Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Diary without Dates by Enid Bagnold

This little book is an episodic, fragmentary account of Enid Bagnold's work as a VAD nurse during the First World War.  Based at a hospital somewhere on the outskirts of London, she tries to soothe and cheer the patients, sees her talents for bandaging and splinting improve, chafes under the authority of the professional nurses, and listens to the stories of the men under her care.

Her hospital is a separate, calm, quiet place, with dimly lit corridors and wards, a place of retreat for healing, recovery and sometimes death. She describes her patients, their often hideous injuries, without flinching but with compassion; she is sharply critical of the lack of pain relief that is given to them, especially to those who will soon die.  The men under her care sometimes talk about the war, but more often talk of their lives away from the war: jobs, sweethearts, families.  The men appear briefly, tell their names and a little bit of their story, and then fade away, but Enid seeks out their brief variety:

Watchmakers, jewellers, station-masters, dress-designers, actors, travellers in underwear, bank clerks ... they come here in uniforms and we put them into pyjamas and nurse them; and they lie in bed or hobble about the ward, watching us as we move, accepting each other with the unquestioning faith of children.
Enid, of course, has also been plucked out of her natural sphere, covered up by a uniform and set down in a hospital, managed by women not of her own class.  There are elements of comedy in Enid's account of her relations with a managing Sister who does not much care for her, and in Enid's frequently-expressed sense of her self as rather ridiculous:

I lay in my own bath last night and thought very deep thoughts, but often when we think our thoughts are deep they are only vague.  Bath thoughts are wonderful, but there's nothing 'to' them.

The narrative, such as it is, deals with Enid's own attitude to the war and its effects, and her views are complicated.  She has great compassion and sympathy for her patients, and likes to talk to them, but she has no time for those who would bring the war to a premature end and by the end of the book she asserts that "every sort of price must be paid" so that the war may be won.  But at the same time she recognises that the army is training more men "to fill just such another hospital as ours".  Her book makes no attempt to reconcile her understanding of the futility of war with her belief that this war must be fought and won.  These contradictions are part of the "divine astonishment" that she can now only feel occasionally; otherwise there is no astonishment, only acceptance of the contradictory emotions and thoughts of wartime.

This book is almost the opposite of Testament of Youth, not only in terms of Enid's thoughts on the war but in terms of length - my copy is 125 pages long - and style, which is fragmented and impressionistic rather than detailed and realistic.  Lovers of Testament of Youth will, however, find much of interest here, as will anyone interested in women's experience of the Great War.  This seems to be out of print, although there are print-on-demand copies available and the Virago edition (which has a sympathetic introduction by Monica Dickens) is available second-hand; you can also read it online at Project Gutenberg.  

Book Snob's review tells us a bit more about Bagnold and the consequences of her writing this book; reviews have also been written by Fleur Fisher, Geranium Cat, and Just One More Page who shares my astonishment that patients were allowed to smoke as much as they wanted - a full ashtray is a sort of achievement.

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