Review: A Very Great Profession


By Nicola Beauman
Persephone Books, £10

This book about “the woman’s novel 1914-39” is not a work of academic criticism, although it is braced by exemplary indexes and references. It is a work of deep interest verging on obsession — with the lives and self-expression of unfashionable women in an unfashionable period.

Beauman focuses on the novels of middle-class women (working-class women hadn’t the time to write, while the upper classes had still some vestige of the unconstrained lives others could only dream about).

She addresses feminism as a contemporary influence but approaches her project with a refreshingly unaligned, celebratory agenda.

Oiled cogs of imagination

From late-Victorian times to the verge of the 1940s, Beauman repeatedly shows the painfully slow opening-up of women’s independence and personal desires. In addition to feminism, her themes include war, psychoanalysis, sex, romance (ie lowbrow novels) — a chapter with far more sex in it than the preceding one — as well as the important circumstantial themes of domesticity and population imbalance, which burdened so many women with unfulfilled lives.

Joyful discoveries include writers Cicely Hamilton, EM Delafield and May Sinclair, whose novels show flashes of vivacity in Beauman’s sympathetic re-tellings and extracts. Mixed in among these forgotten talents are the reassuringly canonical: Virginia Woolf is a presiding spirit, Katherine Mansfield and Vera Brittain make appearances. There are also the dreadful. Beauman is not afraid to nail the sugary, sensationalist or just plain boring. And HG Wells, EM Forster and DH Lawrence provide male counterpoint to the female perspective.

Much of this literature has dated badly. Yet Beauman’s appreciation of it is infectious. First published in 1983 by Virago, her work remains fascinating and informative. Moreover, Beauman has followed her own advocacy by going on to publish her favourite writers in her own imprint, Persephone Books, this book’s natural home.

Sophie Lewis is a writer, translator and editor

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