Monday, 28 February 2011

Not so quiet ... by Helen Zenna Smith

Helen Zenna Smith was a pseudonym of Evadne Price (1901-1983), a jobbing writer whose career encompassed this novel and its sequels, romantic fiction, stage plays, working as a war correspondent for the People during World War II, and acting as astrologer for She and Australian Vogue.  She was commissioned to write a parody of All Quiet on the Western Front, but proposed instead a serious war-story from the point of view of a woman war-worker.  She used as her source material the unpublished diaries of Winifred Constance Young, who had been an ambulance driver in France, and drew on Remarque's original novel for aspects of the form and language of her work.  Published in 1930, the novel can be grouped with other works that spoke frankly and critically about the Great War, often from a pacifist viewpoint, such as Testament of Youth and Goodbye to All That.

Written in diary form, the novel opens with an unflinching description of Helen Smith's life as an ambulance driver in northern France.  The accommodation is filthy and uncomfortable, the food disgusting, the work exhausting both physically and mentally. Their Unit is overseen by the Commandant, an older woman with a decidedly cruel streak, fond of autocratic whims and demeaning punishments. Helen (or Smithy or Nell; as a generic figure, her names are mutable and interchangeable) contrasts their war service bitterly with the campaigns run at home by women like her mother, and the self-satisfaction mothers take in their sacrifice of daughters to this work, with no idea of the sufferings they endure.  The idea that the older generation, and particularly older women, are responsible for the horrors of war is strongly expressed throughout the text.

War service brought together women of various classes and backgrounds, and the novel engages with this theme.  The ambulance drivers were recruited from among "refined women of decent education" but this still allows for a certain amount of variation, from lower-middle-class gentility through to members of the aristocracy familiar to their fellow workers from the pages of the Tatler.   This variation, and the cramped conditions in which the women live, cause inevitable conflict.  Helen bitterly resents the fact that the ambulance drivers also do all the cleaning work at the Unit; she frequently wishes that working-class girls could be recruited to do this.  Given the long and strenuous hours she spends driving the ambulance, she has something of a point, but doing work she sees as demeaning is as much of a trial as the additional physical labour.   Helen's attitude towards other women war-workers is highly variable: while she values the especial skill of women ambulance drivers, she is scornful of the "Seeing-Francers", the vast majority of volunteers who last only a few weeks in the service, suggests that women in positions of command invariably become megalomaniacs, and despises the amateurism of middle-class women undertaking war-work in England.  This is, however, consistent with her view that the majority of war-work exists only to perpetuate the war machine and to allow manifestations of self-sacrifice, rather than helping to alleviate suffering or bring about an end to the conflict. The novel also deals frankly with heterosexual desire and obliquely with lesbian desire.  While politically this is not a feminist text, nonetheless it has a great deal to tell us about the lives of women in wartime.

Helen's is an angry, bitter story; she sees the youth and joy crushed not only in herself, but also in her friends and lovers.  She exposes a hollowness at the centre of notions of the nobility of war and self-sacrifice, and the extreme cost of war service for both men and women.  Barbara Hardy's introduction to the novel tells us that Evadne Price wrote it in six weeks, and this sometimes shows in the text; this is not an elegant or poetical rendering of war experience, but raw and immediate, intended as a popular novel - which indeed it was, as a bestseller in its time. Not So Quiet ... is still in print, and there are also lots of secondhand copies of the Virago edition around.


  1. I got a copy of this a few weeks ago and your review is making me look forward to reading it so much more. It's a period of women's hostory that I find fascinating, but so much of what I read is rather rose tinted that it's interesting to hear of something a bit more thorny.

  2. I'm glad the review whetted your appetite - I look forward to hearing what you think of the book!