Recently I took three days off work to try to focus on my studies. I spent most of those three days beetling around the Underground like a mole – Central to Northern, Circle to Hammersmith & City and back again. Of course, it is all designed to confuse us because the Circle isn’t even a Circle any more. I had to go to the Womens’ Library in Aldgate, a place where it is forever 1978 and – despite the noble feminist ethics of its foundation – has the most disappointing and cross male doorman in London. I had to hand over my driving licence to get in, and wasn’t allowed to have it back until I left the building.
Like the British Library, they treat every visitor like a suspect and make you feel vaguely oikish, whilst you shuffle around in your bag to retrieve a pencil, the only writing tool you can take into the reading room. In the reading room there were no gents, obviously, and a very helpful lady who showed me where the pencil shavings were to go. Then I viewed The Englishwoman’s Report and Gazette from 1879 on a microfilm at the back of the room next to the broken printer, where there was no natural light, and realised what a unique place it was.
Lots of journalism from the late nineteenth century hasn’t been collated and archived. Apart from the fact there was simply a vast amount of magazines and newspapers (more than now) – some of it was rendered significant and some was not. Women’s domestic journals were generally consigned to the dustbin of journalistic history. But anyone doing any kind of study on the history of advertising, clothing, consumerism, politics, household maintenance or medicine would find half the stuff I trawled through invaluable. They seem to have drunk a vast amount of Ovaltine, suffered from biliousness (are these two linked?) and some up with novelty ideas to get stains out of babies’ clothes. The table decoration section featured seven different seasonal decorations throughout the year, most of which involved ferns. Cocoa was big business, with an advert featuring a large cup of the stuff on the front cover of the magazine for two years. There was also the usual smattering of advice about what to do if you are fat, want to look thinner ( get a maid to stand behind you and pull on your stays until either one of you feels faint) and how to dress well but inexpensively.
I was exhausted after an hour of this, as I felt like I had been harangued by several agony aunts shouting at me regarding what to do if my jar of Bovril fell over etc. I then got told off for wandering into the wrong section – “Sorry. That’s only for staff!” and ended up reading a journal for young ladies full of fictional moral tales about young girls who move to London innocent and pure only to fall into the evil paths of someone called Cedric or Neville who instantly corrupts them, supposedly to chill the faint female hearts of rural Britain and urge them never to leave their villages, lest they become deviant laudanum addicts and prostitutes in the space of one morning.
This Londoner proved her deviance by going home, putting her slippers on and spending the next two hours trying to cable-knit a sweater. God, I’m hardcore.