After reading this excellent work, I now realize Ruth Adam is the author of A Woman's Place: 1910 - 1975 reprinted by Persephone Books. In I'm Not Complaining Adam was writing about she knew in this, her first novel. Born in 1907, Ruth Adam, as in the story, eventually became an elementary teacher in some of the more depressed areas of Nottinghamshire. She married in her mid-twenties and had four children but remained committed through various means to encouraging young women to achieve the skills necessary to strive towards a career.
I'm Not Complaining is set in Lower Bronton, Nottinghamshire during the 1930s. The school and its surrounding area are inhabited by underprivileged families with most living in squalour. The teachers may work at the school but they choose to live in homes with more desirable addresses outside the area. Madge Brigson is thirty years-old and shares a house with two other women. At the end of a long day dinner usually consists of a boiled egg or beans heated on a gas-ring. In morals and principle she is the antithesis of her colleague, Jenny, who wears bright lipstick and tight dresses but the two women get on quite well.
A snide remark made one day by Mrs Hunt, the matriarch of one of the more down-at-heel families, about Jenny causes Madge and fellow teacher, Miss Thornby, some upset. Apparently Jenny was seen having a quiet word with the chemist who then produced a small brown packet which will 'return your body to its natural state' as they say. In plain English it will induce an abortion. Jenny is most definitely pregnant and her lover is married to someone else. A rather bohemian couple, his wife knows all about the situation and even offers to host Jenny while she recuperates from her termination. For a book published in 1938 I thought the situation was delivered in a brilliantly forthright manner and any number of young girls were probably told to steer clear of this book by their mothers. We all know this is as beguiling as a red flag to a bull.
Ruth Adam tells it like it is for women who strive to educate themselves and have rewarding careers during a time when reproducing for their country is apparently their greatest accomplishment. That to be a bachelor is exciting and carefree while spinsterhood for women translates to being goods nobody else wants. This way of thinking was not acceptable to Ruth Adam and I found myself cheering for Madge throughout the book. Her desperate attempts to make the older girls submit to some form of work during class before running off with their boyfriends usually end in frustration but Madge is tenacious. When she becomes aware that five year-old Moira is terrified of the janitor a sinking feeling comes over Madge and she turns into a detective in order to discover the reason. Despite the many incidents, jibes, and regulations threatening her path Madge's belief in a better way of life for the poor or 'weaker sex' remains constant. And fear not...Madge is hardly devoid of male companionship so it's not all hot water bottles and whimpering for her!
I'm Not Complaining is an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction intertwined with the history of women's fight to have equal footing in a man's world just before World War II. It's poignant, thrilling, educational, and heartstoppingly gripping at times. Also, for anyone in the teaching profession it will hold an extra appeal. If you have this book on your shelf then pull it down today and if you don't own it then buy a copy and soon!
Jules Pascin (1885 - 1930)
Artist's Wife Hermine David in a Blue Hat