Joining the Dots

Juliet Gardiner

A Woman In Her Time

Published by William Collins 10 August 2017

208pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Jessica  Mann


Juliet Gardiner’s time has been my time too, and I recognize almost everything she describes, for although I am a few years her senior, she began adult life so early – married at seventeen, a mother at nineteen – that in experience we seem to be contemporaries. Here are the familiar details that so many women born before and during World War II remember  about life in the nineteen fifties and sixties:  the terror of pregnancy,  inconvenient rubber contraceptives,   brusque male gynecologists; we trembled through the Cuban missile crisis and took a keen interest in  nuclear disarmament. At home we taught ourselves to cook using the same recipe books, and learnt to look after our babies guided by the same (male) gurus. Above all we grew up with and hardly questioned the fact that we were second-class citizens. It took a long time, a sizeable proportion of our lives, for women ‘to be considered codeterminants with men in the historical narratives’.

Born in 1943 to a single mother who named her Olivia, the child spent two years in a children’s home before she was adopted and renamed Gillian. ‘My adoption was not terribly successful. My mother and I were a disappointment to each other.’ A clever child, Olivia/Gillian passed the eleven plus exam and went to Berkhamsted, a highly academic girls’ day school, but she walked out of it at the age of sixteen, and at just seventeen married George Gardiner.

Soon, as mother to three small children, having realized that she was ‘free to self-identify and construct my own persona’, Gillian changed her name to Juliet, took A-levels as a mature student, spent three years as an undergraduate  at University College London, and then signed on for a PhD.

Her husband, George Gardiner, became a Conservative parliamentary candidate and Juliet opened fetes, gave talks to women’s groups and pretended to support her husband’s policies. In fact their irreconcilable political differences loomed ever larger as Juliet matured, and they divorced when their three children were of primary-school age. Juliet took the first steps that would lead to her becoming a well-known historian, a regular broadcaster and the author of numerous books, many devoted to the domestic and social history of the twentieth century.

She mentions only two jobs, the first as deputy editor of History Today, the second as its influential editor.

Every chapter in this book contains scholarly accounts of life in Juliet’s time. Though obviously a feminist she was never an activist. It is observing and explaining, academic analysis, objective historical narrative and discussion, that come naturally to her.  The personal details read as if they had been wrenched by force from a reluctant witness.

Five years ago Juliet Gardiner was diagnosed with cancer. She has undergone radiotherapy and chemotherapy, been in and out of hospital, forced herself to accept that she is terminally ill. After a career of publishing work based on detailed research, which she can no longer do, Juliet decided to write a book for which she had to be her own source and resource. The result is a historian’s history that will be quoted by other historians for years to come.

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