Saturday, 21 June 2014

Troubled Girls

Many books not to mention articles have been written over the decades on the theme of The Modern Girl. In such reports, the Girl tends to be a problem that needs to be solved rather than agent of her own destiny, and this is still sadly the case today.
That young women, teenage girls, young girls today are heavily scrutinised and frequently judged is not a new observation is not a new observation, but what makes Carol Dyhouse’s excellent book, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women,  so refreshing is that way that it takes a long view of female emancipation and changing roles over a century, but that it could also be considered to be a specifically female history of both adolescence and the moral panic in Britain.

Drawing on a wealth of material from newspaper archives, autobiography, and historical, sociological and statistical research to popular culture such as music, film and literature, Dyhouse eschews the obvious and takes the reader on a journey through the backgrounds of social history, a journey that is as refreshing and exciting as it is readable and innovative.
As a historian Dyhouse’s account is neither feminist polemic nor sociological study, though it does borrow from and acknowledge both disciplines. Instead it is remarkably straightforward in tone, and can be enjoyed on both an academic and non specialist level.

The book hooks the reader in with a chapter dedicated to the exploration of the Edwardian period panic about the White Slave Trade (what we would now call trafficking), which was fuelled by a series of lurid novels, films, pamphlets and newspaper articles alongside a smaller number of much reported trials and court cases.
The chapter begins in 1913, at a time when women’s suffrage had been in the public eye and public conscious for twenty years, and was about to be put into a sort of political stasis by the outbreak of the First World War. In what becomes a clear pattern throughout the book, the reduction of young women to frail blossoms, innocent and in need of protection from a specific evil at a time when women were demanding, and getting, positive social change was no accident.

The follow up chapter ‘Unwomanly Types’, which explains how the White Slave Trade panics came directly after the late Victorian New Woman and ran concurrent with suffragist and suffragette campaigns, not to mention the rise of the bluestocking, sets much of the previous chapter in a wider historical and social context.

Chapters themed around, variously, flappers, Good time girls, beat girls and dolly birds, permissiveness and women’s liberation, and ladettes take us all the way from the Victorian New Woman, with her bicycle and bloomers to the modern day, concluding with a brief discussion of Slutwalk.
What is encouraging is that Dyhouse strongly resists the narrative of victimhood while also acknowledging that terrible things do happen. She interrogates cultural myths, such as the rise of anorexia in young women throughout the 1990s (a period when, statistics suggest, anorexia was in decline but bulimia was increasing), and provides shrewd analysis of popular culture (Ronald Searle’s original 1940s drawings of the St Trinians Girls portrayed them as “daemonic, calculating little monsters and subversives” whereas the film depictions of the St Trinians girls have, between 1954 and 2012, become increasingly sexualised) and does not seek obvious answers.

Dyhouse argues that, at times of great social upheaval for women: the 1890s through to 1914, the inter war years (1919-1939), World War II, the 1960s and 1970s, and the 1990s, particular female stereotypes and folk devils have been created and used as a way to belittle and undermine women’s achievements and emancipation, and in this sense both the flappers of the 1920s and the ladettes of the 1990s are part of a chain going back all the way to the New Woman of the 1890s.
What I love about this book is that, not only does it make me excited about social history, but it also sparks off interest for further research and, as an ardent fan of British female middlebrow novels, provides context to innumerable stories and characters. From Cassandra Mortmain’s brief fears of White Slave traders while waiting in a London cornerhouse late at night in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, to Laura’s descriptions of the revolutionary impact of the bicycle on women’s travel and freedom at the tail end of the nineteenth century in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford, to the gloriously vivid descriptions of London beatniks and coffee houses in Stella Gibbons’ Here Be Dragons.

Girl Trouble also makes a good companion to Jon Savage’s history of the teenager, Teenage, although its themes and concerns can be quite disparate at times. And it’s also good to see Marek Cohn’s excellent book Dope Girls getting a mention, a brilliant study of flappers, cocaine and Britain’s first drug panic.