416pp, hardback, £12.99
Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner
‘“I’m sure that one’s a girl,” Ida said, pulling her towel round her shoulders.
‘A boy shook his head. “Don’t be daft,” he replied. “How can it be a girl in a plane?”’
It’s 1928 and most women’s lives are narrow and earthbound, whether lived in the USA or a provincial corner of the United Kingdom. When Amelia Earheart’s record-busting seaplane lands off the coast of west Wales, there’s one swimmer in the water to see it at first hand: Ida Gaze, whose ambition to swim the Bristol Channel would, if successfully done, similarly break records for endurance and female achievement.
Catherine Jones’s substantial period saga is bursting with nostalgia for the lidos of pre-war England and Wales, for the glasses of Dandelion and Burdock raised at a birthday celebration, the gob stoppers, pussy-bow blouses and Bakelite hairclips. But it’s more than an attractively-researched story of heroic physical achievement. It’s also an exploration of undeclared love. And it uses Ida’s amazing swim across one of the most treacherous spans of water in the UK as a springboard to recall those not-so-distant decades when conventions crumbled and women pushed forward.
Ida and her close friend Freda Voyle shock the gossipy citizens of their Welsh town (modeled on Penarth) with their taste for trousers and red lipstick. Freda has been told she might be a nurse, but not a doctor. And Ida’s ambition is roundly dismissed until she achieves it and then becomes, briefly, a local icon. The ‘Wonder Girls’ refuse to be confined by prudery and narrow expectation. They quit ‘the sly unkindness’ of the town and move to London, where they discover careers, but also grow apart. Their lives, trajectories and emotions are pieced together in interwoven timelines that reach up to the twenty-first century.
Along the way, Jones includes glimpses of other wonder girls – Earheart of course, but also Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926. In an afterword she pays homage to the real-life Wonder Girls, first and foremost Kathleen Thomas on whom Ida is based and who swam the Bristol Channel in 1927.
It’s these roots in real exceptionalism that give the book its edge, although themes of unfulfilled love and potential, and of long-held loyalty between women, also sustain its thorough-going readability.
Forget the era of Lycra, of aero-dynamic body sculpting and wicking fabrics in which – this summer in particular – we are drowning. Jones returns us to a time when bathing suits were made of wool and, for women, breaking a record wasn’t the end of the story. Guts and stamina were essential but so was a kind of determination, in the teeth of prevailing social opinion, that thankfully today seems scarcely imaginable.