Following on from reading Suffragette, I discovered I had an appetite for reading about the lives of women, particularly from around that era. So Life As We Have Known It seemed right up my street. It’s a collection of short accounts written by women living in the early 1900s, working class women, all of whom were linked to the Women’s Co-operative Guild. With an introduction written by a somewhat apologetic Virginia Woolf (which is worth reading just for itself) this was always going to be a compelling read.
The book is organised into a series of short personal accounts, written by the women themselves, covering the experiences of their lives. This includes stories of a plate layer’s wife, a felt hat worker, a women living in a mining village; the story of a Women’s Co-operative Guild worker – Harriet A Kidd – written by Llewelyn Davis herself. Towards the end of the book are a collection of letters written by some women to the Guild with recollections of the books they enjoyed reading and how they found time to read and educate themselves in the slivers of the day they managed to square away for themselves.
This was a very easy book to read, which left me with a considerable amount to think about. The voices of the women are so present in the way they tell their stories. I was consistently impressed with how hopeful they were, how small things gave them so much joy and how much they downplayed the hardships of their lives, focusing instead on their pride in providing for their families and their joy in getting time to read and educate themselves, despite their poverty and lack of enfranchisement (all the accounts were written before women were given the vote). They made so much of so very little, they worked hard (harder than most of us in the western world work today, even considering commuting hours) and yet they are energetic and passionate, forceful in their own way. They care deeply and work hard for the betterment of themselves and others. What this book gives is an insight into the power at the heart of women’s lives, even those women who he
ld no economic or political power. They still sought to make a difference to the lives of others. As described here by Mrs. Layton:
“I got very discouraged and wondered if all the time and trouble was worth it. Then the late Mrs. B. Jones’ face would come into my mind, and I could almost hear her saying, ‘Try to leave the world a little better than you found it.’ (Mrs. Layton)
The imaginations of the women are strong, despite their comparative lack of education and limited experience. Much of their life is filled with work, both outside and inside the home, but through their reading and their work with the Guild they were able to expand their horizons. It left me wondering what these women could have become had they only had a little of what we have today. Perhaps Mrs. Scott might have become an architect:
“I have sat hours at work planning a city, fitting in beautiful homes and everything to make life beautiful and happy instead of sordid and ugly like our factory towns. I always remember going down a street lined with great mills of either side and hoping I should never have to bring a child into the world if it was condemned to that life, for I reasoned: If I were asked to work in one of those mills (for I do not like machinery) I should hate it, and I have no right to bring anyone else if this is all we can offer it, because I should love it too much to give it such a life.” (Mrs. Scott)
Or Mrs. Layton a diplomat:
“I don’t think we should have had a war if the women could have had the vote before, and a voice in it. There’s no mother or wife in England nor Germany that would give their loved one to be killed. Now we are working for peace.” (Mrs. Layton)
Yet they were happy with the small comforts given them in the life they had. The power of these women lay in their willingness to work hard, their self-sacrifice, their intelligence and kindness. As I read the stories of their lives, I found myself thinking about my own, the things I complain about are luxuries to what these women had. It is quite humbling. And they endured and experienced true hardship and loss, but they muddled on scraping and saving and, despite the little that they had, invested in a future founded on the power of collective action to raise the lives of those who have the vision to see that an accumulation of small things can make a huge difference to someone’s life.
I hadn’t really been aware of how powerful a movement the Women’s Co-operative Guild had been (though I am aware of the impact of the Co-operative Society more generally) and this book, through the accounts of the women who were members, really brought it home. I was humbled by reading these women’s stories, inspired by them. It has made me look on my own life, its petty troubles, in quite a different way. It’s a wonderful book. I could say more, but I would like to leave the final words to one of the women. A London Guild member describes, beautifully, what being a Guild member meant for her:
“I can hardly gauge what the Guild has done for me. I feel it has affected me in so many different ways. There were certain latent sparks which it has kindled and caused to burn brightly. It has given me a much greater understanding of life and an immense feeling of sympathy with men and women in general. How our lives are linked together and each may work for the common good, though we may never see or speak to one another. I feel more and more what an immense power united action can be, and how the humblest may attain to it in its best form. I think that is one of the best features of the Guild.” (A London Guildswoman).