Whilst I’m always on the lookout for books to add to my collection, there are times when I’m much more pro-active about it. The last few months have been such a time. Although I have an extensive general collection of books for children and young adults, most of these have been collected serendipitously: I’ve been sent them by the publisher to review, I’ve read them for events I’ve been chairing at a book festival or I’ve come across them in a library or bookshop. When I say books for my collection, I’m talking about specific authors and genres.
Back when I was a teenager, I collected girls’ career novels published by The Bodley Head. Even then they were wildly old-fashioned but they appealed to me somehow. I had loads of them as they were fairly easy and cheap to pick up. My parents moved house whilst I was at Glasgow University and I spent the early part of that summer clearing out my possessions and one of the things I decided I could live without was my career novel collection. Well, there was a mistake! For about ten years now I’ve been trying to rebuild that collection and I have to tell you that it’s much more difficult to find the books (I’m still looking for Molly Qualifies as a Librarian) and they are much more expensive. However I’m ploughing on and have even extended the limits of it to include other publishers’ offerings.
For a while I only collected books about some types of career (not that I could actually define that even to myself) but now I’m happy to include any British career novel. I had a small foray into the world of American careers but in the end decided that they weren’t for me. That is, with the notable exception of Helen Dore Boylston’s Carol and Sue Barton series. They’re exceptional in other ways too. For a start they follow a heroine through a significant portion of her life, rather than just being one-offs. And to my mind they’re plot-driven stories first and career novels second.
The thing is that the vast majority of career novels are truly awful when judged on plot, characterisation and style. There are some exceptions of course but they stand out for their scarcity value. No, what keeps me hooked on these books is the wonderful slice of social history they provide. Girls should use their education and find a rewarding job but they should understand and accept that they will be paid less than men and have fewer opportunities for promotion. Girls can do (almost) any job they want but should expect to be seen as oddities if they don’t want to teach, write, nurse or sell. Oh well being a children’s librarian might be acceptable or even, at a push, a paediatrician but there’s so much unpleasantness is training for the latter! And naturally all the best (query) career novels end in marriage, usually to a man who thinks he’s supportive of her career but is actually pretty condescending.
But that’s me bringing my twentieth and twenty-first century sensibilities to these books. In their time they were forward-looking. And although I mock, there is an air of genuine excitement in the books because of the widening of women’s horizons. And a sneaky part of me would have loved to have been a librarian in the 1950s when the profession was establishing itself and libraries were expanding.