15th March 2022 Handheld Defiants 7
A powerful and moving novel from 1921, about the lives and choices of modern women, by the Canadian author Marjorie Grant.
Latchkey ladies live alone or in shared rooms in London at the end of the First World War, determined to use their new freedoms, and treading a fine line between independence and disaster.
Maquita Gilroy is a Government clerk with a lively sense of self-preservation.
Anne Carey is drifting between jobs, bored of her fiancé, and longing for something to give her life meaning. Then she meets Philip Dampier, a married man whose plays she admires.
Petunia Garry, a beautiful teenage chorus girl with no background and dubious morals, is swept up by an idealistic country squire, determined to mould her into what he wants his wife to be.
Gertrude Denby, an Admiral’s daughter and an endlessly patient companion to an irritating employer, is so very tired of living out her life in hired rooms.
‘Fear woke her in the defenceless hour of dawn. She sat up in bed and faced it at last, shivering so that her teeth chattered, but valiant. She was certain that she was going to have a child.’
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In Latchkey Ladies the decisions a pregnant woman makes, and her stratagems for managing her pregnancy are as heartbreaking today as they would have been a century ago. This novel is remarkable for ignoring moral judgements, and for showing the contemporary reader the realistic choices that an educated woman has to make when she is thrown on her own resources with an illegitimate baby at the end of the First World War. The community of latchkey ladies comes into its own.
Latchkey Ladies (1921) was the second novel by the Canadian author Marjorie Grant Cook (1882-1965), and is drawn from her life in London as a single working woman. She was a prolific and influential reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and published seven novels under a variety of pseudonyms. She was close friends with Rose Macaulay, whose own secret affair with a married man may have provided the background for this novel.
‘This lost novel of 1921 is a superb portrait of young women in the time of war … As the once-granite walls dividing class and gender crumble like so many bombed-out buildings, it’s a good time to be a young woman. Perhaps. I have a bad tendency to think that fiction that asks whether women might be happier single than married is a recent invention. Wrong (as Jane Austen or Dorothy L Sayers could attest): Latchkey Ladies has neither the insidious misogyny of romantic comedies that elide success with coupledom, nor the false-ringing chipperness of self-help books that celebrate single life as a straight road to self-empowerment … such honesty (let alone lightness of touch) is rare in fiction. In 1921, it was surely radical.’ – The Times
‘A novel instinct with vitality … bustling scenes … vivid characters, all displaced to some extent, and its bracing vignettes of snatched enjoyment or stoically eked-out wartime life’ – Times Literary Supplement
‘Latchkey Ladies is a book I now want to buy for at least five of my friends, force them to read it and then have a long discussion over wine of what we think. Several relationship patterns, some traditional, some not, some loving, some not, some judgmental of others, some not are shown throughout this book but in such a subtle way that it feels wholly realistic. There are also all sorts of wonderful details peppered through: women clerks not being allowed to smoke when the men have their cigarette breaks, setting up home with a kitten, flowers in a new flat, the joys of friendship’ – Collectors Cabinet
‘It’s exactly the kind of book [Handheld Press] excel at rediscovering: stories with a unique, incisive focus on the female experience in the past. There are wonderful elements here, including the majority-female cast, the terse but elegant writing, and the glimpses of London in the First World War, valiantly clinging to any sense of normality through deprivation and air raids. A real highlight of the book for me was the depiction of two middle-class headmistresses who – though the narrative couches it carefully – are explicitly “soulmates”, deeply obsessed with each other, with intimate pet-names and much physical affection, and no one of their acquaintence seems particularly bothered by them; I can’t remember ever having seen such positive sapphic characters in a book written so early’ – A Cat, A Book and a Cup of Tea
‘An enthralling read … A good novel about women during this period, giving an authentic flavour of London life and society at the end of WW1.’ – HeavenAli
‘Latchkey Ladies is a powerful book that takes an unflinching look at women’s lives as they were lived. It raises many questions that are still relevant today – for example the value of independence, the nature of work, money, marriage (it is “rather limiting” one character remarks), motherhood, and sexual freedom. ‘ – Lucienne Boyce
‘The story’s premise and tone reminded me of another post-war narrative, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, instead set in 1950s New York. Both authors … present cynical world perspectives; the girls are prone to premature judgement in their detailed, witty but often damning descriptions of those they encounter. The Group itself inspired Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City and it is easy to draw certain parallels between the three works; shared themes of marriage, children and female friendship are addressed with alternating humour and gravitas … Latchkey Ladies is not the novel of female empowerment you might expect. For the majority of the women, spanning a range of ages and experiences, this rootless lifestyle is borne of economic necessity rather than conscious choice.’ – Indie Insider
‘Marjorie Grant privilégie toujours dans le traitement de son intrigue amoureuse la sobriété au mélodrame, la finesse psychologique au romanesque, et son récit n’en est que plus réussi. L’histoire d’amour (réciproque) qu’elle décrit est sans aucun doute l’un des plus grands atouts du roman. Elle est captivante à suivre. Même si elle nous donne à réfléchir sur de nombreuses problématiques sociales (l’inégalité des sexes en tout premier lieu) elle n’est en rien dénuée de sentiment et de délicatesse. Et le dénouement est merveilleux, parfait en tous points pour moi.’ – Whoopsy Daisy
‘Latchkey Ladies encompasses the light-hearted, the serious and the tragic … an interesting look into the lives of single women in the early part of the last century and the opportunities and challenges they faced, written with style and a dash of wit.’ – What Cathy Read Next
‘There’s so much to admire in this captivating novel. Every character seems extraordinarily vital and alive … Read this for a fascinating glimpse of young women’s lives at a period when they had a degree of independence but still didn’t have the vote, for a brave and un-judgemental depiction of an extra-marital affair, and for a story of a rather lost and sad young woman who finds that a purpose in life can emerge from adversity.’ – Shiny New Books
‘The protagonists of Marjorie Grant’s 1921 novel, Latchkey Ladies, are, like the unnamed girl in the Grimms’ fairy tale, in possession of the key to “a garden of magic” (as Anne Carey, one of the ladies in the title, bitterly puts it). But their freedom is not all that they dreamt of. If they don’t stick to the rules which society laid down for them, their freedom will turn out to be a pumpkin. For it comes with strings attached … In its layers of irony, Latchkey Ladies suggests that when living in a society which has its limits in tolerating it, freedom is still a work in progress.’ – Cultural Magpie
Friendly video blogger Lil put her review of Latchkey Ladies on video, and did a reading as well.
Kate tells us how we came to discover Latchkey Ladies, and why we wanted to republish it.
And here’s the nearest thing we had to a recorded book launch: Kate talking to Sarah LeFanu about rackety ladies living a Bohemian life in London after the First World War, hosted by Westminster Libraries.