The novel is a fictionalised account of the author’s life and career in the world of fashion magazines which I believe started in the ‘30s but every single situation and dilemma she describes could as easily happen today.
The heroine, Elizabeth Gaskell, begins her career as a humble copywriter, before gradually rising through the ranks of the magazine, Venus, to end up as its editor. During the war she takes another post on a ‘serious’ news magazine, View (neatly skewered as just as pretentious as any women's glossy) but ends up returning to her old title.
Along the way she describes pretty much every worry, feeling of ambivalence and crisis of confidence I’ve ever experienced while negotiating my own career path and it was both comforting and ever-so-slightly chastening to realise that not a lot has changed in 80 years and really, there is nothing new under the sun.
Worried that you’re not good enough, an imposter in your job who will eventually be caught out and given the boot? She’s got that covered. Struggling to assert your authority with tricky colleagues? Yup. Wondering if what you do is silly, superficial, of any use whatsoever to humanity (if you work in fashion journalism this can crop up from time to time, especially when talking to judgmental know-it-alls at parties)? There’s a lot on this.
And of course, she writes about being a working woman and attempting to balance her need for independence and creative fulfilment with her desire to be a mother (not everyone feels this of course, but the way she writes about it is moving, honest, insightful and funny.)
While reading In The Mink (by the way, isn’t that the coolest title ever?), I became that irritating person who is constantly interrupting whichever poor unfortunate happens to be next to them to enthusiastically read out a particularly pertinent sentence, regardless of the complete lack of context for the unwilling listener.
The mistakes the youthful, naive Elizabeth makes made me wince with recognition – accidentally offending PRs with a tactless comment, being overly cynical in the wrong situation, wearily trying to think of a way to rework a tired old feature idea to make it seem fresh (not that I ever do this now, you understand) – all felt scarily familiar. And I remind you, this was all written half a century ago!
Still, Elizabeth believes fundamentally in what she’s doing – as do I – and works hard to give her readers what they need – information and inspiration.
“The cosmetic industry has a great deal to offer women. I believe it genuinely enhances beauty, promotes health and hygiene and prolongs youth. But the jewel of truth is buried in a thick wrapping of nonsense, and I spent most of my time trying to swallow my natural cynicism and look attentive while people filled me up with punk. Punk about feeding tired skins. Punk about hormones and glands... Punk, punk, punk.”
(In my copy this passage has been heavily underlined in pencil with THREE ticks next to it, by me.)
The passage below made me LOL – just imagine it appearing ‘below the line’ today, written by self-righteous trolls who’ve wandered into the fashion section on a newspaper’s website:
“Sir, when will women learn that they are much more beautiful to us in the colours which nature gave them than painted up with hideous cosmetics.” “Sir, the New Look is simply a racket devised by clever business men to make us spend money on clothes.” Sir, why do you waste valuable space showing photographs of dresses which no honest woman can afford to buy?”
But bitchy fashion insider gossip aside, it’s the stuff on struggling to assert yourself in the workplace and achieve a healthy work-life balance that I think is relevant to all readers.
After having a baby, the heroine writes,
“Should I go on putting my profession first? Or should I leave the job and do more for James? Or go on compromising indefinitely?... And it isn’t just my personal problem, but a more serious and important one, for most married professional women are facing it today – or those, at least, who have children and who have reached a point in their careers where their work is largely creative.”
Some aspects might be dated, but you can’t help seeing echoes of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In in these ruminations.
In the end, reassuringly, Elizabeth Gaskell finds a balance which works for her, but her honesty about her absolute right to an independent life outside the family home rings as passionately today through the pages of In The Mink as it must have done when it was published in 1952.
I must thank Josa Young for recommending In The Mink to me – I don’t know what strange moment of serendipity occurred to make her suggest it at that precise moment, but it was just the tonic I needed.
So tell me, have you ever opened a book and gasped with recognition at the situations and feelings described by the author? Is there a novel that you identify with so much it could have been written just for you? Please share, I need new books to read!