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The Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London Paperback – May 2, 2017
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“[This book is] rather like a box of chocolates — to be savored and enjoyed at one’s leisure.” (Huffington Post)
“A breezy social history for readers interested in tales of a bygone age.” (Library Journal)
From the Back Cover
In the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of matchmaking. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson—who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau—tells their story, and those of their clients.
From shop girls to debutantes, widowers to war veterans, clients came in search of security, social acceptance, or simply love. And thanks to the meticulous organization and astute intuition of the Bureau’s matchmakers, most found what they were looking for.
Penrose Halson draws from newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, registration forms, film, record cards, ledgers, photographs, letters, and books by the proprietors themselves to bring the romance and heartbreak of matchmaking during wartime to vivid, often hilarious, life in this unforgettable story of a most unusual business.
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Top Customer Reviews
In 1938, twenty-four-year-old Audrey Parsons had already been through a litany of jobs near her home in England. She worked in a factory (too boring), as a dental receptionist (too bloody- she had to pick up teeth off the floor!), as a photographer's assistant (the darkroom was too dark), as a delivery girl for a cake shop (fired for eating the cakes) and as a riding instructor (she refused to muck out the stables).
Audrey went to visit her Uncle George in Assam, India and he gave her the idea of starting a marriage bureau in London. There were so many young men working overseas looking for a wife to join them, he thought Audrey could do something about that.
So Audrey found a partner in Heather, who was practical and logical in contrast to Audrey (now called Mary), who was more romantic and imaginative. They made a perfect team for this job!
The Marriage Bureau was formed, and thanks to a slew of good publicity in local newspapers, it was successful right out of the gate. The idea was that people would come in and be interviewed, giving their requirements for a potential spouse. They paid a small fee, and if a match led to marriage, they paid an After Marriage Fee.
The Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London is filled with stories of the many clients who came in looking for love. Their first wedding was a 68 year-old bride to a 70 year-old groom, which garnered so much publicity (including a short documentary film) that the bureau was overrun with inquiries across the world- India, dozens of African nations, and once WWII broke out, even American servicemen stationed in England used their services.
The stories are charming and sad, and some are even maddening. Mary and Heather were so successful, they even found a match for Cedric, a man they both found unappealing and disagreeable. Maybe there is a lid for every pot.
At the end of the book, there are two lists that must be read- Requirements for Female Clients 1939-1949 and Requirements for Male Clients 1939-1949. These lists contain such specific client requests as:
Not too sophisticated but not too dumb
Man who will cherish a large woman
I divorced my husband who was teacher. Not another teacher
No bridge, pub crawling, golf, passion for The Club or Americans
No hysteria, no gold diggers; likes mountaineering
Able to play a portable instrument (string or woodwind) well. Rather a prairie than a hothouse flower
Someone who doesn't expect too much
A nice, stylish girl, not too brainy, with the appearance of a West End mannequin. No objection to a rich widow. Someone who likes living and is human.
Reading this put me in mind of PBS' series Home Fires, and if you like that, this book is for you. Mary and Heather were women ahead of their time, and I enjoyed reading about their successful business and all of the lovely people they helped to find love. I recommend The Marriage Bureau.
The two women who started the agency were educated young ladies from good families --- Mary Oliver and Heather Jenner --- who could have done the proper thing: marry and conform. But neither was able to stick to those norms. Both found themselves at loose ends, tired of partying and looking for a means of supporting themselves. It was then that Mary seized on the idea of starting a marriage agency, a suggestion made to her by a kindly uncle living abroad who saw the need for such a service, and knew his niece was never going to fit the standard pattern of matrimonial bliss and might need an occupation. In the British colonial framework, young men were sent away to work in foreign climes with scant hope of encountering a suitable mate. Back home, women were disregarded, their real needs overlooked in the patriarchal system. Mary and Heather (both had assumed new identities so as not to embarrass their families by running a business) found rich pickings for the marriage game.
Halson’s book is told through multiple matchmaking tales. One example is Etherelda Pomfret, twice widowed, very choosy and insistent that her chosen mate speak perfect French and be “a connoisseur of objets d’art” --- but most of all, “no cads or bounders!” Mary and Heather came up with several candidates, the first of whom found Etherelda far too bossy. The next, a brigadier, decided he would try bossing her, and immediately demanded that she get rid of her cats. She acceded, and the Marriage Bureau had another triumph. One potential “client” came in to the little fifth floor Bond Street office only to demonstrate her magical “bust bodice” (by baring her chest) in hopes of making sales to less endowed marriage-seeking ladies. American flyboy Hank dropped in to offer the Bureau his gift of gratitude for finding him a suitable spouse --- a hunk of metal, souvenir of a recent air battle. “Got the bastards” was his proud pronouncement.
In addition to the many amusing, often poignant case studies, Halson details the interview process (Mary tended to get a bit too emotionally involved, but Heather seemed born to the task); fee structure (one fee for the interview and search, another payable if a marriage took place); the gradual expansion of the cramped office space to include a real typewriter after months of scribbling everything by hand; and the changes of personnel over the years up to the present.
There is an enjoyable index listing requirements of female and male clients from 1939 to 1949. Women’s needs for a spouse included: someone in Sussex who is not too keen on dancing; a bon vivant who likes his coffee and liqueur; in the army or RAF; someone with a title; if Englishman, must not be prejudiced against Irish; not hearty, perhaps absent-minded; good prospects after the war. Men sought: a nice stylish girl, not too brainy, with the appearance of a West End mannequin; a girl who knows her way about as after four years in the East I feel out of things; not frigid; nobody called Florence; fond of home life --- Army life has made me appreciate such.
Following these two lists are Interviewer’s Comments: Gent, mad, amiable rotter, beard; very nice honest-to-goodness superior working class; says she’s sex-starved; legs badly burned in the Blitz; cheque bounced.
Halson believes that Mary and Heather's Marriage Bureau offered hope in times of grave crisis. Started by two twenty-somethings with little business acumen, it endured because the women learned as they went along and never lost their indomitable spirit, mirroring that of the British people during those trying years.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott