What was the life of a British girl really like?
August 3, 2010 6:57 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn about life as a normal British girl from the mid 1800s on through to the 1960s?

This is research for a fairly epic story that has been brewing in my head for quite some time.

I'm an American and although I have a fairly good sense of world history, I'm not comfortable in my knowledge of British cultural details, and the life of normal girls is something that you don't find too much in history books. Although I've always enjoyed reading classic British children's literature, and in fact have a long-standing interest in J.M. Barrie and his associates, I never really have formed a clear picture of what it would have been like to be a teenager or a young woman in England any time earlier than the modern era, around the 1960s or so.

Also, of course, there's a big difference between classes - I'm mostly interested in people who weren't particularly rich, but could afford to "keep a household", although this could require adjustment as I write my story. I'm interested in girls from around age 10 to their mid 20s, or whatever would be considered a full grown woman at the time.

One of my areas of preexisting knowledge lies in the Jewish diaspora of the late 19th and early 20th century, and I understand to a certain extent what life was like for British Jews (and other begrudgingly welcomed immigrants) of that time, but I'm not interested in that angle for this story. I also have a solid grounding in art history, with a hearty appreciation for the Arts and Crafts and Scottish Art Nouveau movements, but again, this is an aspect that is rarefied and has little bearing on the typical experiences and lifestyles of normal people of the time.

Are there nonfiction books about the lives of young women (young men would also be of interest to me, but not as much) of that time period, with things about how they went to school, what they wore, what they were expected to do in the household, and so-on? Are there any good fiction books that would give me a clear sense of the time period as well? I've read lots of Victorian children's literature, with the various heavy handed allusions to Jesus and the morals and the symbolism, and they've always struck me as completely unrealistic. Websites, movies, and other sources of information would be good, too.

I'd love really detailed information about things, like what a girl at certain ages was expected to know how to do, what sort of romantic styles of courting and the common slang relating to these activities were allowed, what a girl's relationship to her mother and father would be like, where they would sleep and what they would sleep on, what sort of things were particularly different from an American girl of the same time period, and of course, how all of these things changed over time in the century I'm interested in. I've only touched on the tip of the iceberg of what I'm interested in. If there's a big fat heavy textbook out there for me to read, or maybe a collection of correspondence, that would be fabulous. I've had this story bubbling in my brain for going on five years now, and it's time I get started on it, and do it right.

Thanks for helping me out, Hivemind! Remember, keep calm and carry citations.
posted by Mizu to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It's not about girls and young women specifically, but you might check out Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders. I thought it gave a really interesting look at people's daily lives, using the various rooms of the home as a framework to cover many different topics, including the lives of children and young adults.
posted by Janta at 7:12 AM on August 3, 2010

Isn't it going to be easier to hear it from the horse's mouth? An 18 year old girl in 1960 will be 68 today? It wouldn't be hard to find a sixty-something British woman.

Anyway, if you want the life of a very upper class young woman, one place to start is the Mitford sisters.

They wrote a lot of letters to one another. Obviously most of these will be as adults. The last one was sent between 83 year old Deborah to 93 year old Diana. But still, worth a look. The letters apparently date from 1923-2003.

FYI - the Mitford sisters were anything but ordinary in many respects.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:13 AM on August 3, 2010

Also not about girls and women specifically, but a fun read nonetheless: What Jane Austen Ate And What Charles Dickens Knew
posted by padraigin at 7:14 AM on August 3, 2010

Enid Blyton wrote some boarding school books aimed at teenage girls in the 1940s.

You don't get much of the "household" stuff, and it's hard to tell how much of their behaviour is the author's moralising and how much is realistic, but it could be a start.
posted by emilyw at 7:19 AM on August 3, 2010

Response by poster: I realize upon reread that I wasn't particularly clear. I'm much more interested in the mid-1800s up to the Great War or so than I am the period after that, mostly because I know I can more easily find sources for myself from the 20th century. The gap in my knowledge goes up until around about the British Invasion and the Beatles and all that, but I'm fairly confident I can fill it in down towards the turn of the century. That's where things get really sketchy, and where I'm the most interested.

Also, if there are any works of satire or other forms of literary comedy from those periods, I think that would be valuable to me as well, as long as it had to do with girls or women in some way.
posted by Mizu at 7:28 AM on August 3, 2010

Along the same lines as emilyw you could look at the school stories of Angela Brazil, Elsie Oxenham (Abbey Girls) and Elinor M Brent-Dyer (Chalet School). I'm not sure when Brazil wrote but both Oxenham and Brent-Dyer were writing about contemporary schoolgirls between the 1920s and the 1950s. As well as the books themselves there are also fan sites which go into detail about how the stories compare to real experiences. Biographies of female children's authors might also be helpful as they are more likely to explore childhood and teenage years.

From the 1910s onwards, lots of 'normal' middle-class girls would have been Girl Guides, if you can get hold of any old handbooks or other information that might help.
posted by plonkee at 7:31 AM on August 3, 2010

Molly Hughes' A London Family would probably be helpful for you.
posted by JanetLand at 7:53 AM on August 3, 2010

Try looking through back issues of the Girls' Own Paper, which ran from 1880 to the nineteen fifities. Lots of fashion and social advice, fiction and non-fiction articles. Might be hard to get copies of, though.
posted by Tapioca at 8:11 AM on August 3, 2010

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson might be exactly the sort of thing you're looking for. It's a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels describing the childhood and young adulthood of a girl in Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire at the end of the 19th century.
posted by CheeseLouise at 8:27 AM on August 3, 2010

I haven't actually read this yet (it was a Baltimore Book Thing find!) buy Gwen Raverat's Period Piece sounds like what you're looking for. Raverat was one of Charles Darwin's granddaughters, and the book is her account of growing up in Victorian Cambridge. It has chapters entitled "Education," "Ladies," "Propriety," and "Clothes," among others.

I also second Inside the Victorian Home. That's a fascinating book, and I bet its bibliography is a great place to find other sources.
posted by apricot at 8:33 AM on August 3, 2010

Seconding Molly Hughes' autobiographies.
posted by Quietgal at 9:36 AM on August 3, 2010

The standard and most recent academic text on childhood in upper and middle class families during this period is Anthony Fletcher, Growing up in England: the experience of childhood 1600-1914 (2008). Not on Google Preview sadly but it is out in paperback now so it's relatively cheap. It will give you all sorts of jumping off points for primary sources and other histories.
posted by greycap at 9:55 AM on August 3, 2010

I know you're primarily looking at earlier periods, but there have been some very interesting collections of "Mass Observation" materials published recently.

In case you haven't come across it before, Mass Observation was a British Government-run project to collect diary entries from a wide range of ordinary people, many of whom were young women. It ran from 1937 to the 1950s. The submissions contain often fascinating, often mundane day to day details of how people led their lives. They are surprisingly honest and forthcoming.

A number of different editors have created volumes of these diaries with specific themes - a search on amazon for "mass observation" will give you a good list.

Have you seen any "Upstairs Downstairs"? It might give you some ideas about life (in service mainly, but also generally) for young women from I think around 1903/4 right up to 1930. The story lines were very much based on historical events, and I remember one episode particularly dealt with conditions for women working in munitions factories.

I don't really have anything substantial to offer for earlier periods, but personally, I love the website The Victorian Dictionary.
posted by unbearablylight at 10:01 AM on August 3, 2010

I know you've said you're not really after post-Great War sources, but Cider with Rosie might be useful anyway, for a rural perspective.
posted by Helga-woo at 10:05 AM on August 3, 2010

Lorna Sage didn't have a particularly typical girlhood -- she grew up in the 1940s and '50s in a Welsh village as the impoverished granddaughter of the local vicar, got pregnant while still in her teens, and went on to become a hghly regarded writer and academic -- but I think there's still a lot of period detail in her memoir, Bad Blood, which you might find useful. (And it's a fascinating book, besides.)
posted by scody at 11:49 AM on August 3, 2010

Response by poster: Awesome! Lots of great places for me to start, thank you AskMe! I don't know if there are any best answers yet; I'll probably just work my way down the list. If you have any further suggestions, please let me know.

I just managed to make a whole shelf's-worth of space among my books. Guess it won't be long until I fill that back up!
posted by Mizu at 4:50 PM on August 3, 2010

Georgette Heyer was a romance writer known for her meticulous research. She focused on the Regency and Edwardian periods. Of course her women were upper middle class to minor nobility, but I think her books could be a good source of slang terms and fashions.
posted by anotherkate at 8:59 PM on August 3, 2010

Out Of The Dolls House is a good book to track down, if you can.

Which part of Britain? Few women kept a household, particularly in industrial towns where the working mother was common even then. Religion makes a difference (Catholic, Protestant, and if we're up to the 1960s, the first big waves of Indian sub-continent and West Indian immigration - the Jewish community here is smaller and generally concentrated around cities) - there isn't really such thing as a 'normal British girl' as there are lots of variables! Remember very very few children ever went to the schools you may read about in Victorian or Blyton's school stories. Many would have left school at fourteen or fifteen.

Most northern children went to visit old poorhouses and mills for their GCSE history - many of these have displays about what life was like then. Try the Styal Mill website (that was where we went for our trip).You may also find Michael Young's Family and Kinship in East London and Ronald Blythe's Akenfield interesting for an insight into urban and working class communities. For the later end of your period, Austerity Britain and Family Britain by David Kynaston are huge works of social history.

Also, try Persephone Books. They specialise in reprinting lost classics of women's writing, including Molly Hughes - I'd suggest e-mailing them and see what they recommend. Also, Pathe films may help.
posted by mippy at 6:59 AM on August 4, 2010

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