Wish You Were Here? Britain between the Wars: Martin Pugh Argues That Life during the Interwar Years Was Brighter Than Has Often Been Suggested, in Spite of Its Association with Economic Depression and the Rise of Fascism

By Pugh, Martin | History Today, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Wish You Were Here? Britain between the Wars: Martin Pugh Argues That Life during the Interwar Years Was Brighter Than Has Often Been Suggested, in Spite of Its Association with Economic Depression and the Rise of Fascism


Pugh, Martin, History Today


The social history of interwar Britain has been heavily coloured by economics and politics. It often presents a gloomy picture of a society dogged by mass unemployment and class conflict, punctuated by futile protests such as the General Strike and the hunger marches, all presided over by uncaring coalition and National governments that cultivated the dictators while Europe drifted towards fascism. Such perceptions have been influenced by vivid pieces of contemporary writing including Walter Greenwood's Love On The Dole (1933), Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (1933), George Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), and Ellen Wilkinson's The Town That Was Murdered (1939). Yet the authors' combination of literary skill and political bias make these dubious sources for social history. For example, Orwell's famous account of Northern life during the slump relies on the embellishments of the novelist and journalist rather than the dispassionate analysis he was commissioned to write by the Left Book Club.

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In particular, the moving contemporary novels and autobiographical accounts of the 'Lost Generation', notably by Vera Brittain, have proved problematical for later writers who have found it tempting to assume that as a result of the 750,000 British male wartime deaths the interwar generation of women were deprived of husbands. Although the disruption caused by the war temporarily reduced the marriage rate, it soon picked up again and gathered pace through the 1930s. Despite the death of her beloved Roland Leighton in 1915, Vera Brittain herself did marry ten years later. Barbara Cartland, eighteen when the war ended, was inundated with forty-nine proposals of marriage up to 1927 when she finally accepted one. On her own admission Cartland's charms were formidable, but the idea of a dearth of husbands is a powerful myth stoked up by Daily Mail propaganda about 'Our Surplus Girls' in the aftermath of war. The newspapers, thirsting for a romantic marriage to focus the thoughts of the young, enthusiastically hailed the engagement of Lady Diana Manners to the impecunious Duff Cooper in May 1919; the Daily Sketch devoted its entire front page to reports and photographs of the couple. Similar fanfares attended the weddings of" Edwina Ashley to Dickie Mountbatten in 1922 and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to Albert, Duke of York, in 1923. The women's magazines, fearful that emancipation and feminism were distracting women from their true vocation, eagerly promoted marriage as 'The Best Job Of All' throughout the 1920s, and My Weekly (January 25th, 1919), concerned that many men were too demoralized to take the initiative after the war, debated the question: 'Should a girl propose?'.

But they need not have worried. The war largely ended the mass emigration of young men to America and the colonies that had carried off' the nation's potential husbands in the Victorian-Edwardian era. The war, perhaps by fostering a need for security, triggered a long-term trend towards marriage that continued right up to the 1970s; as a result, a higher proportion of British men and women married from the 1930s to the 1970s than had done so before 1914. In the higher reaches of society matters concerning the marriage market were complicated by the steady decline of chaperones and coming-out balls, but ways were found of dealing with this. In 1939 the twentyfive-year-olds Heather Jenner and Mary

Oliver opened their marriage bureau in Bond Street. On the first day 250 applicants appeared: 'I never thought so many people in social circles would seek assistance', admitted Miss Oliver. Interestingly, the men paid five guineas initially and twenty if they married, while the women were charged according to their means, sometimes as little as ten shillings.

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So strong was the urge to marry that people were not deterred by the economic depression; indeed they began to marry at a younger age regardless of their financial insecurity. …

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