Review: Her Brilliant Career by Rachel Cooke

Her Brilliant Career

Her Brilliant Career

It might seem like this autumn’s been full of over-hyped, disappointing books, but there are still plenty of less flashy little wonders out there and Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties Observer writer Rachel Cooke’s first book – is definitely one of them. In ten neat essays on some unconventional and highly successful British women of the 1950s, she sets out to suggest that our ideas about life for women during that stuffy grey decade could do with a rethink. Her chosen subjects (she admits that she had trouble getting her ‘poor heroines’ down to just ten ‘they were too many, not too few’) aren’t only artsy writer types – instead they come from various backgrounds including law, architecture and film and show what women could and really were doing work-wise before the ‘revolution’ of the 1960s.

This is very much in the tradition of great social histories like Bachelor Girl and Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out in that its focus is how real (and really exceptional) women lived in the mid-twentieth century. From the starting point of each figure’s career and CV, Cooke creates a full portrait of the lady, thinking about everything that made her from her clothes and how she spoke to her motivations and ambitions. Like the very best biographers Cooke injects a pleasing amount of personal insight and wit into each essay with lengthy footnotes and asides to each career lady’s chapter. There’s also a proper introduction, handy timelines and fabulous appendices on fifties fashion and ‘richly subversive novels by women’ which woven together make this a satisfying read.

HBC is the kind of book that will have you making lists, scribbling down quotations and searching bookshops and IMDB for more. Cooke has revealed a whole historical, cultural world around these women which should have been there for us to see all along – in the archives of the BFI, on our shelves and beyond.

Her Brilliant Career is published by Virago at £18.99 hardback/ebook.

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