The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman is a wonderful and heart-warming read that sheds a bright light on pre and post-WWII Australia, Sydney specifically, focusing on often overlooked women’s experiences. The main character, Tilly, initially secretary to the editors of Sydney’s most popular broadsheet, the Daily Herald, finds the call of war changes everything. Like many women of the time, the absence of men who have left to fight, catapults her into a role usually reserved for males: in this instance, war correspondent.
Unlike male reporters who are jettisoned into war zones or embedded with the troops (and I loved that genuine war correspondents of the era such as George Johnston are mentioned), Tilly’s reporting doesn’t mean travel, but it does mean covering the impact of war and loss of men – their absence – on domestic life. Determined to do her best, Tilly writes from the heart and with unerring accuracy, all the time noting the social, psychological, economic and other changes war brings about, not only on others, but her own life. As the wife of a PoW, Tilly is all too aware of the hefty cost of battle on everyone. Forced to deal with entrenched sexism, misogyny and all the other negative assumptions her remaining male co-workers and other men she encounters particularly make about women, Tilly and her peers continuously prove they’re simply doing what they’ve always been a capable of but were never given the opportunity. The age-old maxim.
But it’s not only Tilly’s work and observations on life the book explores, but what those left behind do to help the war effort and acknowledge the sacrifices being made – from the amazing land army of women, to those who go above and beyond to send care packages, knit, sew, cook, learn trades and professions previously denied to them and generally step up and deny themselves so much to ensure the country runs smoothly and safely. That the men abroad, risking their lives and souls, know thy matter. It also deals with the constant fear and lack of accurate communication about what’s happening has on those left at home, the damage the spread of propaganda causes as well. And the book doesn’t steer away from exposing grubby politics and the way in which trade unions and dockers particularly were demonized for political gain.
When the war ends and Tilly’s best friend and housemate welcomes her husband home as the country celebrates victory and returning soldiers, Tilly is forced to reconcile what this means to her personally, professionally, emotionally, and what it signifies for women and the rights they worked so hard to earn. The trauma of war, of loss (and not just human lives), and return to “normality’ for the repatriated soldiers and their families as well as everyone else effected, is sensitively and heart-wrenchingly dealt with.
Overall, this impeccably researched book was a fabulous, thought-provoking and not always easy read (and I mean that in the best of ways as it challenges popular myths and misconceptions) that is both utterly heart-warming and authentic.