This book is a bleak but fascinating glimpse of life in London for young working women in the First World War.
Book: Latchkey Ladies by Marjorie Grant
Publication date: 15th March 2022
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Handheld Press. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: air raids (on page); mention of soldiers being wounded and killed (off page); character death (on page and off); suicidal ideation mentioned; unwanted pregnancy; post-partum depression; death of a baby/grief of a mother; contemporary casual racism; contemporary casual misogyny.
A powerful and moving novel from 1921, about the lives and choices of modern women, by the Canadian author Marjorie Grant.
Latchkey ladies live alone or in shared rooms in London at the end of the First World War, determined to use their new freedoms, and treading a fine line between independence and disaster.
Maquita Gilroy is a Government clerk with a lively sense of self-preservation.
Anne Carey is drifting between jobs, bored of her fiancé, and longing for something to give her life meaning. Then she meets Philip Dampier, a married man whose plays she admires.
Petunia Garry, a beautiful teenage chorus girl with no background and dubious morals, is swept up by an idealistic country squire, determined to mould her into what he wants his wife to be.
Gertrude Denby, an Admiral’s daughter and an endlessly patient companion to an irritating employer, is so very tired of living out her life in hired rooms.
‘Fear woke her in the defenceless hour of dawn. She sat up in bed and faced it at last, shivering so that her teeth chattered, but valiant. She was certain that she was going to have a child.’
I have very mixed feelings about Latchkey Ladies. I can absolutely see why it was chosen for reprinting by Handheld Press, as it’s exactly the kind of book they excel at rediscovering: stories with a unique, incisive focus on the female experience in the past. There are wonderful elements here, including the majority-female cast, the terse but elegant writing, and the glimpses of London in the First World War, valiantly clinging to any sense of normality through deprivation and air raids. A real highlight of the book for me was the depiction of two middle-class headmistresses who – though the narrative couches it carefully – are explicitly “soulmates”, deeply obsessed with each other, with intimate pet-names and much physical affection, and no one of their acquaintence seems particularly bothered by them; I can’t remember ever having seen such positive sapphic characters in a book written so early. On the other hand, while I was never at the point of wanting to DNF it, I did struggle to make myself pick it up again whenever I paused, because I found it rather depressing; its tale of a doomed love affair and a woman who can’t find anything in life to aim for was a difficult thing to enjoy.
The blurb implies this is an ensemble cast, and the perspective shifts between characters in any individual scene fairly often, but there is definitely a focus on Anne Carey, who acts as a sort of anchor around which the others all revolve. I’m still in two minds as to whether I actually liked Anne; at times she’s incredibly sympathetic (especially for anyone with experience of burning out at work!) and I admired her for trying her best to be independent, but at times she’s extraordinarily silly and I found myself despising how weak and selfish she was. Anne reminded me a little of Claudia from my recent read, Which Way? (review of that here), especially in the latter half of the book as she embarks on an affair with a married man, but for me she was never quite as charming or engaging, and I never understood her fully. A lot of characters in the book describe Anne in a totally different way to the way I saw her, and although perhaps it was meant to contrast how someone can be seen differently to how they are by people who don’t know them, to me it left me feeling like either I’d missed some charm in her or the other characters were naively wrong.
As I read, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to another title from Handheld Press, Business as Usual, which you can find my review of here, and which I enjoyed significantly more. Although Business as Usual is set a little later, in the 1930s, it deals with a similar subject: the working life of an independent young woman in London, who faces the mundanity of work, the tiresomeness of living in a horrible rented room, the stress of relying on a too-small wage, and an absent fiancé for whom she feels something fond, but not love. But where Business as Usual is cheeky, and filled with humour and resilience, I found that Latchkey Ladies was rather bleak, and I had to read it in quite small chunks for fear of becoming depressed by the moroseness. Business as Usual‘s Hilary is upbeat, poking fun at her situation because she knows she’s destined for better; Latchkey Ladies‘s Anne is pessimistic and doesn’t seem to aspire to much other than ‘not this’. That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of joy, or humour – Anne storming out of her job after being patronised one too many times is wonderful! – and the book was at its best for me in those moments, but the baseline seems to be rather nihilistic, and the whole setting feels a bit grubby and run-down (which I imagine is extremely realistic to living in London in the midst of the First World War). The two books would be fascinating to do an in-depth analysis of, because it’s amazing how different very similar material can be.
Overall, this was a really interesting read, but not one that I actually can say I enjoyed – I’m very glad to have read it, for its insights into social history and its in-depth character study, but it was a book that depressed me in the reading. I don’t say that to imply that it’s poor quality, because it is fantastically written and truly remarkable in its detail, but only to give a very personal take on it (which is all these reviews can ever be!) that I prefer something where the narrative allows a little more progression for its characters, a sense that they’re trying. As I say, mixed thoughts! Three and a half out of five cats, for now, but I do recommend if it sounds interesting to you!