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April 11, 2012

Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey

I think it was an error that led to this beautiful hardback ending up on sale for $1 in the bargain bin at the shop around the corner from my house. Or perhaps it was fate, and this book was always meant to be mine. Jenna Bailey’s Can Any Mother Help Me? is the story of the Cooperative Correspondence Club, born in England in the 1930s when a young woman wrote a letter to the magazine Nursery World:

“Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books… I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentments. Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude ‘thinking’ and cost nothing!”

Readers wrote back suggesting a collaborative magazine which was organized amongst a membership of around 25. For the next 45 years, the magazine was circulated every month, with each contributor sending her piece to the magazine’s editor. The editor compiled the pieces and bound them within an embroidered cover, and then one-by-one each woman would receive the copy, read it (adding annotations and footnotes where she saw fit) and pass it on to the next woman on the list. Basically, it was an early paper version of a blog, and the CCC’s back-issues are now held with the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex.

Historian Jenna Bailey faced the daunting task of whittling down the CCC into book size. She chose to include those articles which were most remarkable and emblematic of the rest of the collection, in a semi-chronological order. The book’s sections include those on motherhood, WW2, marriage, work and growing old. They show the diversity of voices within the CCC (and the club was careful to keep itself as such, choosing members from different religious backgrounds, political affiliations, and social classes). Though most of the women were educated, and all of those highlighted in Bailey’s book show tremendous writing ability. The articles are provocative, surprisingly contemporary in tone, amusing and moving when required to be. Members wrote about their discontentment with domestic work (and many of them had been forced to leave their jobs upon marriage, as was the custom), trouble with marriages, address adultery and divorce, sex and orgasms, recount anecdotes from everyday life. They wrote with pseudonyms, though Bailey includes biographies of members throughout the book, revealing how many of them did great work in their extra-CCC lives (most remarkably Elaine Morgan, one of the best known proponents of the aquatic ape theory).

The book’s title is a little bit misleading, for the CCC seems to be as much about womanhood as it ever was about motherhood (though it’s true that members were required to have children). To me, the book’s chief appeal is its testament to women’s friendship, its Chloe liked Olivia-ness. Bailey shows that for so many women in the CCC, its other members were the great loves of their lives.

6 thoughts on “Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey”

  1. carin says:

    What a wonderful neighbourhood you live in! Who finds books like this??

  2. Beth-Anne says:

    I just added to this to my list! Sounds like something I will enjoy.

  3. Wow! What a find!! (your website AND the book, I mean). Fascinating.

  4. m says:

    I agree, what an amazing find! I’m going to search for this, too.

  5. JC says:

    I read this book not long after it came out (being a bit of a Mass Observation junkie). Great review, and great blog too.

  6. Tan Morgan says:

    What a lovely blog entry! I had no idea these writings had been made into a book. Good to know!

    You might like to know that your link to Elaine Morgan’s website is broken – here is her new url:

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