On this leap year day, where women traditionally propose instead of men (my ring emoji didn’t get a great reception this morning though 😉 ), it feels rather appropriate to look at the history of gender roles in fiction. (Although, partly, I just wanted to put up a post on 29th February as it was my first opportunity to since starting this blog in March 2012!) As much as I love vintage style, I’m one of the thousands of sensible women who can do so without for a minute wanting to live back in the time it was everyday fashion. It honestly baffles me that any woman on the planet would want to actually live back in a time of such gender inequality, but this aside, I’m absolutely fascinated by what it must have been like. If I had the opportunity to visit the past – just visit, mind – I’d take it in a heartbeat.
I’m also a bookworm by nature and when you mix this fascination with a love of reading, inevitably you get someone who reads a lot of stories about women’s experience of the past (and spent the entirety of my degree analysing them!). I always find it quite interesting, though, how certain eras are the darlings of historical fiction and I haven’t come across many stories set in the 50s and 60s. 30s and 40s sure – there’s (understandably) a lot of fiction set in the interwar years, during WWII or just after it – but either I’m not looking hard enough or there’s less for the latter years.
This being said, they are out there and here are some of my favourites…
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
This is the book that became a Penguin Classic simply because Don Draper was pictured reading it in Mad Men. In fact, although my memory is hazy that may well have been how I came across it too, but either way, when I heard there was a book following the lives of four women in the early 50s who work at a publishing house (like me!) in New York I couldn’t really buy it fast enough! It was very hard for me not to identify with Caroline – the ambitious one who wants to make something of herself in the working world.
This isn’t the greatest work of literature you’re ever going to read, it’s kind of more like a soap in book form (apart from Caroline’s story, which is more multi-faceted and many suspect is autobiographical), but it is an engaging read that centres around the idea of marriage as the ultimate aspiration at this time. I’ve seen a lot of people say this is a marmite book, but I firmly fall into the ‘love’ camp. If you’re as intrigued as I am to glimpse what life as a working woman in New York in this time might have been like, you’ll no doubt be as equally enthralled by it.
Valley of the Dolls
There’s parallels with this one to The Best of Everything as it also follows multiple women’s lives in New York – this time three – and it’s also not exactly a literary masterpiece, but veers even more on the side of soap sensationalism. If I’m in the mood for it, that’s no bad thing as far as I’m concerned – and clearly readers in the 60s felt the same as this book was a bestseller back in the day. This time the women are in the world of show business – and I purposely left the world ‘glamorous’ out there as you see for yourself that it’s anything but.
In many ways this is a depressing story, but that’s not going to come as a surprise considering the ‘dolls’ in the title refer to drugs and the women’s dependence on them as they try to make lives for themselves. This book is less ‘like real life’ because of its Hollywood setting, but it’s addictive and it still has something powerful to tell us about what felt important to women at this time, from where I’m standing. Before anyone asks, I haven’t seen the film yet but hope to catch it on Netflix some day!
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Could a list like this not include this book? Said to be a semi-autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath’s adolescence, it starts in New York in 1953 and follows the story of 19-year-old Esther, who gradually sinks further and further into the depths of depression – yes, much like the real Plath. It’s not a cheerful read by any means as you’d expect, but in terms of giving an idea of a woman’s life in the 50s it could practically be taught in a history lesson.
It’s all here – the crushing unfairness of gender inequality, the taboo of lesbianism, the limited career options, the use of electroshocks to treat mental illness, the middle-class claustrophobia… And Esther is such a developed character, and the story-telling is so good, that you can’t help but become immersed in her world. Aside from the narrative, which drags you along out of morbid curiousity as much as anything else, the writing is utterly beautiful. I guess you can trust a poet to fill her prose full of imaginative metaphors and create a world you can feel as much as picture. I (shockingly!) only read this book this year, but it claims a place in my all-time top 20 favourites, for sure.
Carol by Patricia Highsmith (formerly The Price of Salt)
Yes, I’ll admit, I read this one recently because I found out about the book through the film release, but it earns its place as a) it was written about female experience during the early 50s and b) it’s good. It’s also pretty heartbreaking – and I haven’t seen the film yet but if it follows the book at all closely it’ll be tissues at the ready… It charts a lesbian love story as the protagonist falls for the mysterious Carol and, being the 50s, the challenges that follow from not conforming to the heterosexual expectations of society.
It’s a completely different angle from the other books here and I appreciate it for that. The plot is slower than I usually like, but it’s beautifully written and the characters are absorbing. Having read the afterword, I know parts of the plot early on had their roots in the author’s real experience, which fascinates me almost as much as trying to conjure up images of Carol, who is clearly the kind of 50s lady who would have been impeccably dressed at all times.
Tigers in Red Weather
Now, I would call this one quite ‘literary’ too, but it’s also, unlike the other four books here, published recently as historical fiction by an author who didn’t live through the time, so it’s not bringing quite the same spin on things here. It also spans a longer period, starting at the end of WWII and going up through to the end of the 60s, with two cousins at the start of new marriages kicking the story off. I quite liked that this book is rather dark and plot-driven – I saw a review that said it starts off a bit Valley of the Dolls before it takes a whole new turn, which is perhaps not doing it justice but is not too inaccurate a description.
Now, I read this one a while ago and I don’t remember taking away a lot in terms of understanding life at the time, which considering all of the above is probably what you’d expect. But actually, I wanted to include it here because I remembered enjoying it and I liked the sultry lazy hot summer in the 50s backdrop, and there also is something to say about the time period’s impact on the cousins’ lives – but largely this is more about the family drama itself. If you like intriguing plots, I recommend it.
So that’s my top five… which brings me to the hidden agenda of this post; what have I missed? Tell me your favourite fiction about women in the 50s and 60s! (By the way, I could probably write an even longer post about fiction set around WWII and maybe I will some day if you all like this one!)
PS Amber, I’m sorry about stealing your ‘glittery gold Red or Dead glasses on books’ idea for the pictures – it was just too pretty not to!