REVIEW: The Marriage Bureau: The True Story of How Two Matchmakers Arranged Love in Wartime London by Penrose Halson
A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after World War II—a heart-warming, touching, and thoroughly absorbing true story of a world gone by.
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, and interviews with 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.
Dear Ms. Halson,
After reading the first two books in the Sparks and Bainbridge series, this title leapt out at me. There some initial similarities (two women, one a tall blonde and the other a short brunette decide to start a matchmaking agency in London and open their business on the top floor of a rickety building with only two old desks) but once past those this is such a delightful non-fictional recounting of how two women, looking for something to do with their lives, helped countless people find matrimony during the dark days of World War II and immediately after.
There was a very clear reason why Audrey Parsons and Heather Lyon decided to pool their resources and begin a marriage bureau (Heather disliked the term “agency” and vetoed that from the name) when they did. Both had been sent out to then colonial India (Audrey to marry a man she’d met in London who totally changed once he was back home leading her to call off the engagement and Heather to find a husband) and had seen first hand the number of men desperate to find an English woman to marry. They also knew many women back in Britain desperate, for various reasons, to find men to marry. But with only short holidays in which to find suitable brides and having lost contact with people who might have helped, the men often returned to India – and other parts of the 1930s British Empire – alone.
Audrey’s Uncle George put the idea in her head and, anxious to avoid being forced to marry someone she didn’t love just to escape the censure of her disappointed parents, she turned it over in her head until it seemed like the perfect plan. Debutant Heather was a harder sell but before long, they’d found a derelict office to rent, had a sign painted, and began to woo journalists into covering the launch of “The Marriage Bureau.” Even then media coverage was essential!
The business started with strict rules and guidelines – a fee was paid upfront to register which allowed the clients to receive introductions. If a marriage resulted, another fee was paid. Clients were carefully screened, a card system was maintained, and Mary Oliver (Audrey, who changed her entire name) and Heather (who changed her last name) did their best to facilitate matrimonial endings. They, and their clients, didn’t always have twue love in mind. Instead everyone was (often) remarkably level headed about finding a partner who was steady, employed, and kind. There were some – ahem – difficult clients who called for tact, gentle (or sometimes less gentle) suggestions on ways to improve their odds, and ones who had Mary and Heather tearing their hair out. Clients came from all walks and stations in life and the women tried to do their best to pair them with suitable people.
As the business was begun in 1939 and Britain was class minded, there might be aspects to how Mary and Heather categorized their clients and arranged introductions that would be considered distasteful today. But they were working off of what their clients requested and trying to facilitate matches they thought would make people satisfied.
Some of the stories were funny or romantic while others were heartbreaking. As the Bureau began in the months before the start of the war, that was on people’s minds and hanging over their heads. Later, the partners worried about being bombed out of business or killed by the blitz. Foreign clients sometimes raised suspicions and a few were arrested as spies though there were plenty for whom Heather and Mary tried their best to find a mate including one Polish man who had escaped his war wracked country and perilously made his way to London who fell in love with a German woman now working as a nurse who had fled her country due to Kristallnacht.
A ten year anniversary party for the Bureau allowed the happy follow up stories of some couples to be told while others (including some I had wondered about, too) seemed destined to remain a mystery including a few who had been in the Far East during the war. How the Bureau was run was a product of its times but one number I’ve seen is that 15,000 couples got married (over the decades) due to its efforts. That’s not bad for a business started by two women in their twenties in 1939. B+