Notes from British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature: Alternative Domestic Spaces by Terri Mulholland

p. 3 “Women living in boarding houses are diverse characters. They are not only widows and elderly spinsters, they are also younger working women, such as T.S. Eliot’s ‘typist home at teatime’ in The Waste Land, who must make her room serve as both bedroom and living space, with her ‘food in tins’ alongside her ‘drying combinations’. They may inhabit similar rooms, but their experiences are very different. There is Miriam Henderson, a young dental secretary, in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (1915-67_ series, embracing her independent life and her own ‘triumphant faithful latchkey’ and Mary Datchet in Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day (1919), an active member of the women’s suffrage movement who is portrayed working with purpose in her single room. They provide a sharp contrast to the middle-aged and unnamed protagonist of Storm Jameson’s novella A Day Off (1933), who lives a precarious life of uncertainty, waiting for money from her lover to pay the rent on her bed-sitting room. Boarding house rooms and the men who pay for them are also features of Jean Rhys’s interwar novels, where her female protagonists not only occupy spaces outside the family home, they also enact roles outside the domestic ideal, merging the boundaries between the wife in the house and the prostitute on the street. There are also the women who run boarding and lodging houses, as depicted in Stella Gibbon’s novel Bassett (1934), who experience the conflicts between the home as both commercial and family space. A common theme throughout all these novels is poverty; even those in paid employment struggle to make ends meet on their meagre salaries.”

“Life for women in Britain between the two World Wars has been retrospectively defined by its contradictions: increasing independence and greater opportunities outside the home, contrasted with a dominant ideology which maintained that a woman’s place was firmly within the familial structure. Census data for England and Wales shows the number of single women over the age of 25 increased from around two million in 1911 to over two and a half million by 1931, far outnumbering the number of single men whose numbers had not even reached two million.”

p. 8 “Between 1861 and 1911 female clerical workers in London increased from 279 to 569,850. There were around five million female workers at the beginning of the century making up 29 per cent of the total workforce…. Accommodation for the professional woman included the Ladies Residential Chambers on Chenies Street (built in 1888) and York Street (built in 1892) and Sloan Gardens House (built in 1889), which was run by the Ladies’ Associated Dwellings Company. However, these … had a long waiting list. They were also relatively expensive: the Chambers ranged in price from 30 to 90 pounds per year making it too expensive for the majority of working women. Sloane Gardens House was more affordable at 10 shillings per week for an unfurnished room, compared to between 18 and 25 shillings per week in a private ladies’ boarding house. In an article in The Contemporary Review in 1900, Alice Zimmern suggested that a woman would need to earn at least one pound per week to afford around 15 shillings on board an lodging and suggests that: “The lady who earns less presents a problem for the wages rather than the housing question”.

p. 126 “Writing in 1937, the American Mary Ellen Chase observes how on early Sunday evenings the streets of Bloomsbury ‘are punctuated by Americans traversing the distance from their rooms in boarding-houses and a hundred small hotels to the nearest red pillarboxe3s to post their Sunday letters home’.

p. 128 “For those women without the money to socialise in the more affluent circles, the metropolis did not necessarily foster the supportive community of expatriates they had envisaged. The New Zealand writer Jane Mander made a frugal living as a writer and editor in interwar London nad had a wide circle of acquaintances, but her compatriot Robin Hyde did not thrive in her new environment, and her ill health, depression and lack of money led her to commit suicide in her Kensington boarding house in 1939 … As Louise Mack herself acknowledged …”There are three grades of homelessness in London – Boarding-house, Apartments, Flat. If you live in Boarding-houses you cannot be known. If you live in Apartments you can go and see your friends. If you have a flat your friends can come and see you.”

p. 130 “Nancy Wake, an Australian who became famous for her work as a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, travelled to London in 1932 and took up residence in a ‘cheap boarding house’ on the Cromwell Road. Like many of those growing up as part of the British Empire, Wake’s initial reactions to England, and particularly London, were mediated through the representations absorbed in childhood that had become as familiar to her as actual experience .. grown up in Australia singing a rhyme about Big Ben: I am Big Ben/Hear what I say/All other clocks/Get out of my way”. The implied message of British domination in this childhood rhyme was adopted unquestioningly by wake once she was in London. London’s history ‘made Sydney look infantile in comparison’ and Wake ‘felt a little sniffy when she gazed back on the tired old life she imagined her friends and family must be living in Sydney’.

Books

Louise Mack An Australian Girl in London

Sara Jeannette Duncan An American Girl in London

Louise Closser Hale An American’s London (1920)

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