“Secrets, silent, stony, sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.” James Joyce, Ulysses
Maybe it’s a symptom of living in almost certain safety, to find the idea of banned books romantic. Imagine: the soft crackling of a paper bag containing a hard-back first edition, slipped from one lap to another on a busy train as it rattles from the coast to the countryside. Lolita smuggled from Paris; Lady Chatterley’s Lover rifled through in closed rooms. It seems to fit in nicely with a picturesque old country in my mind: inked out titles on bookshelves; vicar’s tobacco; servants and wives.
Ofcourse the banning of books is not romantic; it just seems that way when it’s a distant relic of the past. The prosecution of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover opened famously with the words: ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ There they are: wives and servants (one category). It must have got the trial off to a lively start. Ban this naughty book! The underlings with remain docile as long as the idea of a volatile romance never occurs to them.
When Ulysses was banned in the UK in the 1930s, the BBC were forbidden from even mentioning it on air. What were the British establishment so afraid of in a book?
It was in this atmosphere that a secret magazine was born. Those very wives who were to be protected by the banning of books – starved of meaningful work or intellectual stimulation, forced by law to give up paid employment when they married – embarked, almost accidently, on a journey of secret, anonymous correspondence that would last seven decades. The things they wrote surpassed the most scandalous fiction.
I read about the Co-Operative Correspondence Club in Jenna Bailey’s amazing book, Can Any Mother Help Me? I usually avoid non-fiction because it tends to be a fraught experience. I read books for distraction, and because I have very little interest in real life, which is usually boring. Non-fiction does not help to distract from the pain of being alive: it is the pain of being alive.
However, this time, I was swayed by a random excellent review I read one day online while trying to distract myself from the pain of being alive. A secret magazine? Stories of mild peril and wild romance? Alright then. I’m in.
It all began in July, 1935. In the women’s magazine Nursery World, a woman (using the pseudonym ‘Ubique’) wrote from Ballingate in Ireland, asking, Can Any Mother Help Me? – ‘I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books […] I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed […] Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me… and cost nothing!’
There was a flood of sympathetic responses from women all over the country, similarly trapped and lonely. There were so many letters that Ubique couldn’t afford the stamps to reply to them all – and this was how a secret club was born. It was proposed that the responses would be collected into a magazine, with a hand-stitched cover, and this would be circulated amongst all the letter-writers, passed from one to another with any writer welcome to add their thoughts in the margins. Each chose a pseudonym, lest the magazine be read by prying eyes on its rounds across the country. Parameters were gently enforced, with a sort of unwritten group instinct – judgements were made sensitively but not hidden; no subject was taboo; and there was a joyful, friendly competitiveness to the writing. When a younger member primly alluded to her method of birth control, another woman wrote in the margins ‘No blushes here’. Each woman wrote compellingly, wittily, striving to amuse, entertain, and comfort the others, as much as she could. A secret world of safety and consolation had been created.
It’s fascinating to follow them, from worn-down days of interminable housework (you can see them in grey, with their cinched waists and full skirts, smoking endlessly in sunny kitchens), to the sudden tumults of war, and onward into the fifties, the suddenly colourful sixties and seventies – now grandmothers in flat shoes and twin-sets.
A lot of the early entries describe the frustrations of (sometimes reluctant) motherhood. Accidia, struggling to cope as a mother of four, despairs of her husband’s laziness: ‘lucky Daddy, who dresses placidly and half asleep, unconscious of the turmoil around him and unmolested by the throng’, she writes bitterly. Yonire writes hilariously in the margins: ‘My husband jolly well mucks in and shares the work – after all, they are his children (as far as we know)’.
The most unforgettable contribution is quite early on, from Roberta. She tells of a Sunday in the midst of the Second World War. She sets the scene of her domestic idyll with her husband (it’s clear from her later contributions that he remains, always, even after their divorce, the love of her life; but all of that is still ahead of her when she writes): ‘The sun has always shone for us on Sundays. We have had such a lovely summer, haven’t we? Today is no different’. After hours spent breakfasting and half-heartedly making beds and cleaning, Roberta ‘sauntered out into the sun with a lighted cigarette’. It’s a serene vision, just beginning to sound eerie and strange in its perfection, and then the planes arrive. The sky is ‘humming’ with them. ‘Nothing to worry about, we said, too far off’ but they all go inside, and then hear the sudden roaring, very close, of six planes ‘fighting like mad’. There’s a fearful noise, a rush, a crash, and one of the planes has come down, narrowly missing their house. They sit down to lunch – sober, quiet – and the ‘lovely, oh lovely’ view from their house is now marred by ‘the ruins of once a plane’. Later, the adults go down to the site of the crash together, and Roberta reports on the pilot’s body in pieces beneath the stained silk of his parachute. ‘He was someone’s child’, she writes, ‘someone’s brother perhaps, sweetheart, husband. This is war’, she despairs. ‘We are caught by the necks. We cannot be free’.
Yonire, on the other hand, provides outlandish, brilliant – sometimes wildly elaborate – tales of the things she gets up to. She steals into a church in the centre of Edinburgh one night with a friend, who is on a demented, inebriated quest to play Bach this very minute. He gets his wish (she insists that he plays something respectable on the organ before they depart, to leave the church in the same atmosphere they found it). On their way out, however, it suddenly turns nightmarish, as he traps her in a dark staircase, grabs her by the throat and attempts to sexually assault her. Yonire realises very quickly that ‘he means business’, so she slips off a shoe and beats him about the head. He collapses, and lies – she presumes, dead – on the church floor, blood pooling from his skull. Yonire lights a cigarette and considers her options: as she writes to the other women, ‘well, what would you have done? I thought over my chances of escaping the gallows if I went over to the policeman still on duty outside the Caledonian Hotel and said ‘I’ve just killed a man. We were playing Bach in St John’s. It was self-defence’, and decided they were poor’. Eventually her friend stirs and rubs his head dazedly, and is a little upset that she appeared to be calmly smoking a cigarette over his ‘dead’ body. Yonire remains unruffled by his distress.
The lots drawn by each woman are the most poignant part of this book: amongst the contributors, some are unhappy for decades in marriages that spiral into estrangement. Others remain deeply in love with their husbands and write of sunny days with grandchildren. Yonire is at the helm of a sheep farm in the borders and five sons, as well as a husband who adores her. Some women who write cleverly and beautifully seem never to find the fulfillment they crave, and despair of the housework that will never be done. In one particularly shocking tale, written in a series titled ‘revelations’, Isis tells of her experience of falling in love with the family doctor. It is perfectly chaste, all very Brief Encounter, until she decides to do something about it. What she does it tell the doctor reasonably that she can’t see him anymore, for reasons he must have guessed. The doctor responds, ‘when your duty and your inclination don’t go together, you must make them’. But he then takes the further measure of telling her husband everything. The solution cooked up is for Isis to be sent for electroshock therapy; there is, later, a failed suicide attempt. Isis stays with her husband. She writes to the CCC about it all, able to get it down on the page only at a distance of several years.
Others – particularly the younger writers, who were coming into their own in the 1960s and 1970s – step right out into the brave new world. Angharad becomes a playwright (behind her pseudonym she is Elaine Morgan, author of The Descent of Women, a riposte to 1970s evolutionist theories). This begins when her husband agrees that she can have a much-longed-for third child, if she can raise £1000, so that they can afford it. Angharad busily writes to the others in the CCC about it. There’s a wonderful feeling of many side-long glances at this news. Some bravely express the general feeling: ‘ever thought of tempting him? Or cheating him?’ Angharad rebuffs them. ‘I can tempt him easily enough, and he always joyfully succumbs’, she reassures them wickedly. The only problem is that he is just as determined to prevent an accidental pregnancy as she is to fill the house with children. The lovely, intimate game of trust between them is established: she’ll earn the money, and he’ll stick to his side of the bargain (she does, and he does; in the end they adopted a third child once she had earned the cash by selling to the BBC some spectacularly successful drama scripts).
Time marches on, and capable wives and mothers and grandmothers become old women dependent on adult children, or ensconced in nursing homes. By the late 1980s, one of the writers, Janna, comments that the magazine is becoming a ‘ghastly Agatha Christie play’, with members disappearing from one issue to the next. Yonire – so full of life – leaves a deep bruise of sorrow when she passes away very unexpectedly in her seventies.
A-Priori and her husband Lough have a wonderful ramshackle life together, living at one point in a thirty-bedroom wreck of a manor house. While undergoing radiotherapy in her seventies, she still gamely sets about Oxford on her moped, or sometimes, on a rickety old bike. Lough is a sculptor who is much sheltered by his wife, and finds himself utterly at sea once she has gone. Shortly after her death he makes a sculpture of an angel to commemorate her (in St Mary’s Church in London) and when it is done, he tells his daughter, although he hoped to be able to move on with his life, ‘I know she’s waiting for me. She’s waiting for me just outside a door, and I’ve got to find that door’. He passed away that same afternoon.
Many keep writing up to the very end – Cotton Goods writes about life in her son’s spare room. After she has had another fall, a visiting doctor asks what happened, and she tells him she had a fight in a pub. She takes out her false teeth for family photos to make the most gruesome grin she can. She writes to the CCC about the effects of morphia, and hazy days entirely given over to a joyful vivid revisiting of her childhood.
I read a lot of this book trying very hard to disbelieve the heartbreak and believe only in the utmost happiness of the women (and there were quite a few of them) who really got everything they wanted from life. The book felt so much more dangerous to read than fiction – because everything, the lost loves, the serene happy summers, the body beneath a silk parachute, the last days in a morphia haze – all really happened. When Gabriel Garcia Marquez – author of fiction that plays very fast and loose with the raw material of life – received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he made the beautiful humble assertion that the role of fiction was ‘to render our lives believable’. Ofcourse reality is the real fright, the real risk, a strangeness we cannot easily believe in.
And for the people who were up in arms about the ‘obscenity’ of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it seems the true stories that were being swapped in secret by the women of the Co-operative Correspondence Club would have been beyond their imagining.
First photo – Henri Cartier Bresson, Paris, 1959.