Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reading Journal: "I'm Not Complaining"

Ruth Adam, I'm Not Complaining. Originally published in 1938. Reissued by Virago Modern Classics in 1983.

In 1936, unemployment stood at 25% or more in some parts of England. In some northeastern cities, unemployment reached as high as 70%. Factories in the industrial north of England stood idle, and men who had once made their living mining coal were now reduced to scavenging slagheaps for scraps of coal to heat their homes. Families tottered on the edge of starvation. Chronically unemployed men soon lost their self-respect, and women in the labor force began to be viewed with renewed distrust. The modest gains that women had made in the workforce during the 1920s began to be erased, and marriage and domesticity were again promoted as women's proper sphere. Popular women's magazines, writes Ruth Adam in A Woman's Place, 1910-1975, "all rammed home the same messages, that a man's enduring love was the only important thing in the whole of a woman's life; and that if you did not find the whole absorbing world of shopping, cooking, knitting, and bringing up children sufficient to occupy your time and talents, it was only because there was something wrong with you." Experts worried, too, about the declining birthrate in England, which was blamed in part on women's entry into the workforce and the increased availability of contraception. One expert wrote in 1936: "The physiological need of every woman is unsatisfied if she does not bear children."

Domestic service, nursing, and teaching remained the only careers acceptable for women. Teaching was a profession for unmarried women; teachers were required to resign from their positions when they married in order to devote themselves to their husbands and families. It wasn't until 1944 that the ban on married teachers was lifted in Great Britain. It was generally accepted that young women would teach for a few years and then get married, but there were some teachers who remained unmarried "spinsters." These unmarried women, like Madge Brigson, the narrator of Ruth Adam's novel I'm Not Complaining (1938), were seen as somehow unnatural in a society that prized marriage and childbearing, and looked askance at independent working women.

This attitude can be seen in the opening pages of Adam's novel, in which Mrs. Hunt, the mother of a pack of ragged children in Miss Brigson's charity school, comes in to complain about the treatment of one of her sons. Mrs. Hunt calls the teachers "a lot of old maids [who] couldn't be expected to feel the same about children as them who had borne and brought [them] up." She says it's a disgrace that teachers collect "eight pounds a week for a soft job if ever there was one."

Like Barbara Pym's Miss Lathbury, Miss Brigson comments on the spinsterish propensity to meet every crisis with a cup of tea, but otherwise Miss Brigson is a breed apart from Pym's compliant, churchgoing spinsters. Madge is sharp-tongued and unsentimental. She's an excellent teacher, concerned for the welfare of children, but without sentimentalizing them. She's not without strong prejudices that occasionally, sometimes even tragically, blind her to the moral complexities of a situation. She worries about her future, without prospect of marriage, but chafes against the expectation that women must settle down to husbands and families or be considered defective.

In one nightmarish scene, Madge, while waiting for a tram, finds herself caught up in a clash between unemployed workers and the police. She finds herself carried along by visceral excitement and fear, but without conviction, unable to escape the momentum of events. Despite her often cutting remarks and her pose of ironic detachment, Madge isn't quite grounded. She isn't quite prepared to make her own way in life. She hasn't been able to accept herself for who she is. In her work, she's surrounded by characters whose convictions, for better or worse, are stronger and more vivid than her own: attractive man-hungry, social climbing Jenny; the ardent Communist Miss Simpson; the young curate, Mr. Gregory, whose earnestness makes him an easy target for Madge's sarcasm.

As Janet Morgan says in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition of the novel, Adam's books "are full of people who change their opinions, or people with fixed opinions who cause chaos thereby; of conflicts between two courses of action that both seem just; of the damage the well-intentioned can do to the weak—especially children." Life is a moral minefield, full of the potential for false moves and unintended consequences. Even our attempts to do the right thing can blow up in our faces. It's sometimes hard to know what to believe in, easier and safer to believe strongly in nothing at all. Sometimes the hardest thing, as Madge realizes, is to believe in yourself.

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