Sadly, bookstores are becoming a thing of the past. Between e-books and internet book sales, they are falling by the wayside with a few notable exceptions. That made Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner particularly charming. Because it is set in the 1950’s it includes some high profile names like Samuel Beckett, Daphne Du Maurier, the widows of George Orwell and Doubleday, and more of the rich and famous from that era.
In reality, it’s a book about three women, all of whom are employees of the bookstore and acutely aware of how their gender holds them back in the workplace. The entire book is a well written story about these women and how they decided to pool their intellect, and their money and take their own lives and futures into their own hands. Some of what they experienced mirrored my own life, although for me it was happening in the late 70’s. Still, it rang a note of familiarity.
One quick story of my own life. I took a job as a counselor in a Counseling Office in North Carolina back in about 1979. The office was filled with counselors, assistants, secretaries and, of course, a few managers in a healthy mix a male and female. When I was hired I learned one of the things expected of me was to be on the rotation of those who made coffee…by the way it was all the women in the office. We finally got frustrated enough to say something, after all the men not only drank coffee,they were capable of making it as well. After all, it wasn’t that hard to fill an urn to the designated point, put some grounds in the filter basket, and plug up the coffee maker. When we voiced our frustration, the men had what they thought was the perfect solution. They would offer a two-tiered payment program. If you made coffee, you got a break on your monthly coffee fee. If you didn’t you paid more. We all signed up for what we preferred and much to the surprise of the men in the office, they were the only ones who made coffee after that policy was initiated.
There is a similar story in Bloomsbury Girls where the women always make the tea. No big surprise, they were just as frustrated by this as we were in my 70’s counselor’s office. They didn’t have the luxury of a vote, they were more restricted in being allowed to express how things should be run and their opinions were pretty much discounted as being just another “women’s idea”. So, they continued to make the tea as they planned how they were going to deal with the overall situation that found them underpaid, underappreciated, and basically subservient to all the male employees. I won’t explain how they bring it about, for that you need to read the book, but it gave me a lovely snicker at the end to read the “new rules” for the bookstore (originally the male general manager had written 51 hard and fast rules). There were few, less than 5 I think, but the final one in the new list? “Everyone makes their own tea.”
Here’s my review if you are looking for a little more information.
A book that tells the story of women in the workplace, describing how work was for them in the 1950’s and doing an excellent job of weaving their struggles into a fictionalized work that focuses on three women, Vivian, Grace, and Evie. While vastly different on the one hand, the women all are in the same struggle of being accepted in the workplace as equally competent and candidates for work equal to that being done by the men.
It is also a celebration of bookshops back in the day where you might have authors in to read from their work followed by questions and answers, along with multiple floors of books. The reader who is thinking of visiting this bookstore can imagine spending several hours wandering from floor to floor, examining books.
The author includes some cameo events between the women and some famous authors of the day including Samuel Becket and Daphne DuMaurier, as well as others with connections such as the widows Mrs. Doubleday and Mrs. George Orwell along with Peggy Guggenheim and a famous film star. They are remarkably approachable in this novel and befriend the women of the bookshop, recognizing the same struggles they face regarding work, freedom to advance, expectations, and pay inequality.
The pace is consistent and works well as it maintains the reader’s interest without feeling rushed. Most chapters highlight one of the three women or two of them together as the story progresses to its conclusion which is thoroughly satisfying. The issues found throughout the book are realistic and will remind any woman who lived through that era of something she experienced. For me, it was making the tea for the office. In the book it is automatically assumed the women will make the tea for “elevenses”. Realization dawns on them that this is one small way in which society has them behaving in a predictable way. For me, it was a counseling office in the seventies and making the office coffee, but the expectations and resulting resentment were the same. We resolved our issues when we complained and the men suggested a two tiered payment for monthly coffee with those who made the coffee paying a reduced rate. I always thought it interesting that when we instituted that system, the coffee was made by all the men, the women opting to pay a bit more. The book has an interesting observation regarding tea that you will find in the final chapter.
My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an advance copy for this review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.
So, if you are looking for a book that will give you some great insight into what life was like in the 50’s, particularly in how expectations were different based on a person’s gender, this one is a great one to read. You get a wonderful story, complete with some excellent characters, and a greater understanding of how far women have come in seeking equality. The lovely thing is the book has this information and excellent writing without disintegrating into “man-bashing” in general. If this one sound appealing, then I recommend you pick it up at your local independent bookstore or get on the library waitlist, assuming they know a good thing when they see one. If it’s not your “cup of tea” find something else and Happy Reading.