The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shephard

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The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shephard

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the woman whose name was synonymous with flower arranging and cookery from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230741812

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The very mention of the name Constance Spry conjures up thoughts of flower arranging and books of recipes from a bygone era. Perhaps it was her misfortune that she died just before television could have made a celebrity of her, as it did of the likes of Fanny Cradock and Nigella Lawson, to name but two. Even so, she enjoyed a remarkably successful career, and the woman behind the public face was no ordinary career woman, but quite an unconventional personality.

Born in 1886 in Derby, at an early age she and her family moved to Ireland where she studied hygiene, physiology and district nursing. Married in 1910, she developed a passionate interest in gardening and became secretary of the Dublin Red Cross after the outbreak of war. The marriage proved a failure, and in 1916 she took herself and her son Anthony back to England.

Having developed an interest in gardening and botany, it gradually struck her that decorating one's home with style need not be the exclusive preserve of the well-off. People could just as easily use flowers and plants picked in hedgerows and even wasteland, with twigs, ferns, berries and weeds for variety. In 1921 she became headmistress of a school in London where teenage factory workers were taught additional skills one day a week. She started with cookery and dress making, but soon realised what an impression the simple posies of flowers she brought to school were making on them. The inspiration of 17th-century Dutch flower paintings, a growing collection of old flower books and her own imagination fired her into making flower arranging an art of her very own.

In this she was encouraged by her second husband, Henry Spry. ('Husband' in theory but not in practice, actually – now it can be told that for years it was a well-guarded family secret that they did not marry, he merely 'gave her his name'). She gave up teaching to open her own business, Flower Decorations, in Belgrave Road, employing florists to help create displays for patrons in high society, and opening her own Flower School. Among her clients were the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and somewhat controversially in view of the abdication crisis, the former King Edward VIII (as Duke of Windsor) and Mrs Simpson, for whose weddings she organised the flowers. The latter, naturally, deprived her of any chance of doing the same for King George VI's Coronation in 1937, although ten years later she was employed to do the same for Princess Elizabeth's wedding and, after her accession to the throne, the 1953 Coronation.

During the Second World War, when flower arranging became less important than survival, she helped the war effort by encouraging people to eat and grow their own food. Having already published several titles on flower arranging, she now began to do the same with food and cookery, with more bestsellers being the result. One of her last books was called 'Simple Flowers – a Millionaire for a few Pence'. Unfortunately the title was misconstrued. Instead of guiding its readers to making their own displays for next to nothing, some of them assumed it was a get-rich-quick guide for aspirant florists.

In telling her story, Sue Shephard has also painted in the background details very successfully. That such a business as flower arranging should have thrived during the lean economic years of the 1920s and 1930s seems paradoxical, and she portrays the inter-war era as vividly as she does the wartime years themselves. Her handling of Spry's possible affair with the cross-dressing lesbian artist Hannah Gluck is discreetly dealt with, as are the contradictory aspects of a woman who ran a successful business while having no business head at all, and a 'society flower lady' who had risen from humble origins and wished to be accepted equally by all classes, not just the upper crust.

Our thanks to Macmillan for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoy this, you might also like Cupboard Love by Laura Lockington, or Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright, who coincidentally calls Constance Spry 'a woman who changed so much for my generation'. You might also appreciate The Downstairs Cookbook: Recipes From A 1920s Household Cook by Margaret Powell.

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