Sunday, 22 September 2019

Focus on - Virginia Nicholson

Last week's typing-fest is complete, and I am now busy editing the result.

Looking over what you've typed (with only a pepper-mill for company?)

This week's topic is the works of Virginia Nicholson. Nicholson has written a number of social history books about Britain in the twentieth century, focussing on women's lives. Although she makes it clear that they are written for a general, not an academic, audience, they contain observations and anecdotes which I've found useful in my studies.

The first book which I came across was Singled Out. This tells the story of the 'Surplus Women' as they were dubbed by the press in the 1920s; the women whose potential husbands had died in their thousands in the First World War.

Women's lives in the 1920s and 1930s

These women had grown up fully expecting to marry and have a family of their own but they found that after the war there were just not enough men to go round. In a society which simply was not set up to enable women to fend for themselves, they set about building new lives and changing that society.

The expectation of marriage also features strongly in the second book I read, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes. This the story of women in the 1950s, a story which was often far from the chirpy image of the 1950s which the title suggests. Like Singled Out, it mixes the history of the time with women's experiences and recollections.

The story carries on in the 1950s

As the picture above shows, my copy is currently home to a number of sticky labels marking sections which are relevant to my research. I recently met up with my friend P, who has just submitted her MA dissertation, and she warned me that it will feel very strange to be reading anything without a notebook and a pile of labels to hand! I expect I will be getting some practice though - Nicholson has recently published How Was It For You, which follows on from Perfect Wives and looks at women's experiences in the 1960s. I have also somehow managed to miss out reading Millions Like Us, which covers the Second World War. On top of that, I've got a hefty backlog of (mostly hefty) novels to get through. Even once my dissertation is submitted, clearly I won't be stopping reading any time soon.

My 'To Read' pile looks something like this


  1. If you want a look at contemporary 60s writings, may I recommend Joyce Carol Oates? I found when reading The Wheel of Love that you got the sense that many women felt trapped by expectation or expected fulfillment by checking all the boxes etc. Its interesting and unsettling to read but a wonderful direct commentary.

    1. I have heard of Joyce Carol Oates but never read anything of hers, so thank you for the recommendation Tegan.