Monday, 13 March 2017

Margaret Cole - a forgotten figure

Two weeks ago, I sprained my ankle.  The accident happened in part due to my haste in wishing to visit some new charity shops in a town I haven't visited before.  I've been sitting with my foot up and reading.

So here is a post in homage to my great affection for both books and charity shops.

"Growing Up Into Revolution" by Margaret Cole
This book is a first edition, but only because it was never popular enough to call for a second.  The book was marked by the charity shop as £1, then marked down to half price.  I would have bought it anyway.


Did Michael steal, buy or donate the book from/to the Library?
It was written in 1948, published in 1949, and owned by someone called Michael Graham in 1950.

I have touched on Margaret Cole in a post about detective stories, but my interest in her originated in two facts.  Firstly, she was an exact contemporary of Vera Brittain - both born in 1893. I have written several posts about Vera Brittain and her contemporaries. And even male contemporaries.

Secondly, Margaret was a pioneering female writer, socialist and feminist.  Of course, these are among the reasons why Vera interests me, but Margaret differs in one major respect.  She was less involved in World War One.  Margaret's husband, GDH Cole, was exempted on account of vital war work, and her brother, Raymond Postgate, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector.  (Vera is, of course, most famous for her War biography, "Testament of Youth").

Margaret, much less famous altogether, did not write anything so memorable.  Her autobiography is a fairly amateurish and intimate effort, and all the more charming and interesting for that. 

She is brazen about her middle-class upbringing - a family home in which two maids slept in the attic, a father who was an academic at Cambridge, and servants from the first day of her married life.  In this she is no different from Vera Brittain.  Both write without a trace of apology of having a live-in couple to "do" for them, and nursemaids for the children. 

It's hard for someone like me, and my contemporaries, to read this without fury and scorn.  Having had no such luxuries, we struggled to bring up our small families, of two children maximum, and achieve anything at all in professional working life.  A woman had to be truly exceptional in energy, ability, contacts, and confidence to do more than work part-time or anywhere other than a school.  This was in the 1970's before the Equal Pay Act, before free nursery provision and before extensive maternity pay and leave. 

However, we did have washing-machines and vacuum cleaners.  These are, in my view, the top two labour-saving devices.  Later, we had dishwashers, tumble-driers and microwaves.  Disposable nappies came along in time for the second child.  We had fridge-freezers, central heating, electric ovens, indoor plumbing. And our own car, and bank account. 

Without domestic help, (in pre-war days one servant of some kind per actual family member seemed the norm) Margaret and Vera (and all the others) would have had to spend their entire time scrubbing floors, operating mangles and dolly-tubs, boiling water on primitive gas stoves, washing up without rubber gloves, walking to local shops every day for perishable foods, and lighting fires on open hearths which then had to be cleared and emptied daily.

So really, for women without her "standard of living" (Margaret's own words) anything they wrote would be likely to be "Got up at six.  List of chores.  Put children to bed, went to bed, end." Every day for three decades.

Margaret writes about her relationship with Beatrice Webb, who was born a generation earlier.  For that generation, all the above applied, but it was also necessary to have NO children (Beatrice was childless), and ALSO to have a private income.  Because doing any kind of work at all would have been incompatible with achieving something in the realms of thought, social activism, and writing.  Virginia Woolf, born thirty years after Beatrice and ten years before Margaret, wrote about this memorably in her essay "A Room of One's Own".  Life was also tough for any man born without contacts or independent wealth, but it was not nearly as bad for a man.  They did not have to do any domestic work, or bear and nurture children.

So although one's first reaction is fury on learning that Margaret was educated privately at Roedean, (synonymous with "elitist" during my Sussex childhood), one has to accept that for women, certainly, conditions of life were such that nothing could be achieved at all without a certain level of advantage. It does not mean that Margaret was a hypocrite, or insincere in her devotion to liberal socialism.

The work of Beatrice Webb, founder member of the Fabian Society, co-founder of the London School of Economics, and of the New Statesman, provided a platform for efforts a generation later by those who fought for women's rights in the 1920's and 1930's.  People like Margaret Cole continued that work, and she and her Fabian contemporaries helped to build the platform which led to the first truly successful Labour government in 1945.

You have to read a book by Vera Brittain's daughter, Shirley Williams, called "Politics is for People" to realise just how integral the aims of Labour party pioneers have been to the society we take for granted today.  Here's a list of the objectives Baroness Williams noted down in the 1960's, which have since been enacted in law.
(Although such is the pace of change that some of them have been written out again, or they survive under different names).

The Freedom of Information Act
Educational Maintenance Allowances
Parent Governors and School Councils
Traning Allowances for Youth Unemployed
The Scottish Assembly
Devolution and Regional Government generally
Biotechnology and Renewable Fuels
Private Finance Initiatives (PFI)
Regional Small Business Agencies funded by central government
Breaking down social segregation in housing

In fact, the only idea Baroness (sic) Williams listed which has not been pursued to the Statute Book is the abolition of Private Education. 

Margaret Cole, her husband and her contemporaries worked tirelessly to pursue the fundamental aim of improving the lot of the large majority of people born without privilege or advantages.  The fact that all these people were privately educated, and owned homes which even Cabinet Ministers would today find beyond their reach, is not the point.  Although in truth it's taken me a while to get that point in perspective.  And, crucially, Margaret Cole was a mother of three, in a time when mothers were not expected to do anything at all outside the home.

She dedicates her book to her first-born, her elder daughter Jane.

Jane, born in 1921, went to America as a war bride in 1946.  Her mother writes movingly of the normal emotions and reactions of grandparents being strained to the utmost because of the 3,000 mile distance between them.

All in all, this book is a fascinating insight into a lost and forgotten age.  We should pay more attention to history, and facts. Young women today who revel in their freedoms, their careers and their more equal relationships, might be surprised to learn that less than 100 years ago their lot would have been entirely different, were it not for the work of people like Margaret Cole.  Of whom almost no one has ever heard.