REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF BRITAIN’S FIRST DATING AGENCY REDISCOVERED AND REPUBLISHED FOR FIRST TIME IN 80 YEARS
Mary Oliver’s frank, funny and inspiring accountof 1940s matchmaking businessis revived for a modern generationIn 1939Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner took the business of dating into their own hands and set up the country’s first ever Marriage Bureauin London’s fashionable Bond Street.Now, Mary Oliver’s memoirs-published only once 80 years ago-havebeen rediscovered, revised and republishedandset out,with searing frankness,the remarkable true story of the Marriage Bureau; its successes, its failures and its many varied and interesting clients.
The Marriage Bureau marked the beginning of a dating rebellion. No longer did women have to wait for a suitor to come to their door, no longer did they have to wait for parents to arrange ‘appropriate’ matches — now women could put themselves out there in a safe way that didn’t threaten their reputations. They could look beyond their neighbourhoods and the boy-next-door to find the person that truly made them happy. But Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner’s revolutionary idea certainly had its detractors.
The story behind the Marriage Bureau is an extraordinary one, not least because it shredded the rulebook of propriety. What Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner established was nothing short of a revolution for women, who suddenly found themselves in a position of agency and power.
Today, the Tinder generation take being in control of their romantic destiny for granted but in 1939 someone had to break the shackles of tradition and that was Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner.
While there were many books circulating in the 1940s and 1950s about how to please your husband, extracts from which circulate on social media today to much hilarity and derision by both women and men, Mary’s book was a refreshing read because it is just as much about how to please yourself.
Some of Mary’s views reflect the period, but many blatantly don’t and it’s that voice (which would probably have thousands of Instagram followers today) that still makes her relevant. Mary and Heather set out to blaze their own trail and level the playing field on love. They were sharp-witted, smart and independent women who were inspiring, layered and relatable characters who will resonate with a modern audience.
The book, published by B7 Media alongside an audiobook, has been given a new introduction by screenwriter and novelist Richard Kurti (Monkey Wars, Maladapted, Going Postal) and has already attracted the attention of Hollywood producers who are looking to turn it into a TV series.
Richard says: “I sat on the sofa and started to read, expecting something stuffy and old fashioned. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mary Oliver’s voice rocketed across the decades with such frankness and caustic humour that, within minutes, I was chuckling to myself. And I carried on chuckling, chapter after chapter, so much so that my wife asked what on earth I was reading. ‘If I’d read this fifteen years ago, before we were married, I’d have made a much better job of being a husband,’” I confessed.
“As soon as I put the book down, she picked it up, read it, and agreed – it’s a book that everyone who is even vaguely contemplating marriage should devour.”
Richard Kurti was determined not to let Mary’s voice fall silent and set about tracking down the rights so that he could get the book published in a brand new and updated edition. It was a massive task, involving hundreds of hours of online research and phoning complete strangers all over the world, eventually discovering that the rights were held unknowingly by seven different people across two different continents.
Long before we swiped right, imagine a time marked by a personal touch in the business of matchmaking. These women originated a rebellious spark of independence in dating and forming unions, started no less, during a time of war and loss.
“Here is a story that is funny, romantic, and steeped in attitude, driven by two young women taking on the world,” observed Richard. “It’s rebels with immaculate lipstick; who doesn’t want more of that?”
Rosalind and her mother
For half the afternoon Mrs Smart extolled her Rosalind, while the daughter twisted a handkerchief round and round her wrist and stared at my hat. I saw a slim, attractive, dove-like girl of twenty-one with pretty hair and enormous grey eyes. All the time I was wondering how I could get her alone, and whether she would confide in me when I did.I thought it polite and more diplomatic to wait until the maternal extravaganza came to an end, so I nodded and smiled automatically, waiting for a chance to pick up the conversation and take it over myself; but having finished her sales talk about Rosalind, the mother made a clumsy dive into the subject of matrimony.“I’ve always said that directly a girl grows up she ought to think seriously about getting married and having a lovely home of her own. Isn’t that so, Miss Oliver?” she said, holding the teapot in mid-air.Fortunately I was not expected to reply.“It’s stupid to waste time over silly things like a career, when there are such wonderful things as darling babies waiting to be born. Could youunderstand anybody wanting to put off thinking seriously about something so wonderful, Miss Oliver?”“Yes, I could, easily.” I was startled at my own courage. “I think a girl might feel she needed to have a chance of meeting a good many people first and getting to understand them. And she could do this while she had the interest of her career. It would all help to make a better wife and one probably much happier, and easier to live with.”Out of the corner of my eye I saw the handkerchief stop twisting.Mrs Smart’s eyebrows had gone up quite a distance and she looked most disapproving. “Yes, but think of all the simply delicious things she is missing while she muddles round with that career.”I ventured to suggest that the career might be successful.This time the eyebrows descended in a frown of annoyance.“I’m surprised at that coming from you, Miss Oliver.” She turned to Rosalind, “Miss Oliver is an expert on marriage,” and she then proceeded to give a completely inaccurate description of the Marriage Bureau, which I bore patiently.Suddenly, in the middle of it she was called away to the telephone, and directly she left the room the girl became entirely self-possessed.“Ma’s a nuisance,” she said laconically. “She always tries so hard to get me married, but the fact is she’s broken off three engagements for me.”“Intentionally?”
“Oh, no. She just scares everybody away, she’s so embarrassing. Either that or I feel so ashamed of her anxiety about marriage that I have to break off the engagement myself. I think it’s really because she’s terrifi ed I’ll be a secretary all my life, and that would be too boring for her.”“A lot of mothers are like that,” I assured her. Th en I arranged that I should introduce Rosalind to several young men whom she should meet away from her home and leave the mother out of the whole business.We spent three months preventing Mrs Smart from plunging into Rosalind’s aff airs, which took a good deal of tactful manoeuvring. But eventually she was very happily married to a successful young solicitor.One day we opened a letter from a daughter in Liverpool who asked if we would try to fi nd a husband for her mother:“She wants someone with a love of gaiety and enough money to live in comfort. She is the small feminine type and would probably prefer the kind of man who would fuss over her. I am enclosing a snap of her with my baby. I do hope you can do something about it. It seems such a pity for her to live alone when she could be happy making a home for someone.”I supposed she was very fond of her mother and had been miserable about leaving her alone ever since she married.One way and another we have a busy time with parents. Th ere was a retired bank manager in Bath who wrote to us about his two daughters:‘My wife died 18 months ago. If anything happened to me, my daughters would be left very lonely, as they have made very few friends here and I consider that marriage to a proper man would be desirable in the event of my decease. Th ey are too shy to make a move, and if I do not do so on their behalf now, I feel it would be too late.’He then went on to describe the girls, and give full particulars of what their exact fi nancial position would be when he died, adding—‘It is not proposed to make application to you till aft er my decease, and then only if they wish to do so. In the meantime I wish to put the position fully before you so as to simplify matters later on.’He was over eighty and the daughters were a long way under thirty. Th e dear old man must have felt he could not live much longer (he said he could only walk a few yards) and he was doing all he could to ensure their future.
Thank you, Mary Oliver, Richard Kurti and Joanne Clayton
Picture courtesy of Jane Borthwick