Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2020

Sensational Snippets: Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen

I am reading, thanks to the generosity of the author Amanda Curtin who lent it to me, Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1893–1947), a book that I discovered when I was reading Je Suis Parisienne, Remarkable Women in France 1880-1945 by Rosemary Lancaster.  I am liking this amusing, self-deprecating autobiography so much that I do not want to give it back, and have ordered a copy of my own.  This is just a sample of the wit and wisdom of this wonderful artist, whose writing style suggests that she could well have made a career as a writer as well.

This excerpt comes as Bowen is looking back on her life with husband Ford Madox Ford.  At this stage of the narrative, he has not yet betrayed her, and she has not yet had to set up again on her own with her daughter Julia.  But she is acutely aware that her own ambitions as an artist have taken second place to his career, and she is smart enough to recognise that the causation of her looming predicament is tied to the limitations of women’s roles in society:

It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back a good deal.  You begin longing for a satisfactory emotional life even before you are grown-up, and this occupies an unreasonable amount of your thoughts and energies.  When at last the emotional event comes, you put into it everything you have got.  Afterwards you begin to grow up and to see more of the sky than can be filled by one person, but if by then you have given your life into that person’s keeping, you will have become bound and entwined in every detail of your being, and will have developed simply into a specialist in ministering to his own particular needs. Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to this kind of specialisation, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it.  And you will very likely find that it suits you well enough,  But beware; unlike other specialists you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service.  Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.  By the time you are forty, you will probably have got your children through babyhood and provided your husband with all the emotional excitement he is going to get out of being in love with you. Teachers will step in to educate your children, and sirens to educate your husband, whose own career will be just beginning to expand.  There remains the housekeeping, your social life, and possibly a profound friendship with your spouse, but this is definitely less than what you have been accustomed to.  Can you make a life of it?

If the home and the children were unconditionally your own, and the social structure of your life did not depend on the most fragile of bases—a human relationship—one might demand that you should make a life of it.  One can’t have a home that is safe and comfortable without some woman devoting herself to making it so.  Perhaps it is a luxury trade, but even so—it deserves a safer foundation than can be provided by tying some poor devil of a man to the domestic wheel by all the traditional trickery of virtuous womanhood.  A desperate plight for both, with a bad money system at the bottom of it, which leads to the clumsy and humiliating absurdities of the divorce laws.

(Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen, Virago (Penguin), 1984, (first published 1941)
ISBN: 0860686558, pp.140-141)

Thanks again to Amanda, who blogs here. You can read my reviews of all her books here, including the most recent one, Kathleen O’Connor of Paris which was her reason for researching the expat artist community in Paris, with this wonderful book.

If this excerpt has whetted your appetite, alas Drawn from Life is long out of print, but there were copies at Abebooks on the day I searched.  Alas, they are in America so, with postage, they are expensive.

 


Responses

  1. This sounds wonderful.

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    • It is, it is, I am loving it to bits.

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  2. I think people can borrow it from Trove

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    • I didn’t know you could actually do that. How does it work, like an inter-library loan?

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  3. Isn’t that so true and so beautifully written: “Afterwards you begin to grow up and to see more of the sky than can be filled by one person”. I was that guy with all the support of such a woman, but even knowing it, as I do now though not then, what can we do? Delaying parenting seems to be the most common answer, one which is leading to declining western populations (not necessarily a bad thing!).

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    • What can we do indeed?
      I think that as a first step, and I think we are pretty much there with this, we should have the expectation that all women (and all men) should finish their education so that they can access the workforce. People who don’t, are always vulnerable to having the worst-paid, least secure jobs.
      In more enlightened schools, there is even a process for girls who become pregnant as teenagers, so that they can stay at school and get support afterwards if they want to keep their babies. But also, birth control and abortion rights are much better than they were in Bowen’s day, giving women much more of a choice. Though I doubt if many young women in this predicament are aware of just what the consequences of their choice will be.
      There is no doubt that some jobs are much better than others for women, and not all jobs can be made family friendly, even if you do have a partner who takes equal responsibility. Stay out of the workforce for too long having children, and it’s hard to get back in and/or to progress at the same trajectory as a male. The fact is that if you take 5-7 years out of your work as a specialist surgeon or a high-end chef or a musician or an artist, you have missed 5-7 years of experience and 5-7 years of technological development in that profession. There are dozens of careers like this where skill development and experience matter, and IMO women are better off avoiding them unless they have a real passion for it, or are content to offload the Offspring into child care from the outset. (Or don’t have children).
      But at the end of the day, I think it comes back to attitudes. If, fundamentally, you believe that running a household and bringing up children is an equal responsibility, to be shared equally, you can make it work. If, deep down, there’s a tendency to log off and leave it to someone else, then that is a real problem, and one that I think still bedevils too many relationships.

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      • That’s the thing isn’t it, the market economy puts no value on child rearing. So we need the government to value it on society’s behalf, and that means at the very least an income and proper super. Lost career experience though is a whole other question.

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        • And the point is that people have to make their decisions based on how things are now, not on some idealistic dream of a fair and equitable future.

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  4. Those quotes are stunning, so considered and incisive. What a shame this is hard to get hold of.

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  5. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it, Lisa :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds marvellous. I may be tracking down a copy before the prices go through the roof…..

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  7. I remember hearing two (female) junior medical officers talking at a hospital I worked at. One was saying to the other “I really want to train as an anaesthetist, but that takes six years and I want to have children”. It’s very difficult for women isn’t it in professions such as this. Even if she has childcare, pregnancy doesn’t always go smoothly, and she can’t afford time out of training…

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    • Exactly. I think most of us have moved on from the idea that we can have it all and that we have to be Wonderwoman. Of course, a couple can agree that she will have the baby and he will stay home and look after it and accept the damage to his career, but often we don’t know in advance just how much we will yearn to be with that baby during its formative years.

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  8. Ouch. That quote contains painful truths.
    This sounds wonderful. I found a copy for $1,175.00 on line so will ask my l when they reopen if they can help.

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  9. Re difficult to find books Lisa – I went to my local bookstore after the Kylie Tennant out of print book I wanted & they told me Allen & Unwin will run off one copy for me for a cost of only $17.00 – it’s been ordered. I was pretty impressed with that service!

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    • That’s Print on Demand, isn’t it? I’ve often wondered how that works, that is, how we go about ‘demanding’ it!

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  10. […] the TBR.  This novel explores the same dilemma in fiction that featured in real life in the Sensational Snippet that I posted from Bowen’s book.  As the bookcover blurb says: Artist, lover, wife, mother: […]

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  11. […] Update 25/6/20 See also the review at Neglected Books and a Sensational Snippet here. […]

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