Two more books from Greyladies by authors better known for their children’s books: The Encircled Heart by Josephine Elder and Pirouette by Noel Streatfeild writing as Susan Scarlett. The shared theme of the books is the potential conflict for a woman between a career and marriage but the two authors couldn’t write more differently about it.
In Pirouette, Judith has been pushed since childhood by a dreadful Mummy who wants to make up for her own lost chances through her daughter. At the time of the story, Judith is eighteen and has turned out to be rather a good dancer. Then Paul, the brother of a fellow student, falls in love with her. Mummy is terrified and Madame, who cares for nothing but the success of her company, is also displeased. Poor Judith then faces a dilemma: choose Paul or disappoint Mummy and perhaps make her ill? I say ‘poor’ Judith but she’s such a characterless little thing that one hardly cares which she chooses. It’s interesting, though, that Streatfeild sees this as an either/or situation when there are plenty of modern examples of dancers successfully combining career and marriage.
Marion, in The Encircled Heart has worked hard to win scholarships and train as a doctor and at last has her own practice. Then she also meets a Paul, an academic, and marries him. Life becomes difficult as Paul resents the time she spends on her patients, the night calls and the endless ringing of the phone. They are both pretty selfish and neither very attractive characters; not to me, anyway. I was struck yet again by Josephine Elder’s coldness. For example, Marion seems to care more about her own professional failure than about a stillborn baby and the bereaved mother. This passage really shocked me, where Marion is reflecting gloomily on her failures:
“a fit young woman to all appearances, who had married an equally fit young cousin, with Marion’s professional blessing, and had produced two idiot boys, one after the other who weren’t even going to die and leave her free” My italics.
I couldn’t like the book, partly because so much of it concerns illness, which I hate to read about, and partly because of my lack of sympathy with Marion. Pirouette is more enjoyable, mainly because of all the detail about ballet.
‘Josephine Elder’ was really Dr Olive Potter (1895-1988) who trained as a doctor and worked as a GP in Surrey. She experienced many prejudices against women and for me the most interesting part of the book is the transcript of a talk she gave to a Women’s Institute group on A Woman Doctor’s Training. Dr Potter never married and continued to work until she was eighty eight; a remarkable woman but not, to me, a nice one.