Continuing my exploration of the themes of love courtship and growing up in post-war Europe, on my reading list in the British Library this week was Carmen Martín Gaite’s book, Courtship customs in postwar Spain. Best known for her novels about post-war and contemporary Spain, through which she manages to explore both the experiences of living in and remembering life in Franco’s Spain, this is a different, even an odd sort of book. It is both a non fiction account of coming of age in 1940s and 1950s Spain, and an attempt to write a history of the collective experiences of one’s own generation. First published in Spanish in 1987, it’s unusual too in that Gaite focuses her attentions completely on the private sphere, on love, courtship and especially on the lives of girls and young women, in her portrait of the first generation to grow up and come of age under Francoism. It’s only more recently that, as far as I have found anyway, historians have begun to pay serious attention to themes like this when looking at the history of twentieth century Europe, and life in fascist societies. Even though themes of gender and women’s lives have been a concern for much longer, the spheres of private life, intimacy and expectations about love are only recently getting the attention they deserve.
Gaite’s book however tackles these themes head on, building on the insights and observations she made in novels like The Back Room, but attempting something between a history and a sociology of her own generation. Even though she adopts as much of a detached, scholarly manner as possible, the account is still clearly shaped by her own political views and jaded, slightly cynical experiences of growing up and coming of age in what she saw as a stagnant, provincial society which proudly sought to distinguish itself by its ‘blessed backwardness’. She focuses particularly on what it was like to grow up as a girl and young woman in late 1940s and early 1950s Spain, where, apart from marriage, the only respectable aspiration in life was to become a nun, and single women were oddities or objects of pity. These conservative social attitudes were reinforced at official level by the women’s section of the fascist falange, where single women and childless widows had to take special courses in ‘domestic’ subjects like cooking and sewing in order to be able to take jobs in the civil service or participate in falange sponsored sports. Popular culture reinforced these attitudes too; Gaite discusses popular romance novels, magazines and their advice columns, paying attention to the ways in which their conservative storylines and advice limited girls’ aspirations. Of course this wasn’t just a feature of fascist Spain in the 1950s; popular culture in Italy and elsewhere was similar in limiting roles to wives and mothers and limiting their aspirations accordingly. However in Italy, there were alternative paths and ways of thinking too; the legacy of the anti-fascist resistance meant that Communist and left-wing culture formed an important minority within the nation, while the economic miracle brought more rapid change to society from the late 1950s onwards, with the growth of consumerism and the mass media. Spain’s boom came in the 1960s, mainly affecting the following generation. Her portrait of conservative, Catholic Spain in the 1950s sounds to me more like 1950s Ireland, a democracy but one where there was little space outside the dominant Catholic culture.
Even though Gaite claims to be carrying out a ‘scientific’ study or sorts on courtship behaviour, it is of course strongly coloured by her own experiences and her – obviously antifascist – political views. It might be less a portrait of a generation than an attempt at a depersonalised reflection on her own life as a girl and young woman in post-war, Francoist Spain. But all history is to some extent subjective, and it is a fascinating account of everyday and private life in fascist Spain as well as an insight into the ways in which personal choices and attitudes could be both shaped by the wider political context, and become ways of rebelling against it.