Sunday, 27 November 2011

Barbara Wootton "In a World I Never Made"

So, back to my book that almost no-one else has heard of.   I picked this book up in a National Trust second-hand bookshop on my holiday in Norfolk.  When my friend arrived to join me, complete with Kindle, I showed her my trophy.  She thinks second hand books are tacky and doesn't like to touch them.  Later on, she asked me if I'd heard of Barbara Wootton.  Seems my husband isn't the only one who doesn't listen to me!

Her question arose from the Ilkley Literature Festival.  Seems someone has written a biography of Barbara Wootton and was due to attend the Festival for a talk and book-signing.  Someone else then, has seen interest in this hitherto forgotten person. Maybe she will develop a following.

Barbara Wootton was born in 1898, to upper-middle class parents. Against her mother's wishes, she fought for the right to study a subject of her choice at University.  She lost her husband (of a day and a half's standing) in the First World War.  Are you following the drift of this?  Yes, it is because of my interest in Vera Brittain that I was first drawn to look up BW.

At that point most similarities come to a full stop.  Barbara was a very different person from Vera.

Barbara led, to all intents and purposes, the life of a single woman, even though she had in fact married her first love.  She also married a second time, although she eventually left George and they never had children.  The latter fact was because of the unsatisfactory character of George. 

BW led an exemplary life in public service, and was a career woman throughout.  This, in fact, was probably due to her mother's influence.  Her mother, a classics don, instructed young Barbara on her wartime engagement, at 19, that she must continue her education.  "My mother was ....adamant that the engagement should make no difference to my academic career.  No one knew what might be ahead, or when I might need to earn my own living, so I must at all costs equip myself with that essential prerequisite to independence, a university degree."

After taking an exceptional first-class degree, BW continued to be an academic and to serve as a magistrate, a BBC Governor, and on many public committees.  She was honoured to be one of the first four women admitted to the House of Lords. Her work pioneered the "Social Sciences".

You read a book of autobiography, not just to find out the dates and the facts.  You long for the emotion, and the nuggets.

Here are the nuggets.

BW wrote scornfully in Chapter 2 of the difference between her own reaction to multiple bereavements by the time she was 21, and the reaction of VB.

"Indeed, what infuriated many of us, when Vera Brittain published her "Testament of Youth" was the impression she conveyed that she alone of the nurses with whom she worked had to endure the anxiety of knowing that her beloved was at the front." 

Sorry, BW, impressive though your credentials, you are completely wrong.  VB conveyed no such thing.  What she DID do, incomparably well, was to convey every nuance of emotion, every stage of apprehension, bereavement and grief, in such a way that millions the world over could understand.  This is because she is a writer.  BW, an academic and social scientist, stated a few bald facts and, shocking though they were, never touched a nerve, in me at least.

Later on in the book BW comments on the journey of all those women born in the 1890's, who were brought up without any expectation of ever getting the vote, and lived to see women enter Parliament and begin to influence far-reaching changes in the law which would eventually lead to the Womens' Movement of the 1970's.  A further nugget is related below.

Her close associate in the journey towards independence, a school-friend called Dorothy, became a leading doctor, "renowned throughout the world for her medical researches.  When she was about to receive an honorary degree from an overseas university, a newspaper man, looking down the list of honorary graduands, was heard to remark that he had not previously realised that Dorothy could be a man's Christian name."    I still laugh when I re-read this.

Finally, though, BW will be remembered, not for her writing, but for her contribution to society and her place in the pivotal years between the First World War and the 1960's

No comments:

Post a Comment