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Fifties nostalgia is rose-coloured amnesia

Julia Neuberger applauds thriller writer Jessica Mann's clear-sighted memoir

The Fifties Mystique by Jessica Mann (Quartet, £12)

    Jessica Mann
    Jessica Mann

    Part polemic, part autobiography, its title a riff on Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique, this presents Jessica Mann’s family story interspersed with political argument.

    Mann is the child of pre-war German Jewish, refugee immigrants to London. Her grandmother in Israel tried painstakingly to record the lives of the whole family, scattered around the world, or perished, as if writing it down would repair Hitler’s attempt to tear them apart.

    Against this background, always an outsider, Mann had a highly academic education at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Cambridge before settling on marriage and babies. She was 51 when she started her “proper” career as a planning inspector, though she was already a distinguished writer of crime novels.
    Her message — addressed to the cupcake generation, young women whose cupboards boast a plethora of cake tins, who are learning to make lampshades and reinventing the routine of daily shopping for the freshest goods — is: Don’t! Don’t romanticise the 1950s; don’t stay at home to rejoice in domesticity; don’t imagine for one moment that things were better then.

    She recalls the grime of the ’50s: endless stinking nappy buckets; smog; inadequate washing facilities; body odour whenever people were crowded together.
    She recalls boredom and isolation, and suspects both the child-rearing experts and the government of a concerted push to get mothers back home after the war, so that there would be jobs for the returning “boys”. And she recalls the unacceptability of talking, or sometimes even knowing, about sex, female anatomy, and cancer.

    She is bang on. But it is the odd notes about her family that are so endearing. A wonderful 1950s example of male prejudice, is her aunt, Eva Ehrlich, a director of Telma in Israel. When Eva came to meetings in London, she was, by long-established links between the companies, a Unilever director. “As a director, she could not have lunch anywhere except in the directors’ dining room. As a woman, she could not enter the directors’ dining room unless she was a waitress. Eva… had known many battles in her life but did not think this one worth fighting. She solved the problem for the company by going out at lunchtime to a Lyons’ Corner House.”
    Eva, who survived the Nazis, had fought greater battles. Some of us would have fought this battle, too, but Mann tells us we don’t need to now; things are immeasurably better. W e should appreciate our good fortune, rather than following the fashion for adulating the ’50s, and longing for a rose-tinted past that never was.

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