As I’ve mentioned before, one reason for my being here in jolly ol’ England is to research the life of Winifred Bromhall, author, and illustrator of my most cherished book as a child, Bridget’s Growing Day. And today is, I think, an excellent time, to say a little more about her.
Winifred Harriet Bromhall was born in Walsall, Staffordshire, England in 1893; less than a decade from the time when the Victorian era would give way to the Edwardian. She began her elementary education at the Blue Coat School (now the Blue Coat Church of England Academy) and later moved on to Queen Mary’s High School. She also attended the University of Birmingham perhaps to study teaching but never graduated.
In 1920, at the age of 27, with both of her parents passed away and her only sister, Margaret, studying medicine at the University of Manchester, she emigrated alone to the United States. She lived first in Boston and later in New York City and supported herself doing various jobs often related to art, or books, or children, all of which she would eventually merge into her life’s work.
She began her career by illustrating for other authors and was able to work with some esteemed names of the day like Nancy Byrd Turner, Walter de la Mare, and Blanche Jennings Thompson. We can imagine her moving up through the ranks so to speak, making connections with other illustrators, writers, and publishers; gaining the knowledge and the experience that would lead her to one day create stories of her own to illustrate.
And in 1941, as the bombs continued to drop on her home and friends and remaining family in the second year of The Blitz, she indeed achieved this with the publication of her first self-illustrated work, Johanna Arrives, about a little girl from Holland who moves with her family to the United States. After this, she would continue to self-illustrate while also occasionally illustrating for others during a career that would amass nearly 40 titles and span more than 50 years.
All of this she did, so my research up to now indicates, without ever being married. And during a time, when this surely would have been difficult. When the pressure for marriage and a family and a life in the home would have been significant. To illustrate how it might have been, consider this little gem I came across in my reading just this morning about women and work after World War II:
In More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote that psychiatrists, psychologists, and popular writers of the era critiqued women who wished to pursue a career, and even women who wished to have a job, referring to such "unlovely women" as "lost," "suffering from penis envy," "ridden with guilt complexes," or just plain "man-hating."*
Think about that for just a moment more. There were people, even mental health professionals, who considered a woman’s desire to work a pathology.
I see a great many parallels between Winifred’s life and my own and it is this, I think, more than anything that keeps me coming back to her despite tedious research with sometimes disappointing results. I want more than anything to ensure even if in the smallest of ways, that this woman’s life and work are not lost to history, especially – especially – now.
Because as I sit here in this London flat that I will call home for another two months before moving on to my next foreign adventure and ponder my own new self-employed freelance career that allows such freedom and financial independence, I am keenly aware that my way was made infinitely easier and more possible because of women like her. Surely, we want to keep it this way, right? Surely, we want those young women we love - sisters, or daughters, or nieces, or granddaughters - to have what we have and more, right?
So it is that this weekend - Independence Day weekend in the United States - if I feel at all inclined to celebrate, it will be to celebrate her and her beautiful work.
From Johanna Arrives, written and illustrated by Winifred Bromhall.
From Bridget's Growing Day, written and illustrated by Winifred Bromhall.
From Zodiac Town, written by Nancy Byrd Turner, illustrated by Winifred Bromhall.
From The Road of the Loving Heart, written by Annie Fellows Johnston, illustrated by Winifred Bromhall.