When I was little, there was a book knocking around our house called The Girl’s Companion. Among much that was thrilling, such as how to cover a lampshade and how to punch leather (I am not making this up), there was a very slim section called ‘Careers for Girls’. We could aspire to be nursery assistants, it seems, or kennel maids, air hostesses or nurses. Mmmm. It turned out that we were the generation surprisingly well-equipped for the social changes that have happened in our life-times. We may, it is true, have nurtured the secret hope that we could marry a scientist, an astronaut or a company director rather than going to all the trouble of actually being one ourselves, but we had one huge advantage over our male contemporaries. We did not grow up in the expectation that we would step onto the career ladder at Point A within company B and progress steadily upwards towards retirement. The lives we have actually lived, stitching together what hindsight grandly allows us to call a portfolio, changing tack with a panache that would warm Ellen MacArthur’s heart, came more easily to us, with our absence of expectations of anything more structured, than it did to the chaps. But today’s bright young things, emerging soggy-winged from university, know in principle that they must be prepared to duck and weave to forge themselves some sort of money-earning path through life. I think it must be perfectly miserable. They are hedged in by former class-mates on one side, glittery-eyed in the pursuit of telephone-number salaries and strapping themselves blindly to the unstable raft of financial service sector jobs as they head for thewhite water ahead: on the other, by dire warnings that they have missed the boat if they
haven’t yet picked an outfit to which to sell their soul. The idea that you might find your own way through the forest, guided by ethical values and quiet pleasure rather than naked greed, seems to have little currency at present. Time, I think, for some books to come to the rescue.
I was a great admirer of Sue Barton, the heroine of Helen Dore Boylston’s series, without ever feeling the slightest tug towards nursing as a vocation. The Sue Barton books – Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Rural Nurse – you get the idea – are in fact set in the American hospital and nursing world of the Twenties and Thirties, but what impressed me as a child was the comradeship, warm friendships and selflessness of the central characters. They worked hard, overcame difficulties, and went at life with zest and passion: not bad as role models. Helen Dore Boylston was following that age-old advice , ‘write about what you know’, having been a nurse in Massachusetts and New York. I am only sorry that she did not also send Sue Barton off to re-enact her extremely action-packed life as a nurse on the Western Front in the First World War and later as an American in Paris – and Warsaw, and Albania.
If not medicine, how about teaching? Governesses in fiction very rarely lead lives of beer and skittles (Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, the very peculiar governess in Henry James’s Turn of the Screw), but the life of a country schoolmistress had its charms once upon a time. How about the gloriously-named Miss Fancy Day in Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree? Or, indeed, that NorthernReader favourite, the shrewdly perceptive Miss Read, heroine and pseudonymous author of a wonderful series which, beginning some sixty years ago, is already taking its proper place as an important contribution to English rural social history. Most villages now, alas, have The Old Schoolhouse, along with The Old Post Office and The Old Bakery, and few and lucky are the children who can run across the green to school
There’s always office work, of course. George Bernard Shaw (oh blast! We really must talk about the lure of the middle name one of these days) simultaneously examines, celebrates and undermines the new and few opportunities for employment available to women at the turn of the last century in Mrs Warren’s Profession. While Mrs Warren’s career choice has been what has long been coyly referred to as the oldest, her daughter rejects her mother and her business empire in order to begin her own, more legitimate, business. But, this being Shaw – in other words, clever, thought-provoking and dancing with wit – the play questions our whole notion that one career might have a greater or lesser moral value than another or be more or less freely entered into. This seems as good a moment as any to notice that the dreary trajectory of job-related sexism across the ages has been for a career to be exclusively male and high status – teacher, secretary – and, once women have won the hard-fought battle to gain entry, to be largely deserted by men and become lower-paid and lower status. It is going to be grimly interesting to see what happens to the public perception of doctors now that more than 50% of medical students are female.
But at least there are now no jobs that women cannot consider. Goodness, even the Church of England has got over itself and agreed that God might not be revolted by women bishops after all. The world of my childhood, in which all taxi-drivers, lorry drivers and pilots (civilian, military or sky) were male seems now as remote as the age of chivalry. That Girl’s Companion proved a false prophetess: I never did become a hairdresser, a beautician or a florist. Nor, in truth, did I become an engineer or a lion-tamer, but at least I was barred from all these occupations only by lack of talent and interest rather than gender. No, better by far to follow the career advice given, perhaps unsurprisingly, by so many books. Sometimes, as in life, we’re not sure if it’s ever going to work out – Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – but deep down, don’t we all want to be writers?