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A Read of The Girl’s Own Annual (1907-1908) and an Inadvertent Critique of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (2016).

At the 2018 University College book sale I bought this 1907-1908 volume of The Girl’s Own Annual, a bound compilation of the preceding year’s weekly issues of The Girl’s Own Paper.

The Girl’s Own Paper was a weekly and, later, monthly, publication produced between 1880 and 1956 for older girls and young women. Its founder and first editor, Charles Peters, is described as having sought “to foster and develop that which was highest and noblest in the girlhood and womanhood of England.” After Peters’ death late in 1907 (an In Memoriam is printed in the 25 January 1908 edition of the Paper); his successor, Flora Klickmann, saw the Paper through the First World War and the important social changes that followed, including women’s suffrage. Scholarly work on The Girl’s Own Paper notes that Klickmann’s editorial influence became apparent early on, especially in the form of an increasing (if somewhat ambivalent) emphasis on the changing roles of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

At the same time, even under Peters’ directorship (at least in the volume I have), women, their lives, well-being, interests and work are valorized in ways that seem to go beyond commonly received late- and post-Victorian notions of the proper place of women. I found it both a surprise and delight, for example, to discover an article titled “How to Become a Lady Librarian” in a 1908 issue of the paper. The article notes the scarcity of training and opportunities for women librarians in England, and laments that even well trained women “have been unable to find employment at the same rate of payment as men.” It goes on to indicate the proper rates of pay women librarians may reasonably expect, and makes suggestions about where to obtain training, including at the London School of Economics. At its close, the article lists “public libraries controlled by women,” among them Manchester College at Oxford.

“How to Become a Lady Librarian” is far from the only article offering career advice. “A New Employment for Women” offers recommendations on obtaining training and suitable employment for teaching hearing impaired children. It also indicates the salary range a qualified teacher may expect to be paid. Another article, “A Strange College for Women Workers,” describes bee farming in detail, including set-up costs, and observes, “[i]t would take more nerve than the average “mere man” possesses to allow from 25,000 to 30,000 bees to roost on his bare arm and make themselves at home; any yet, at the Luton Bee College, women students think nothing of this performance.” “How I Became a Lady Doctor” describes one woman’s progress into the profession; in it the author, Doctor Penelope Smith, concludes that the greatest difficulty facing qualified women doctors is not ability but unequal access to hospital experience: “To gain a wide experience hospital practice is absolutely necessary,” she writes, “and it is in the deficiency of opportunities for this practice that women are placed at a disadvantage as compared with men; not in the training, nor in their capabilities for mastering the details of their profession.” An essay on portraitist and illustrator Marcella Walker describes her work (exhibited at the Royal Academy, reviewed in the Academy Review and published in the Illustrated London News) as a rebuttal to those who “assert that women have no originality, and merely follow and copy men in art.”

Swatting at much more than a tennis ball.

The volume is still, of course, evocative of its era. Young women are urged to take care of their skin, lest it become reddened and wrinkled with work. Readers are invited to participate in physical activity, but (horrors) not in any way that might masculinize them. An otherwise charming illustration of a woman playing field hockey, for example, has the admonition captioned to it: “Avoid all excess in the field games which are suitable only to sporting men.” Every woman pictured is white (although The Girl’s Own Paper was circulated throughout the Empire), in good health, and visibly representative of her upper class (or upper class-aspiring) upbringing. The amassing of a “White Trousseau” receives treatment in a number of issues, as does an ongoing series called “How a Girl Should Dress” (properly, with full skirts and gloves and enormous hats; restrictive, and yet: how I long to have at least one similar costume).

While browsing the Annual, I have felt wistful for two reasons. The first is that my mother would have loved it. We shared a fascination with the sometimes ephemeral traces of everyday life found in old newspapers, letters, paper crafts and magazines, and would spend hours poring over all these sorts of documents whenever they came to light. This Annual is one of the richest such resources I have encountered in years, and I wish so much that we could share it. She would have loved the quirky essays (and their quirky titles), like “Methods of Travelling Used by Women from Early Times Down to the Present,” “Fire-Lighting Without Sticks,” “Insects Mentioned in Shakespeare,” “Familiar British Seaweeds,” and perhaps especially, “Book-Binding for Girls.”

The second reason I feel wistful while reading the Girl’s Own Paper is because, despite its implicit snobbery and adherence to vastly outdated conventions, there is also something empowering in the articles and stories in its pages. Women, it says repeatedly and in many different ways, have value. Women’s pursuits and work have worth, whether they involve sewing, cooking, writing, playing music or caring for others–or pursuing higher education and working in demanding fields. An older girl or young woman reading its pages would have reason to feel encouraged, not only by the things articles suggested she could do if she chose, but by the histories of other women who have done them, too.

Annuals featuring improving stories for girls have fallen mostly out of favour, even in the United Kingdom where they could once make a publisher’s year, but some months ago I received a copy of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Penguin Random House, 2016) to give to my daughter. The book was received with wild enthusiasm by reviewers, spurring a sequel, but in our household it was met with a muted “meh.” The book is subtitled “100 Tales of Extraordinary Women,” and this, I think, is at the heart of the book’s problem. It is not that the women profiled are not extraordinary, and it is not as if this kind of book is not desperately needed: it is.

But even its dedication makes demands of its young readers: to be rebels, first of all. And immediately afterward, it suggests that the things girls do already are not enough: they must “dream bigger, aim higher, fight harder,” and live with the conviction that they are “right.” Most of the women profiled in Rebel Girls are wonderfully chosen, and I do love the profile of American Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But the narratives return, over and over again, to how extraordinary they were or are, and how unusual their accomplishments. Very few of the narratives directly invite the reader to consider herself capable of doing the same kinds of things. Sadly but perhaps revealingly, one of the few stories that does so is the one about Virginia Woolf, which discusses her depression and acknowledges the possibility that even rebel girls might sometimes be sad. Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek is quoted as saying, “You are beautiful. It’s okay to be quirky. It’s fine to be shy,” — but her important message seems to be drowned out by so many injunctions in the other stories for girls to be aggressive, competitive and attention-seeking. After 200 pages of superlatives, the reader is, at last, invited to “write your story,” but it seems to me that by this time, after so many pages of genius, originality and victory, especially those in which systemic barriers to women’s flourishing are subsumed beneath narratives of individual strength, more than a few readers might feel deflated. I certainly did, and I am an exceedingly determined person who has been standing for something for nearly three decades. My daughter liked the book, but found the stories hard to relate to.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls reminds me of the response to the 2016 all-woman remake of the popular 1980s film Ghostbusters. Although the remake was fun to watch, it was essentially mediocre; basically on par with most remakes, and slightly better than a typical sequel. But public response tended to be sharply divided between those (whose testicles seemed to shrivel at the sight of a woman wielding a proton pack) who insisted it was the Worst Film Ever, and those (mostly women) who insisted upon its virtues. It seemed impossible for anyone to simply say out loud that it was a fun but essentially mediocre remake–because women in film, like women in public life, cannot afford to be mediocre.

In this context, the overwrought exhortations of “extraordinary” women’s greatness in Rebel Girls seem to me to undermine the book’s very good intentions. Indeed, ultimately the book’s message seems somehow indistinguishable from diet and ‘wellness’ marketing campaigns exhorting girls and women to be ever thinner, sexier, more feminine–and ever more obedient to always arbitrary, always external injunctions about how they must look and live. It seems to me, especially in the era of the ‘crisis of the mediocre man,’ that women should not always have to overcome the social (and political and economic) deficit of being women in a sexist society by being deemed geniuses, heroes, winners or leaders. Very good women actors should be able to star in mediocre films. Ordinary girls and women should be counted, too, whether they are ‘rebel girls’ or not.

This is something, oddly enough, that The Girl’s Own Paper seems to have gotten right more than a century ago. Despite its conventionality and essential conservatism, its pages reinforce the perspective that every girl, and every woman–not only those deemed “extraordinary”–is special and has worth, and that every girl and every woman has the capacity to stand up for herself, and for others, and has the right to contribute to both private and public life and to make herself heard in both worlds.

I suppose I am hopeful that the Rebel Girls franchise will eventually get to the point of unpacking some of the contradictions in its narratives. On the way, its authors could do worse than read a century-old volume or two of The Girl’s Own Annual.

Cook’s Measure

Vintage 1950s Tala Cook’s Measure

Yesterday morning an errand took me across town. Half a block past the subway station was a new-to-me Value Village. And on a shelf in that Value Village was this 1950s-era Tala Cooks Measure, which I snatched up and bought.

I have been partial to Tala kitchen tools ever since I bought part of a late forties or early fifties cream-and-white multi-tiered cake tin (shown below) from super-cool Toronto vintage emporium mrs huizenga a few years ago, and sourced a few more tiers online. Somewhere in a box in the garage, unless I’ve managed to donate it, is also an old Tala icing set.

Established in 1899 (as Taylor Law & Co Ltd), at a time when confectionary-style baking had developed mass appeal in late-Victorian England, Tala has long been a leading supplier of cooking and bakeware supplies. At times in its history it has also reportedly produced gardening tools and even, during wartime, munitions. Notably, much of its manufacturing is still done in England, some of it (including delightful retro versions of the Cooks Measure shown above, which Tala supplies to kitchen goods purveyors) using production equipment dating to the 1920s. This makes Tala an iconic British brand, and is testament not only to the endurance of the company through cultural change, war, and corporate buy-outs, but also to the lasting quality of its goods.

Tala ‘CAKES’ carrier.

My Tala Cooks Measure (I am assuming there was a discussion about where to put the apostrophe and that, in the absence of accord, it was decided simply to leave it out) has measurement indicators (for ounces, pounds, pints and cups) for a wide variety of early-to-mid twentieth century cooking staples, including haricots, lentils, barley and peas; sultanas and tapioca; ground rice, currants, and seminola raisins; icing sugar, dried milk, custard and flour; fresh bread crumbs and rolled oats; desiccated coconut; corn flour and cocoa; ground almonds and shredded suet; and sugar and regular rice. The way it works, as I understand it, is that you pour in your choice of dry ingredient that most closely matches the volume characteristics of the choices on the label. It is quite ingenious, actually, and spawned a number of imitators, although Tala’s Cooks Measure remains the best known.

My own cooking preferences tend toward hearty vegetable-based casseroles, but many of the above ingredients feature prominently in older cookbooks. I am tempted to try some of them out just so I can use this cook’s measure … although perhaps not tapioca pudding. Or anything involving shredded suet.

Speaking of early twentieth century coking ingredients, below are a few of my favourite early-to-mid twentieth century cookbooks, probably all of which have a tapioca pudding recipe somewhere within their pages.

Feed the Brute! by Marjorie Swift, 1925.
The Art of Cooking and Serving, by Sarah Field Splint. Proctor & Gamble, 1930.
The New Hostess of To-Day, by Linda Hull Larned; illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark. McClelland & Goodchild, 1913.
MEALS Tested, Tasted, and Approved. Good Housekeeping Institute, 1930.

And, from a 1932 (I think) edition of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery, published by Ward, Lock & Co., a charming double illustration of 1930s-era kitchen cabinets of the sort in which one would be highly likely to find a Tala Cooks Measure:

“Kitchen Cabinets” illustration from Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery, edition circa 1932.

Treasure

On some mornings, especially mornings like this one, the ache to speak with my mother becomes a physical thing.

The cool air, the golden light, a faint crackle in the leaves: all portents of a shift in the season. The ripe tomatoes I picked and ate this morning, fresh from the vine, ripe and earthy and pulsating with light.

A garage sale around the corner at which for a few dollars I bought a pile of beautiful old books, a handful of old jewelry, a set of silver plate Apostle spoons, a vintage maple leaf scarf, a salt-and-pepper set made in Occupied Japan, two chunks of amethyst, and two mid-century calendars stuffed with kitchen advice and recipes.

Everything else that has happened in the five months since she died.

*

Twenty years ago, early every summer Saturday morning my mother and I would peel off in the car, either with my father or a next-door neighbour, to troll garage sales looking for treasure. The perfect yard sale morning, to both of us, would yield some interesting books, some ‘breakables’ (china, kitchenware, collectables), tools, some item of furniture, a little bit of jewelry, and at least one piece of art. Clothing, a carpet, a lamp, some useful household object or appliance, would be a bonus. On a perfect morning we came home with the car stuffed full. More than a few times another beloved neighbour brought home excess in his pick-up truck.

Many of the objects she bought were distributed to those who needed or wanted them, or were tucked away to be given as birthday or Christmas presents. The treasures, however, ended up in her cupboards and china cabinets or were hung on the wall.

And there they sat for two decades, admired but largely unused, their glitter growing dimmer, until after her death.

After her death I cleaned out her house and prepared it for sale. I packed all her clothes and arranged for their donation. I sorted her make-up and panty hose and medications and toiletries. I held an estate sale and sold her breakables and art. I packed her papers and brought them to my home, alongside all the things I could not bear to leave behind. As promised, I bore the burden of her death and, in doing so, came to realize that I would also bear the burden of her life.

*

In the five months since my mother died I have spent whole days in our garage, sorting and filing, or shredding as required, the paper detritus of her life. Financial records dating to the late 1960s. Letters, bills, research projects, consultant reports, manuscripts, publishing contracts, her peripatetic private journal. In doing so I have given a great deal of thought to the project of giving posthumous shape to her life.

A life is, of course, a narrative. It is a story we tell ourselves even before we transact it with others. But what becomes of that story when we die?

Often enough the story dies, too, memory being what it is.

*

I am not a person who forgets, which is not the only reason my mother asked me to be her literary executor. She also asked because I knew who she was.

This knowing is not precisely a source of comfort. It is actually, in some ways, a source of considerable anguish.

It is a source of anguish because I knew about her desires and, more particularly, her regrets. I knew how she served, and I knew what she gave up in order to do so.

I knew all this because my mother and I were, are, very much alike.

Our kindredness was not always a source of solace, but it was always there, the undercurrent to our discussions about writing, our perspectives on politics and people, even our garage sale going.

And this is why, especially on mornings like this one, the ache to speak with her becomes a physical thing.

Because she too would sense the currents in the air, the shifting of the seasons. She too would gloat over a pile of garage sale treasures: the musty, leathery smell of old books; the slippery feel of tarnished metal and its promise of restoration. And she too would feel the compulsion to write about it all, to capture some trace of these ephemeral moments: the golden light, the drift of wind through the leaves, the taste of ripe tomatoes, incandescent with sunlight and warm from the vine. And the task of giving shape to memory, of holding together the pieces of the story.