Review: Singled Out

Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War

Virginia Nicholson (Viking, £20)

Much as I identify with Bertie Wooster, I cannot condone his campaign for the suppression of aunts (‘Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof’). I admired my aunts, especially those of the maiden variety, who had the misfortune to find themselves among the insensitively labelled ‘Surplus Women’ after the slaughter of the First World War. My beloved nanny, who lost her boyfriend in the trenches, was another of that bereaved gene-ration, born between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

In this wonderful and wide-ranging book, Virginia Nicholson sets out ‘to hear and understand what happened to a generation of young women who were forced, by a tragedy of historic proportions, to stop depending on men for their income, identity and their future happiness’. She succeeds triumphantly in paying a long-overdue tribute to these indomitable ladies.

The author makes the important point often missed in such dramas as Oh! What a Lovely War that ‘the chances of dying were higher if you were an officer than if you were a private’. In 1917, the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls spelt it out for her pupils: ‘Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can? You will have to struggle.’

With extraordinary empathy and much good humour, Mrs Nicholson, a great-niece of Virginia Woolf, concentrates upon individual stories rather than dreary demographics in illustrating how the ‘inter-war decades saw the single woman’s emergence from the twilight zone of maiden aunthood into an altogether sunnier realm’. She has done an impressive amount of research into unpublished autobiographies and garnered invaluable material from interviews. Although some of the heroines featured are well known such as the novelists Winifred Holtby (one of whose characters observes: ‘I was born a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin’) and Richmal Crompton (who described herself as ‘the last surviving example of the Victorian pro-fessional aunt’) most belong to the illustrious obscure.

And what a splendid set of dedicated, brave, cheerful, inspiring, selfless pioneers they were: teachers and academics, nurses and doctors, lawyers and ‘business girls’, archaeologists and explorers, scientists and engineers. My special pin-ups included Gertie Maclean, founder of that excellent organisation Universal Aunts; Dame Caroline Haslett, champion of electricity as a liberating force for women; and Amy Langley, a dressmaker, who, at 82, found romance in her retirement home exemplifying Sandy Wilson’s song It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love.

There are many marvellous quotes (‘Once you get over the disgrace, it’s the best life!’) and memorable anecdotes. The author has made good use of ‘agony aunt’ correspondence, which yields plenty of pathos, as well as the odd joke. One naïve girl couldn’t under-stand why her mother found her greatest friend, Doris, ‘undesirable’. ‘Doris can’t stand men and is never in the least interested in them.’ In the Second World War, Mary Milne, the revered matron of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, whose fiancé had been killed in the First World War, encountered some male medical students in the nurses’ home during the Blitz. Her only comment was: ‘I suppose you’re all busy firewatching, gentlemen.’