STAND WE AT LAST by Zoe Fairbairns
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A close-ranked, briskly turned-out parade of spunky, mostly lower-middle-class English women--as they stride (or muddle) through obstacles pegged out by the Double Standard, from 1855 to 1972. In 1855 orphaned sisters will part forever. Helena is newly married to kind Jonathan Croft, a merchant; but sister Sarah refuses Jonathan's protection and sails for Australia to earn her own money by farming: ""I want to be rich from my own labors."" And both women will find frustration. Helena, unhappy in marriage and inexplicably barren, doomed to die from VD (thanks to philanderer Jonathan), consoles herself with ""the bond of their shared disappointment, the sense of having failed to achieve the one thing you really wanted. . . the sense that it was your fault when you knew it was not. . . ."" (This cri will be echoed throughout.) Sarah weathers outback hardship and almost-marriage to a well-meaning yet simple man who finds female independence an alien notion. But Sarah will return to England--and preside, with increasing feminist vigor, over the family's next generations. She helps to educate Jonathan's illegitimate daughter Pearl, who comes to live with widower Jonathan and eccentric Aunt Sarah after being cruelly abused as a child, branded a prostitute. (Pearl's mother, oyster-seller Lizzie, nobly disappears forever so that Pearl can have a comfortable home with her doting father.) Pearl, however, to Jonathan's horror, marries low--and, with good-hearted husband Hamish (a pie-barrow man), raises five sons and daughter Ruby. So, circa 1913, Ruby vows to have a job and life of her own. . . while Great-Aunt Sarah (by now a notorious Suffragette) makes her last statement on equality: on the sinking Titanic she gives up her lifeboat seat to a young boy. Ruby doesn't find real fulfillment, of course: groping for love in the WW I hopelessness, she marries tame but secure Arthur and leaves for India; her daughter Emma will be a WW II casualty of Colonel Blimp stupidity. But Ruby's son Randolph, married to compulsive housewife Helen, sires Jackie--a post-WW II woman who searches through loneliness, old ritual guilts, and even love. . . before finding true confidence in the future and herself. Sturdy rather than shrill: a full-bodied saga--with convincing middle-aged women (sour in their accommodations), remote but often-likable men, and a feminist beat that pulses. . . but never, to Fairbairns' great credit, thunders.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin