Reviewed by Harriet
One of the problems with bounding spontaneously through life, I’ve discovered, is that people do tend to react to me quite strongly. I’d like to say that my life is therefore littered with heavy breathing Valentinos bowled over by my outgoing temperament. My radiance even. (I’d love to be able to say that). But, alas, the strong feelings I seem to arouse rarely work in my favour. If I were asked for an off-the-cuff description of my personality I suppose I’d have to say that I see myself as your fairly average Mrs Miniver – with a strong dash of Auntie Mame. Which definitely doesn’t suit all tastes.
So wrote the delightful Betty Bendell in May 1978 in her regular Good Housekeeping column, ‘My Life and I’. Born in London in 1929, Betty began writing for GH in 1966, and continued until the end of the 1980s. She contributed to other magazines too, including several in Canada after she and her family emigrated there in the late 1970s. She retired at the age of 83, but continued to life a full and happy life for another nine years. Her columns, nearly 90 of which have been collected together in this new edition by Handheld Press, are funny and honest, and she’s not afraid of laughing at herself as well as other people. On top of that, they provide a marvellous overview of the life of a middle-class wife and mother, and the changes that took place in her world, between the 1960s and the 1980s.
Betty’s family feature in almost all her columns. Her husband David, to whom she is devoted, though occasionally also irritated by, is a handsome and kindly man, sometimes sporting a dashing moustache. Young women seem irresistibly drawn to him, but though flattered, he doesn’t take advantage of the fact. Then there’s her sweet-natured, animal loving daughter Anna and her son Daniel, whose growing up readers were able to witness at second hand in Betty’s writings. She loves them both to bits but is also very funny about them, especially Daniel, who decided at about a year old to try to escape from his cot (he was fairly easily outwitted) and to do without sleep, very hard on his parents: ‘At present we know where he is once he is bedded down – although often at night we are awakened in the small hours by wild laughter and boozy singing from the next room’.
It would be great to have a photo of Betty, but failing that her image emerges from her columns. It’s impossible to judge her natural hair colour as she often dyes it and sometimes wears a wig – much the fashion in the 1970s. Tall and quite thin – though she tells us she is the only woman whose legs closely resemble in shape the jodhpurs she is being measured for – she loves clothes, though it’s difficult to find the sort of up-to-date ones she craves for, and she keeps getting offered things she wouldn’t be seen dead in which a shop assistant judges suitable for her age. She has plenty of old brown dresses and jumpers for housework and gardening, but what she likes best is party clothes, the more glamorous the better – lurex, a white leather coat, a velvet suit – and once went to a party in a close fitting red dress and black stockings: ‘“By heavens”,’ said an intense-looking male guest to our host, “I’ve always wanted to meet a girl like that!”’. She is certainly pleased that she does attract men from time to time, and is sometimes drawn to handsome tradesmen who appear at her door. But though she occasionally wonders what would have happened if she’d married one of her early boyfriends, listens with interest to friends discussing their love lives, and even wonders what it would be like to take a lover,
I especially like the lady who said to me the other day, ‘Do you take lovers?’ She wasn’t actually offering me them one at a time – like a sugar-lump – but she said it in exactly the same conversational tone. [However] I just don’t seem to have the right mental attitude for extra marital primrose picking. Ah well….anyone for tennis?
Parties aside, though, Betty’s home life is breathtakingly busy. She does amazing (to me at least) amounts of cleaning, even behind the boiler, waxes the floors, dusts the Venetian blinds, and cleans the radiators. And of course she’s always expected to cook all the family meals. In the 1960s she has few labour-saving devices, but things change as the years go by: an ancient vacuum cleaner finally gets exchanged for a newer model, she acquires a much-longed for deep freeze, and eventually a waste disposal unit.
Betty made me laugh out loud at times and smile all the way through. But there are some tender moments too, notably the episode when seven-year-old Anna insists on bringing home an abandoned fox cub and the family cooperates in rearing him to to adulthood. Chuckles, as he was called, features in two 1969 columns. In the second, we learn that Chuckles disappeared while the family was away on holiday. Anna is devastated, but the young fox starts to return for nighttime visits to romp and play hide and seek on the lawn.
Regular readers of Betty’s columns must have looked forward so much to the next episode, and certainly would have come to feel they knew her as a valued friend. I felt much the same way at the end of this delightful collection. Well done to Handheld for bringing her to our notice again.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny.
Betty Bendell, My Life and I: Confessions of an Unliberated Housewife, 1966-1980 (Handheld Press, 2023). 978-1912766703, 280pp., paperback original.
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