Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sugar Girls and G.I. Brides

Last year in an attempt to read more non fiction while at the same time not reading fewer novels I read a social history of the sugar girls in London as the authors interviewed a number of workers and made a narrative from their memories. The book rode the trends of London history, passion for the East End (Call the Midwife) and now-vanished industry. Only natural that the covers should be white with a selection of black and white photos with foil lettering.

The authors have followed up their success by turning to the G.I. brides from an English courtship to American marriage. It's one of those books that, while fascinating, makes you grateful to live in an era when a woman holds her own passport almost as a matter of course and has her own bank account. I was also wondering if we'd see anything close to a happy ending as some of the men lost all glamour when they returned to civilian life and proved to be alcoholics, poor workers, gamblers and routinely unfaithful. I almost gave up on a happy ending, but read on. Early years of a marriage aren't always the pattern of the later relationship and for that, at least, I'm grateful.

I've been fascinated by the Mass Observation publications and the personal stories that have followed on from this trend. Nella Last, of course, is one of the best, but the four G.I. brides featured here are strong women whose hard work and unwillingness to abandon a difficult marriage is inspiring. Modern attitudes would encourage a woman to leave a drunken or womanising husband, but the 1940s/1950s attitude of 'you've made your bed, you lie in it' left these women with few choices. The expense of an Atlantic crossing made it very difficult to return to family even if their family would accept them back.

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