The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties

Rachel Cooke (Virago, 384pp, £9.99)

Reviewed by Catherine Croft

Described by its author as ‘a sly kind of feminism’, this book, now in paperback, is a group portrait of ten remarkable women, selected as ‘role models, inspirational figures who make you want to cheer’. They include the food writer Patience Gray, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes and the journalist Nancy Spain, but the youngest of them is Alison Smithson. I can’t say I’ve ever wanted to embrace her as a role model: her reputation for being scary, difficult and pompous seems well deserved. Cooke acknowledges that, but says that she was also ‘clever, principled and fearless’. She shows us Alison making her and Peter swimming trunks from ‘diamond-shaped off-cuts of leatherette’, wearing harlequin jumpsuits, and struggling with periods when they had no work at all. She also asks how they all coped with both home life and career, and Alison’s strategy of leaving childcare to the lodgers must have raised its own problems.

C20 gets a mention in a footnote: I remember meeting Cooke on our trip to the Smithsons’ famous school at Hunstanton, and she describes how she listened to ‘a conversation between two professors of architecture, one British (let us call him Tweed), the other American (Seersucker). “Oh,” said Seersucker, gazing out of the window. “I always forget how small it is.Gosh. I mean it isn’t even remotely on the same scale as Mies.” Poor Tweed was crushed.’ Despite this teasing – and I’d also like to have seen a more positive appraisal of Robin Hood Gardens – I strongly recommend this book. It is inspirational and very funny – I loved the remark that the Smithsons were ‘like Charles and Ray Eames, without the jokes and the home movies’ – and there are nine other lives to enjoy too.