I write historical fiction set in East London just after WW2 and the most difficult thing about writing about the lives of post-war women today is to try to show readers the vast changes that have occurred in social and moral attitudes over the last seventy years.
For example; the idea that a woman from a working class background would ever go to university was almost unthinkable. Rather than a career the ambition of the majority of young women at that time was to get married and have children. It was expected of them and very few people questioned it. Society supported this as girls’ education featured cookery and needlework designed to equip them with the necessary skills to be a good housewife; very different from the expectation of today’s young women.
Don’t get me wrong, working class women have always worked to support their family. My own mother was a sewing machinist who worked at home and my grandmother took in washing to pay the rent but in the post-war period if a young woman seriously wanted to train as a doctor, nurse or teacher they often had to put aside all hopes of a family to achieve their goal.
While many readers today revel in fiction set in the mid-twentieth century today’s readers also want a heroine that they can identify within the social restrictions of an earlier age. Millie Sullivan and Connie Byrne, the heroines in my current post-war nurse series, are district nurses and midwives and as such had almost unheard of freedom in their working life. This made it so much easier for me to have them take a proactive and modern approach to the situations they encounter.
Life inside marriage could be very different, too. Although, modern surveys show that women are still doing the bulk of the cooking and cleaning most have control of their wages. In the 1940s and 50s men took the lead role in the family and their word was law. In women’s romantic literature of the time the hero was often portrayed as a strong man who would take care of the heroine whereas today’s female readers would call him a bully.
Women today are also entitled to a great deal more protection under the law than the women of the 1940s and 50s ever knew. It seems strange to this generation of women that before the 1970s women weren’t automatically entitled to half the property if they divorced and could be the victim of domestic violence to which society, their neighbours, the police and law courts would turn a blind-eye.
Society itself has also changed, in the most part for the better. People with disabilities aren’t hidden away in faceless institutions any longer and quite rightly so; it is no longer acceptable to discriminate against someone for their colour, sexuality or religious beliefs. It can seem incredible to the modern readers that people of colour were described using words that I couldn’t bring myself say but I had to write in Call Nurse Millie and Fetch Nurse Connie in order that my readers could appreciate what life was really like just a generation ago.
The challenge I have as an historical author is always to use the fascinating historical detail of our grandmothers’ world around a cracking, page-turning romance story.