What has a lot to do with my interest in Gardiner’s books is her plucky characters, and Elizabeth Bennet in the 1950s, after WWII, is nothing short of independent in Undercover. You’ll have to read my review later for more on this gem.
Today, Cat Gardiner is going to share with us her love of Austen and the WWII-era, as well as how Elizabeth Bennet got to be so independent and feisty. Please give her a warm welcome.
What an absolute delight it is to visit Savvy Verse & Wit! Thank you, Serena for inviting me to share with your readers a little bit about my newest release, Undercover – An Austen Noir, and my love of romantic, 20th Century historical fiction. Some of your readers may recognize me as a writer of Jane Austen-Inspired Contemporary, but my newest book opens the door to another passion of mine that I have longed to write.
Now, in the 21st Century, some younger readers may not be aware of the struggle women had during the 1940s and 50s as it pertained to working outside of the home. For the record, I dislike labels, and would never slap “feminist” on myself, but I am a gal who believes in progress, equality, and teaching to preserve the lessons from the past. I would like to discuss this particular role of women in the early 20th Century and how it affects Undercover’s heroine, Elizabeth (Eli) Bennet.
Undercover takes place in New York City seven years after the end of the Second World War. It was a time when suburbia was popping up all over America, cookie-cutter homes in tranquil little communities, restoring a nation that had come through the Great Depression, followed by war―to re-embrace the cultural norm of family life. It was also a time in history when claims of Communists hidden among us and fears of atomic war were threatening at our doorstep. Family was considered a safe haven in the “duck and cover” scare of the Atomic Age. Men were the providers, bread winners, and head of the happy home. Women were the heart of it, many of whom embraced the idea―others conformed begrudgingly. Yet others, fought it, and it was around this time that America saw an uptick of women, once again, enter into the workforce despite the societal expectation that they should remain homemakers and mothers. The model of white, middle-class, domestic perfection would, in 1957, be embodied by wholesome June Cleaver, homemaker, wife, and mother in the television show “Leave it to Beaver.” And it is that model that gave us the Baby Boomer Generation.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To better understand Undercover’s Elizabeth and the culture she grew up in, let’s step back to 1942 with the government’s rallying call for women to enter into factories for defense production. Previously, traditional jobs held by women (mostly spinsters) were considered “women’s work” of clerical, school teaching, nursing, or as librarians. Uncle Sam said entering the labor force was their patriotic duty from 1942 through 1945, even encouraging young ladies to join the military for specific roles. With their husbands leaving to fight, wives had suddenly become the sole money earner. That was an amazing opportunity following a period when those same women had been discouraged from working outside the home during the Great Depression as men fought a different fight: epidemic unemployment following the Stock Market Crash of 1929. For many women these three years were a taste―a tease―of the possibilities.
How were the 19 million female war workers rewarded for their “temporary” call to action? Apart from lower wages to their male counterparts (something our gender still struggles against) these new employees were simply given pink slips even though they had excelled at their jobs. After all, the war had ended and the millions of men returning home needed to re-take their place as breadwinners in peacetime production. Close to 90% of women wanted to remain working when asked to give up their newfound sense of individuality, as well as liberation. Further, the G.I. Bill was also putting men through school and dreams of higher education for women were met by closed doors. What choice did our 1940s counterparts have but to settle back into life with a good man and raise a family while pursuing the American Dream?
When the war began, Elizabeth Bennet once dreamed of becoming a housewife, raising a family of 3.2 children when her sweetheart returned from Europe―only he returned with another woman and a baby! Her sister, Jane, a mercenary creature, wanted that prescribed gender role, living the ideal life with her wealthy husband who brought home the bacon. Elizabeth sought a different avenue: She became a “career girl”, a private investigator, moved from her parent’s home at the age of 24, and took an apartment next door to a boarding house in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. She is considered a spinster when we meet her in 1952 at the age of 26. As far as her family knew, she was a bookkeeper for Macy’s department store. Independent and spirited, she financially managed in a career path dominated by men. This was a culture where sexism was so common that many advertisements denigrated women, even in the role that society demanded they take. Here are just a few.
According to Smithsonian magazine: “This ad isn’t frightening women into thinking their genitals smell badly. According to historian Andrea Tone, “feminine hygiene” was a euphemism. Birth control was illegal in the U.S. until 1965 (for married couples) and 1972 (for single people). These Lysol ads are actually for contraception. Even still, it poisoned/killed hundreds of women while killing sperm.
But Elizabeth surrounded herself with men, who themselves, were non-conformists: a hard-boiled homicide detective who took her under his wing, as well as a corrupt restauranteur acting as an informant in her investigations. Both men respected her moxie and determination and neither treated her with disrespect. Enter Darcy, the enigmatic financier whom she considered a “real sourpuss.” He, too, respected her―even if she was from the wrong side of town from a low-class family of lushes.
It was the best damn time he’d had in his life. Honest to goodness fun and exhilaration brought on by her laughter and keen wit, her attention and fine footwork. The babe was quite a hoofer. In spite of her particular career, her obvious undercover work to find Wickham, and, not to mention, her low-class family—he had fallen for her like a ton of bricks. The evening had confirmed everything he already knew: She was brilliant and not afraid to live life on her terms. He admired her. Unlike her sister Jane, who married up attempting to make something of herself, Elizabeth was out there on her own working hard for a living, making her way in a man’s world. And using what she had to get what she needed. She was good at it, too.
Once he fell hook, line, and sinker for her, he wasn’t looking to cage her or “domesticate” her. He only wanted her happiness and, like a man in love, thought nothing of allowing her to continue in her career after “I do.” In 1952, Undercover’s Darcy was one in a million―real cream. Of course, not all men were sexist in viewing women as the above advertisements indicate. But it was the culture―a man’s world―and women had to deal with the derision and censure that came with stepping outside the social norms. Overall, men were gentlemen, polite, and stylish. But ladies, they wore the pants in the home. (Or so a brilliant woman led him to believe. And if you were like Elizabeth [Eli], you did what the heck you wanted, anyway.)
Oh how far we have come … yet, some things stay the same.
If you’re a 20th Century Historical Fiction lover, and adore getting lost in a saga, look for my soon-to- be-released WWII-era Romance. A Moment Forever (A Liberty Victory Series Novel). Check out my 1940s Experience blog: cgardiner1940s.com for more information.
Thank you again, Serena, for the warm welcome! I look forward to chatting with your readers.
Thanks Cat for joining us today!
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For those of you who cannot wait to read her books, we’re hosting a 2 e-book giveaway of Undercover!
Leave a comment about what your passions are with your email address by May 31, 2016, to enter.
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