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Book review

‘Her Brilliant Career’ by Rachel Cooke

In London, 1951, a crowd gathered as a woman attempted to board a bus while wearing one of Christian Dior’s newest creations: “Her skirt was so wide, she couldn’t negotiate the door. At first I laughed along with everyone else,” recalled Grace Robertson, then a 21-year-old aspiring photojournalist. “But then I suddenly thought: Are they putting us into these clothes so we can’t get on buses, and take their jobs?” Only one year into the decade and already some women were starting to get the hint.

In “Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties,’’ journalist Rachel Cooke reveals that British women’s experiences during World War II radically rearranged their expectations of what life would be like afterward. Having survived the Blitz and served their country during wartime, the idea of turning their backs on engaged, professional lives was often unthinkable.

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Cooke’s history aims to dispel the myth of what a 1950s woman was: “old-fashioned, unambitious, docile, emollient, inhibited, clenched, prudish, thwarted, frustrated, [and] repressed.” Cooke tells the stories of 10 vibrant, fascinating women who came into their own after the war. While a few of them were frustrated, thwarted, and even repressed at times, they never stopped trying to lead meaningful lives.

Patience Gray, author of the best-selling British cookbook of the period, “Plats du Jour’’ (1957), guided a nation emerging from years of rationing (Cooke describes wartime cookbooks that offered recipes for cooking crows, sparrows, and “eggs that are really tinned apricots fried in bacon fat”). Gray is notable not only for her salutary influence on British cooking, but for the unorthodox choices she made later in life.

A single mother who once gave her teenagers money to hitchhike back to London — they were vacationing in Italy at the time — Gray was always a little different. At age 46 she decamped for Italy with the great love of her life, the sculptor Norman Mommens. “We shed a snakeskin of fuss, plans, hesitations and other people’s claims,” Gray explained, and they left.

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The couple lived together “hand-to-mouth” in a rustic Italian barn with no plumbing for the next 40 years (“It was with some reluctance,” Cooke writes, that electricity was installed in the 1990s). This experience informed Gray’s next and equally influential cookbook, “Honey From a Weed’’ (1986), which predated 21st-century foodies’ interest in foraging and eating locally. It remains in print and is influential to this day. Gray wasn’t totally averse to traditional ideas, however; 30 years after they met, she and Mommens were married. She never returned to England.

Not every woman was as Bohemian as Gray. The pioneering architect Alison Smithson’s adamant sense of modernity, exemplified in the landmark buildings she created with her husband and creative partner. Peter Smithson, brought her admiration and controversy. “We’re the best architects in the world,” she liked to say. It wasn’t merely an unusual statement coming from a woman; as one of her contemporaries recalled. “It wasn’t very English at all.”

Film producer Betty Box demanded the same pay as her male counterparts and became one of the most successful producers in history — her nickname was “Betty Box Office.” And while the celebrated archeologist and author Jacquetta Hawkes enjoyed a series of professional achievements and affairs with both men and women, her life was conducted “with a careful public smoothness” after marrying writer J.B. Priestley at age 43. “Let me have the guts to behave badly,” Hawkes wrote to a friend, and eventually at age 70, she published a scandalous sexual quasi-memoir titled “A Quest of Love,’’ and did.

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It’s Cooke’s intention to “make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the war and feminism” and to “pull the reader along” with these tales of “derring-do.” She succeeds on every count. Thanks to Cooke’s deep research, buoyant storytelling, and her sincere affection for the remarkable women portrayed here, “Her Brilliant Career’’ is both entertaining and touching.


Buzzy Jackson is the author of “The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life.’’