The Compleat Woman: An Uncompleat Review of an Out-of-Print Book

Early in my career my (female) supervisor handed me a dog-eared paperback (it was not quite old and battered enough to be moldy, but let’s pretend it was, because that enhances the story). I was advised to read it, sharpish. Dutifully, that evening, I pulled the book out of my bag and started.

“The Compleat Woman: Marriage, Motherhood, Career –Can She Have It All?” is a collection of highly personal stories of women who, in 1987, were held up by the author, Valerie Grove, as Compleat Women. To save you a trip to Google, this is not a typo—compleat means “highly skilled and accomplished in all aspects; complete; total.” To feature as a Compleat Woman, a woman needed to have:

  • been married for 25 years;
  • three or more children; and
  • a meaningful career.

The 20 interviewees had over 500 years of marriage and 90 children between them and careers spanning law, medicine, politics, the arts and academia. Yet, this was no “how to” book—there was no key bit of advice or even a coherent conclusion. Instead, it is a glorious jumble of personal experiences.

I would not make the cut if the book were written today. Yes, I have a career, but I have “only” two children and 12 years of marriage. Yet still I am drawn back to the stories that are now nearly 30 years old. The book is, to a certain extent, a product of its age, but it is difficult not to take inspiration from women who have come before you, faced the same questions, wrestled with the same prejudices, felt the same feelings. It is difficult to distill this strange book into a singular message, but here are four broad themes I have taken from it that have helped me to be half compleat, if not two-thirds there.

First (and this seems obvious when you write it), it helps to love your job and be driven to work. Of course, no one loves their work one hundred percent of the time, but if you enjoy it for the majority of the time, it will be much easier to make the compromises necessary to maintain and develop your career. The beauty of this lesson is that it is largely within your control.

Secondly, the required compromises are big and can be uncomfortable. One of the Compleat Women, Drusilla Beyfus, sums this up rather brutally: “[s]omeone has got to spend time with your children: if it isn’t you, who is it going to be? Whatever your answer, you have to take a course of action that leaves you feeling that you can somehow face yourself.” She explains that she employed a series of nannies which meant that “everyone was perfectly happy, except me. Because when I was with the children on my own, I realised how strong my feelings were about wanting to bring them up.” She concludes that “on the whole, I think I am a mother who worked rather than a career woman who happened to have children.” When I first read this, I did not fully comprehend what it meant, but it stayed with me nevertheless, and I might be getting there now.

Thirdly, the realization that these incredibly successful women were essentially making things up as they went along was, and still is, hugely comforting. Each woman had a degree of flexibility in their approach to juggling their lives, and it was this that made each of their situations unique. None was scared to take chances and do things in a way that they thought might work; they pivoted and shifted as required until things worked. I have a sweatshirt with the words “winging it” printed across the front in giant letters; the sweatshirt serves as a useful reminder.

Finally, money really helps.

The book is undoubtedly dated, and it would be interesting to see how many Compleat Women could be found if the book were written today (offices are, of course, rammed full of Compleat Men, if judged against the same standard, but that is a different discussion). Dating aside, I recommend the book to anyone who can lay their hands on a copy, the moldier the better.