In 1932, Jill Craigie was working as a journalist for Betty’s Paper, one of a number of ‘girls’ papers’ launched in the interwar years that targeted an audience of single working women in their late teens and early twenties.[i] Her work included writing horoscopes as ‘Professor Philastro’ and advising readers on beauty and relationships as agony aunt ‘Betty’.[ii]
Through her work on the paper, Craigie was contributing to a new environment that encouraged the formation of modern identities for young women, who would write in with their problems, escape into the worlds of torrid romance stories, compare their lives to those of the stars or fashion their own appearances and lifestyles based on beauty, health and relationship advice.
On recently watching Bank Holiday, a 1938 Gainsborough Studios film directed by Carol Reed and starring Margaret Lockwood, I spotted two Betty’s Paper readers. Doreen (Rene Ray) is preparing to compete as ‘Miss Fulham’ in a Miss England contest being held at a hotel in fictional Bexborough, with the support of her friend Milly (Merle Tottenham). At the train station on their departure, Milly forthrightly lists her requests to a newspaper vendor: ‘Peg’s Paper, Betty’s Own and Woman’s Weekly’ and asks Doreen ‘Which do you want dear, Peg’s or Betty’s?’ They mention the agony aunt pages:
Milly: ‘Mabel has the answers to the correspondents in that one…’
Doreen: ‘Yes, I know, you’re telling me, I once wrote and asked her how to stop my fiancé going off with another girl and I didn’t get an answer for three weeks, and by that time he’d gone’
Although unhelpful in Doreen’s last relationship, Betty’s Paper and the girls’ paper agony aunts are situated as a vital support network for these two young women. Milly and Doreen’s concerns with romance, their carefully put-together outfits and their pride in Doreen’s place at the beauty contest – with its possibility of nationwide fame, are concerns shared with the magazines and agony aunt pages they read.
Their efforts to construct themselves as modern young women offer scenes of light-hearted comedy, echoing portrayals of ‘slightly ridiculous’ adolescent women preoccupied with the pleasures of cinemagoing and magazine-reading from earlier 1930s films.[iii] However, their aspirational ideas are also portrayed with a strong sense of empathy – a theme that recurred in Craigie’s filmmaking in the following decade. For instance, in a later scene, they attempt to live up to the glamorous life of Doreen’s upper-class rival ‘Miss Mayfair’, and they follow her into the bar of their hotel.
In this scene, a point-of-view shot establishes the elegant setting of the bar with sounds of laughter conveying the kind of relaxed, convivial fun they want to be a part of. Confused by the list of cocktails, they copy Miss Mayfair’s order of Benedictines, but mistake the small glasses as tasters, drink their liqueurs all at once and instruct the barman to proceed with filling tumblers full. As the drinks are poured, they are greeted with a silent questioning look from the barman and their neighbours’ mocking reaction. Their quiet efforts to fit in are emphasised in a long, held shot, and the scene’s awkwardness is heightened by a moment of silence. Doreen looks around nervously and Milly brushes her hair away as if to seem nonchalant. Their attempts to come across as metropolitan, sophisticated and modern have failed, but their efforts at self-fashioning are shown with warmth and pathos.
Craigie’s early role on Betty’s Paper has not often been mentioned in studies of her work. In keeping with her often self-critical or derogatory descriptions of her own work, her comments about it in a 1993 interview by Toby Haggith (IWM) suggest the kind of critical disdain and anxieties surrounding girls’ culture as superfluous and ‘silly’. Nonetheless, her observation that she was writing for ‘silly young women, like me’ is suggestive of her past proximity to a culture of feminine modernity and the aspirational self-fashioning encouraged by girls’ papers in the interwar years, as well as a sense of her identification with her readers and an understanding of their priorities.[iv]
In the interview, she vividly recalls her early life as a journalist in 1930s London – a time when she was growing up and independent, but also lonely, hard-up, hungry and vulnerable. Indeed, her biographer, Carl Rollyson, suggests that ‘it is not too much to say that Jill always looked at the world through the eyes of a young girl and that she relived her own start in life through the young girls she met and wanted to film’.[v]
This sense of identification is certainly evidenced in her inclusion of women’s views, and aspirational narratives for young women, in her films about the postwar settlement from The Way We Live to To Be a Woman. It is also at the forefront of a variety of later projects from her series about ‘London’s Bachelor Girls’ in the Evening Standard in 1956, to her research on the early experiences of key figures of the suffrage movement in her unpublished book, Daughters of Dissent.
Rather than simply ‘silly’, her background in writing and speaking for the Doreens and the Millys of the 1930s can be seen developed in her efforts to expand the frames of issues such as postwar reconstruction, equality, suffrage and war to include them.
[i] Penny Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood: Popular Magazines for Girls growing up in England, 1920-50 (London: Taylor & Francis: 1995), p. 1, 45.
[ii] Carl Rollyson, To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie (London: Aurum Press, 2005), p. 18.
[iii] Annette Kuhn, ‘Cinema culture and femininity in the 1930s’ in Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson eds. Nationalising Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) 177-191, p. 178
[iv] Toby Haggith, Interview with Jill Craigie Imperial War Museum accession number: 14293/3 archived at https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/jill-craigie (1993), side 1.
[v] Carl Rollyson, To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie (London: Aurum Press, 2005), p. 151.
Hollie Price, May 2020