, they were “pleasantly served on brightly decorated earthenware, and our nice, pink-uniformed waitress was said to get specially good helpings for her tables.” The girls seem to survive on regular feasts of toasted “Veda” bread and gossip.

Despite Mouse’s endearing enthusiasm, it’s hard to escape the slight depressing air that hangs around the Club. The majority of its inhabitants (ranging in age from teenagers to 60 plus) are looking for the love affair that will take them away from it all – and the phone call that never comes:

“The company in the lounge seemed mainly composed of out-of-work actresses waiting for telephone calls from agents and managers, which seldom came. Some of these girls were doubly out of luck as they also awaited called from elusive men friends. (So many members were in the midst of unhappy love affairs, so few in the midst of happy ones – and even the fortunate few put in a good deal of time waiting for telephone calls. Every time the lounge door opened girls raised their heads hoping to hear their names called; then, when disappointed, sank back into apathy.”

Mouse does escape through a love affair – but she never marries. Instead, we later learn, she’s made a life through a “mishmash” of “acting, writing, book shops, dress shops”. (An experience that somewhat echoes the life of another interwar young lady, Jean Lucey Pratt, whose journals were recently published as A Notable Woman.) Mouse does, however, stay true to the enterprising, plucky new woman that, I learned last week, was being promoted by the advertising of the period.

In fact, Mouse refuses to grow old, shocking her village neighbours by her preference for sixties teenage fashions worn with “black woolly tights” and hanging out with the local twenty-something CND member. And, true to many of the stories contained in Singled Out (and Jean Lucey Pratt), she also remains only just one step away from financial peril. But Mouse a marvellous example of a Singled Out woman, a reminder that life could be different from what it had been before – if only you had the slight bit of capital, energy and dogged determination to make it so.


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