The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop was published to coincide with the anniversary of the first votes for women in this country. It interweaves the stories of six very different women mainly born during WW1 who have celebrated their 100th birthdays in the last few years and gives a fascinating insight into the impact of the dramatic changes of the last century on their lives.
It was an easy read, albeit sometimes muddling with the changes in voice throughout the book. The women came from very different backgrounds – an Oxford Don, a welsh teacher and farmer, a woman in domestic service, an émigré from British Guyana, a nurse born in colonial India and an art student whose life was spent in the London art world. They were all warm and charming, although some stories chimed more closely for us. I found when I was reading the book that the tales my parents told of their early lives kept coming back to me. Our talk in the meeting included accounts of parents who had been in domestic service and the like.
We discussed how different their early lives were – a recurring theme was how lucky they felt compared to their mothers, and yet some of the lives described were very hard (life without running water extended into the 50s for one). We discussed how some had chosen career over family, whilst today women are expected to embrace both. There was also the naiveté with which marriage and relationships were approached – conversations about periods and sex hadn’t happened with their mothers.
WW2 was an interesting period giving opportunities to move away from their expected careers – for some it brought boring administrative work, but for others it opened up horizons and gave new interests. I found the later parts of the book less engaging – the memories related were not as rich, but it was a delightful read and I felt privileged to have an insight into some wonderful lives.