The Scarlet Sisters is a fascinating delve into family history reveals the ways in which women’s lives have—and haven’t—changed

The Scarlet Sisters by Helen Batten

The Scarlet Sisters: 

My Nanna’s Story of Secrets and Heartache on the Banks of the River Thames

By Helen Batten 

 

Why are people so interested in family history? 

Reading The Scarlet Sisters suggests once again that the answer is blindingly obvious: because family history is so interesting. 

Helen Batten began investigating hers after the death of her grandmother Bertha, and what she found allows for a fascinating comparison of women’s lives across the whole of the 20th century.

Bertha was the youngest of five red-haired daughters (hence their nickname) born into south-London poverty before the First World War. Their father Charlie was almost classically feckless, regularly having to be brought home from the pub in a wheelbarrow. Their mother Clara worked hard, and by saving her money—and hiding it from her husband—managed to put all five daughters through secretarial college.

Batten’s research throws up any number of memorable family tales, which she turns into fully imagined scenes. Many, of course, contain hair-raising proof of how different things once were. Clara, for example, had to hide that money from Charlie because women didn’t have the luxury of bank accounts. 

But not everything has changed as much as you might expect. Take this scene from the 1920s…

 

The excerpt:

Clara would watch her two eldest daughters getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, with a lack of corsetry to hold them in, their arms bare, skirts short—and the cosmetics…‘What do you look like?
A right pair of dollymops! You’ll get the neighbours talking,’ she would say, shaking her head.

Grace would carry on applying her bright pink lipstick and say nonchalantly: ‘Who cares?’
‘I care and you should care. You don’t want to get the reputation for being that sort of girl.’
‘What sort is that, then?’ 
‘The sort my mum would have locked up in her room and thrown away the key.’
‘Are you going to lock us up, then?’

And there was Clara’s dilemma. She loved to see her girls experiencing a freedom she had never had—and very few women had ever had. The dislocation of the First World War had opened the cage, the young lady birds had flown, and many could not be put back in. They had worked in larger numbers and earned more money. They had opportunities for activities like the cinema and dances.

Often they were unchaperoned. Their skirts had become shorter due to a lack of material during the war and, when it ended, many women fought the pressure to bring hemlines back down, seeing it as a matter of personal freedom. 

Watching her girls get ready on a Saturday night filled Clara with pride, but she worried for them, and their reputations. It was uncharted territory and she couldn’t see how it was going to end. 

Clara was not alone in her worries. The blue-stocking feminists of the era watched askance as women used their hard-won freedom not to go into politics, but to attend dances. Money from these new jobs was spent on cosmetics to make themselves more attractive to men. Sylvia Pankhurst disparaged, ‘the emancipation of today which displays itself mostly in cigarettes and shorts…painted lips and nails and…absurdities of dress which betoken the slave-women’s sex appeal rather than the free woman’s intelligent companionship.’

Those early feminists made an unholy alliance with reactionary men. Doctors condemned high heels on the grounds that wearers would displace their wombs. When the charleston came over from the United States, the Daily Mail denounced it as ‘reminiscent only of Negro Orgies’. It would be the sisters’ favourite dance.

Of course this argument rumbles on today. I watch my teenage daughter declaring her intention to become a journalist and campaign for women’s rights, while going off to school with highlighted hair, mascara and ludicrously short skirts. She then announced she was going to be a cheerleader, cavorting in skimpy clothes, supporting the boys at school rugby matches.

‘Is this what women threw themselves under horses for? All those women who went on hunger strike so we could get the vote and equal rights?’ I said. ‘Can’t you do something useful, like write for the school newspaper?’
‘Only geeks do that,’ came the reply. ‘At least I’m keeping fit.’

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