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Authors: Rosemary Friedman

The Man Who Understood Women

BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
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PRAISE FOR ROSEMARY FRIEDMAN

‘Delightful and easily read’ –
Weekly Scotsman

‘Writes well about human beings’ –
Books and Bookmen

‘Accomplished, zestful and invigorating’ –
TLS

‘A funny and perceptive book’ –
Cosmopolitan

‘A confident, sensitive and marvellously satisfying novel’ –
The Times

‘A classic of its kind’ –
The Standard

‘Readers will find it as affecting as it is intelligent’ –
Financial Times

‘Adroitly and amusingly handled’ –
Daily Telegraph

‘An entertaining read’ –
Financial Times

‘Highly recommended for the sheer pleasure it gives’ –
Literary Review

‘Observant and well composed’ –
TLS

‘A pleasing comedy of manners’ –
Sunday Telegraph

‘What a story, what a storyteller!’ –
Daily Mail

THE MAN WHO UNDERSTOOD WOMEN

and other stories

ROSEMARY FRIEDMAN

For Dennis Friedman,
whose idea it was.

‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book, because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.’

Virginia Woolf

These stories have appeared in:

ADAM International Review, Cosmopolitan, Daily Express, Everywoman, Good Housekeeping, Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal
(USA),
Saturday Evening Post
(USA),
Sunday Express Magazine, Woman & Beauty, Woman, Woman’s Day, Woman’s Own, Woman’s Realm, Woman’s Journal
and many other publications at home and abroad.

Thanks are due to Shirley Conran, Guy Shapir, Ilsa Yardley, Christie Hickman and Barnaby Spiro.

Rosemary Friedman has a wicked ear for dialogue and her
stories
illustrate fifty years of change in women’s circumstances. In them we look back nostalgically at England as it was and at what it has become.

The short stories in this collection give a composite portrait of women and their feelings, as they gradually loosened their corsets and nervously rebelled against centuries of tradition. Little girls are now prepared to fulfil their own dreams and can no longer rely on the arrival of Prince Charming. ‘What happened to Cinderella
after
she married her prince?’ is more often the question as it becomes clear that marriage is not a woman’s only socially acceptable destiny.

Through the imagination of this sensitive author we
experience
love, joy and happiness, we know what it is to feel
sadness
and loneliness and see the results of ambition, pride and hubris.

The warmth, kindness, humanity and compassion that shines through Rosemary Friedman’s work reveals an author that most of us would like to meet in person, after meeting
her in these pages and enjoying her charming views of what I think of as women’s Great Escape.

Shirley Conran

The master of the short-story, Anton Chekhov, wrote about ordinary people and their survival strategies; he held a
mirror
up to nature, and – without striving for a climax or a neat resolution – showed that life’s most significant moments are often the least dramatic ones, for small things may be small only on the surface: the butter knife in the kitchen – ‘a deep cave paved with linoleum’ – can be as effective as a pickaxe.

Underplanted like forget-me-nots, among my novels, film scripts, TV episodes and plays, are my self-contained, short stories, which showcase the changes in the lives of Western women over the last half-century.
HouseWife, Good
Housekeeping
and
Woman’s Realm
are some of the women’s magazines in which my stories appeared from 1956 onwards, and those titles are a direct reflection of their readers’ place in society.

In the post-war period, working-class women still slaved to make ends meet and put up with multiple pregnancies, while the upper classes hunted and socialised. Middle-class women were kept busy, playing second fiddle to their husbands – if they were lucky enough to have them – and managing their
nuclear families; their sons were educated to follow in father’s footsteps and their daughters groomed for marriage.

By 1956 women had been enfranchised for over twenty-five years, yet often they voted as directed by their husbands and were far from emancipated. The clientele of Miss Phipps, the librarian protagonist of ‘The Magic’ (1956) consisted mainly of middle-aged matrons who shopped daily in local high streets and then returned to a suburban home with a neat garden. A woman’s life was at the bottom of the excitement scale, so women relied upon novels – often recommended by the librarian – to open the gate to a dream life in which their fantasies were fulfilled.

Yet within thirty years, their daughters would be running hospitals, banks and international businesses. Like Ibsen’s Nora, they had struggled successfully to escape from the Doll’s House.

In the sixties, a new phenomenon – teenagers – were no longer unpaid apprentices but earned proper wages, and with that came financial independence. British fashion icon, Mary Quant, showed them how to present themselves. Women’s magazines now carried advertisements of girls in miniskirts and hot-pants, with sooty eyes and short, sharp haircuts. Role models were pop singers and actors, athletes, hairdressers, photographers and models.

As these teenagers grew up, electronic machinery made housework easier. Women began to enter the workplace, which unleashed a relentless torrent of criticism, and
discussion
about the exact location of a woman’s place.

‘A decade later, women wore trouser suits with
exaggerated
shoulder pads that said, ‘Don’t you dare’, as they became lawyers and politicians, and Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister in 1979, made the eighties her own.

By the nineties, women MPs were the norm and it had become clear, even to the long-married Maisie (‘The Moules Factory’, 1998) that her ‘days of domestic servitude passed in a bungalow in Burlington, Massachusetts, had hardly amounted to a full life’.

By 2000, independent women did not necessarily believe that marriage was for life. In ‘A la Carte’ (2010), a divorced primary school teacher, fifty-three-year-old Helen, road tests Dominic, whom she meets through the Internet. She feels empowered by her considered decision –
not
to embark on a new relationship.

While most of the stories portray women, as they began to overturn centuries of tradition, prepared to live fuller lives and to follow their dreams, I could not resist including ‘Mea Culpa’, (1960) – an
amuse-gueule
or grace note – in which women do not feature at all.

Rosemary Friedman
2013

Miss Phipps knew what they said about her in the library. With her eyes cast down and seemingly intent on a list or
catalogue
she would listen to their conversation.

‘Ask her if this is any good,’ young Mrs Withers would say to her husband, flicking over the pages of a green-backed novel marked with an ‘R’ for Romance.

Mr Withers would glance up at Miss Phipps and then move a little closer to his wife. ‘Make up your own mind, dear. If the old girl reads at all, I doubt if she reads romance.’ They would smile together and then bring the book over to the desk for her to mark neatly with her little rubber stamp.

From behind her desk, where she had to stand on a box because she was so small, Miss Phipps watched her customers. In more ways than one they were her bread and butter and they were a constant source of interest. There was the Colonel, six foot two, with his purple face and his grey, waxed
moustache
. He came in regularly for the stories of famous battles
and famous generals and life in the colonies – you’d think he had had enough – which she put aside for him. While she was removing the ‘reserved’ label from its metal clip, the Colonel would clear his throat with a rumbling roar and out would come some gallant remark.

Sometimes he’d look down at her, standing there so demurely in her flowered smock, and say, ‘Y’re such a bit of a thing, m’dear; could pick you up and put you in m’pocket, what!’ Or at other times when she knew that his arthritis was bad because it took him so long to remove his gloves, he would look at her sadly and pat her hand. ‘Don’t work too hard, m’dear, there aren’t so many good people in the world.’ Then he’d pick up his book and his gold-topped stick, straighten his shoulders and, with the ghost of a once smart salute, make his way back to his service flat and his lonely gas fire.

There was Miss Loveday with her knitted stockings, her head held to one side and her passion for poetry; Dr Thomas who liked to relax with a ‘whodunit’; a pair of newly-weds who came in, all moonbound with love, and asked for a good story to read aloud to each other curled together on their sofa.

Once a couple of sixth-formers, from the school round the corner, marched boisterously in, their long striped scarves trailing down their backs, but when they saw Miss Phipps with her neat grey hair pulled tight into its neat grey bun they looked uncertainly at each other and one of them muttered: ‘Come on, Thompson, she’s probably never even heard of Gerard Manley Hopkins,’ and the glass panel quivered in its frame as the door slammed shut behind them.

Tonight the air was light and warm. Looking across the shop, past the skilfully displayed books and out through the window, Miss Phipps noticed that the pavement was dark with people strolling towards the park. Summer would not be long arriving and the busy, winter demand for cosy novels would soon be over. It was just on closing time and only Mrs Graves was still there. As soon as she had chosen her book Miss Phipps would lock up; there was work to be done in her little flat above the shop.

Empty-handed, Mrs Graves came over to the desk. ‘Good evening, Miss Phipps,’ she said. ‘I was looking for another book by Vanessa Chase but I think I’ve read all you have.’

‘There’ll be her new one out soon,’ Miss Phipps said, and picked up her fat pencil, blue one end and red the other. ‘
Amber for Love
, it’s called, I’ll keep it for you, Mrs Graves.’

‘If you would, Miss Phipps. She’s quite my favourite.’

Miss Phipps shut up the order book with a little thwack. Her eyes twinkled behind her glasses. ‘To be perfectly honest,’ she said, ‘she’s mine, too.’

Locking the door behind Mrs Graves and pulling down the blind with ‘Closed’ printed on the front, Miss Phipps smiled to herself. This was the time of day she liked best. Working quickly and with the agility born of use, she unfolded the dust sheets and unfurled them in the air, watching them sink down sighingly on to the tables of new books that stood in the centre of the shop. When all was tidy and the fat pencil lay neatly on the desk, carefully sharpened for the morning, she switched out the light and climbed the narrow staircase at the back of the shop to her little flat.

There was no one to welcome her in the living room, yet Miss Phipps, as soon as she had opened the door, said, as she always did: ‘Hello, my darling, I’ve had such an interesting day.’ As she spoke she looked towards the mantelpiece at a faded sepia photograph in a black frame. The picture was of a young, very handsome man. He was wearing the uniform of an army officer in the First World War and underneath his likeness was the inscription: ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.’

Miss Phipps put a match to the fire, ready laid in the grate, and kneeling on the rug, watched the growing flames
licking
up towards the neat spindles of wood. As she watched she thought, as she always allowed herself to think, in this lost moment between her two lives, of The Magic. The magic that began and ended with Captain Albert George Alexander Chase who looked down at her from the mantelpiece.

Miss Phipps, owing to the premature and tragic death of both parents – and this was many, many years ago – had been brought up by an aunt. The aunt, a Christian woman who knew her duty, took the orphan in and cared for her, as the years went by, with large helpings of the Bible and the stodgiest cabinet pudding in the world. Small wonder that when the handsome Captain Chase appeared on the scene in her eighteenth year, her ward lost her head as well as her heart and ran away to Brighton.

It was only a weekend. Two ecstatic days in a topsy-turvy world, then he had, heartbreakingly, gone off to meet his maker in the mud of France and she had returned to grim, silent lips and cabinet pudding.

Two days, among all the days it takes to make fifty-seven years, yet because they were magic days they had been enough. Miss Phipps listened to the wood in the grate crackling and snapping as the flames, now roused, curled angrily round it; but the sound she heard was the low call of seagulls swooping over the pebbled beach at Brighton.

It had been hot, she remembered, very hot. The French
windows
that looked out over the sea were flung wide open, and they had sunbathed, naked, in the big armchair in the bedroom. She could see the bedroom now with its giant bed between two rows of polished brass knobs; the fern, its edges brown and curling, in the fireplace; the green plush cloth on the table; the rose-patterned china wash-bowl and jug with the third piece to the hideous set in the pedestal cupboard beside the bed.

Two days, and in them he had tried to help her forget the twelve years she had spent in the tall old house – with the Bible but without the love that it taught. He had loved her, cherished her and brushed her long, jet-black hair. In return she had given him all the devotion no one had wanted from her ever since she could remember.

A fussy cascade of notes, sounding the half-hour, reminded Miss Phipps that she had dreamed for long enough. She looked up gratefully at the marble clock on the mantelpiece, which never failed to remind her of the too-swift passage of time. The clock had been presented to her on her fiftieth birthday by the governors of the orphanage to which, for many years, she had devoted all her spare time and money, and to whose small inmates she was known as Aunt Phipps.

The wood was now well alight, and, leaning one hand on the coal box, Miss Phipps got up off her knees. Slivers of pain shot up into her thighs as she straightened her legs. It was only when things like that happened that she remembered she was rising sixty. The magic had kept her mind young but it couldn’t do much about wrinkles or rheumatism. Unbuttoning the flowered overall she wore, because she thought it looked the part in the library, she thought about other people’s magic. Miss Loveday had her poetry; the Colonel had his memories of an adventurous and colourful career; the schoolboys had the magic of an uncharted future and the newly-weds had each other.

Reflected in the glass front of the bookcase the
orange-tipped
flames twirled higher up the chimney. Miss Phipps looked at the row of books on the top shelf; they were all by Vanessa Chase. What she had said was true when she told Mrs Graves that she was her favourite author. As she took the cover off her typewriter, which stood on the centre table, Miss
Phipps
smiled contentedly and thought of the millions of words which, taking her strength from the magic, she had written. She had given them all personality with the combination of the names of the only two people she had ever loved: Vanessa, her mother, and her darling Albert Chase.

BOOK: The Man Who Understood Women
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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