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Monday, November 1, 2010

Further adventures in total obscurity: Surplus Women by G. C. Pain

OK so this one is a forgotten novel, even by my standards. A couple of months ago I read a reference to Surplus Women by G. C. Pain in Nick Turner’s excellent study Post-War British Women Novelists and the Canon. Being a bit of a frustrated detective, I found the book cheap on amazon and clicked “buy”. What rocked up in the post a week or so later was this, rather shabby, jacketless, watermarked 1943 edition, printed by a publisher called The Woman’s Book Club (in 1943...? *radical*). And I must say, that I am glad that it did. Surplus Women is an intriguing little book.

It is the story of Kay Burns, a lower middle class young woman of the 1930s or as she puts it, one of “two million surplus women in the country that nobody wants”. Her world is that of the sparsely furnished parlour and the gas-lit suburban street. She is an orphan, brought up by her grandmother, with whom she has little in common. Her inclinations are against convention but her surroundings are stultifying normal. Rather than being embraced by family life, she is suffocated by it. The world of her community is even worse; all dismal interiors and gossip and disapproval. In revolt Kay moves away and boards in a house of unmarried ladies where she is at first liberated and then horrified by the spectre of aging a single woman. She marries in haste and repents in the time honoured way. Not really surprising when at the point of proposal, the groom comments that “I don’t say I go into raptures at the thought of holding you in my arms. I expect it will be quite nice”. Despair not however – those of you who like a bit of real love in your reading - because it does eventually come to Kay, although I cannot promise that it will not be a bitter sweet business.

This book is a well written testimony of its time. It is a swift, focussed and touching glimpse of the clash between individuality and community; between compliance and subversion; between men and women in the interwar years. Kay is an odd kind of heroine. At first, when she is young and raring to go, she is a hard and unsympathetic girl. Her rebelliousness is turned inwards and she is what my grandmother would have called a scowler. As she develops she rather grows up and love certainly changes her into a softer being – in a way which is, I suppose, rather conventional. Hers is a realistic and moving narrative of subversion. She is not a firebrand rebel but a girl of ordinary circumstances who wishes to live differently in a deeply restrictive society. Thus, she dances between the outrageous and the conventional; between what people expect and what she really wants. In the end, I rather loved her, and I recognised her too, as a woman who must, in some way have reflected many of her generation.

I have deliberately not spoilt this book, as I hope that some of you may enjoy discovering it yourselves. I wonder whether Virginia Nicholson read it when she was researching her book, Singled Out? Try as I might, I am still in the dark about G. C. Pain so if anyone knows *anything* about her, I am all ears....


  1. I have a "scowler" in my home, so I know just what you are talking about! I am going to have to give this book a try. It sounds like it might be a really interesting read, and I like that there is such solid character development in it as well. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Hannah. I am off to look this one up!

  2. I love playing book detective! This sounds fascinating, and I really enjoyed Singled Out, so no doubt I'd love to read this fictionalised version of a surplus woman's life. I can't enlighten you on the author - I've never heard of her either - but perhaps this would be worthy of a Persephone reprint?! It does sound like a slightly more modern Alas, Poor Lady.

  3. I loved 'Singled Out' too and will definitely try and get my hands on this book if it's available. What a fascinating topic as I'm sure it affected so many women and probably rings true to some even today.

  4. Another fan of Singled Out who would love to find a copy of this! I'm also quite interested in the Turner monograph you mentioned. It sounds fascinating.

  5. The book certainly sounds fascinating, as does the book you found the reference in. I have Singled Out lined up on Ana's recommendation so I instantly thought of her when I read your post.

  6. Sounds intriguing, as does the Nick Turner book you also mention.

    > She is not a firebrand rebel but a girl of ordinary circumstances who wishes to live differently in a deeply restrictive society.

    I imagine most women of the time could resonate with this--I know I would have gone crazy myself!

  7. Never heard of it. This is a new writer for me, but I am intrigued. Thanks a million for the recommendation.