Showing posts with label First World War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label First World War. Show all posts

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Women Must Work by Richard Aldington

"I want a life that is full and interesting.  I should like to work at something which had a purpose beyond mere money-making.  I should like to mix with people who would make my life fuller.  I want to live with or near a man I love and who would love me, and I think I'd like to have a child, but I don't want that in squalor and misery.  As jam for it all, I'd like to live part of the time in London and part in a lovely place [...] I would try to do things to help other women."

Etta Morison is a plucky Edwardian heroine from a dull seaside town who wants more from life than providing companionship to her narrrow-minded parents and possibly marrying one of the boring young men local society finds acceptable.  Supported by her suffragette friend Vera, she manages to learn typing and shorthand and - by denying herself new clothes and books - saves enough to run away to lodgings in London, where she begins the dispiriting business of trying to find a job.  Her first success, working at an export company, is achieved not because of her skill but because of her good looks: the manager Mr Drayton picks her out of a line-up of young female job-hunters.  When Mr Drayton's interest in her becomes more (or less) than professional, Etta resigns, but is rescued from penury by Ada Lawson, another suffrage campaigner she has met through Vera.  Living as secretary at Ada's London house and at her beautiful country retreat, Dymcott, Etta gets to know Ada's nephew Ralph, and the two fall in love in the summer of 1914.  The war will affect their relationship - and Etta's aspirations for the future - in unexpected ways.

As the quote above suggests, Etta is a forward-thinking young woman, who rejects the tie of marriage and the tiresome constraints of respectability in pursuit of her own life, a pursuit that takes her through war work, a disastrous retreat to a farm, motherhood, and into the dubious world of business.  Richard Aldington is best known for the First World War novel Death of a Hero, which exposed the effect of war on a male protagonist: here he shows how women - especially successful war-workers like Etta, who were criticised for profiting from the war - were maimed and altered by conflict.  The novel has a lot in common with books like Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp, Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street  and E M Delafield's  The Heel of Achilles, all novels in which middle-class girls seek some other sort of life than that of a traditional wife and mother  Aldington's novel differs in that he sees his heroine through the war and the twenties, and also in the greater sexual frankness that he has Etta express.  The focus on sexuality also suggests a revisioning of Wells's Ann Veronica, and indeed one contemporary reviewer makes that exact comparison, not to Aldington's advantage.  None of the reviews I found seemed bothered by the sexually explicit content, even though there had been a row over the censorship of Death of a Hero when published in 1929.

The theme that struck me when I thought back over the book was how much Etta is helped out by women, often feminist women.  Ada Lawson gives her a job; a friend in later life, Kitty Mendip, helps Etta to get into the world of advertising; and the indefatigable Vera not only helps Etta to set out on her independent life but props her up throughout, particularly during their futile experiment at 'real living' on a smallholding.  Etta often reaches rock bottom, but it is invariably a female hand that is held out to lift her up again.  The conclusion of the book, in which Etta gets what she wants in some ways, but is compromised in many others, makes a rather ironic mockery of all this sisterly support, especially if we think on to what Etta's life might be like after the novel closes.  I think you could read the novel as a prequel to Delafield's Faster! Faster! and those of you who've done so (or who don't mind being spoilered by my review) will know how well things turn out for Delafield's hard-working heroine.

Etta is sometimes attractive, sometimes infuriating, sometimes sympathetic, and generally well-rounded. Some of the minor characters are a little two-dimensional, although Vera and Ada Lawson do achieve a fuller characterisation - Ada in particular is often defined by what she doesn't do or say, in a strangely effective way - and I also liked the characterisation of stuffy Mr Morison, Etta's father.

Aldington is known as a modernist but the prose style in this novel is straightforward, the timescale in standard chronology, with only the occasional bit of stream-of-consciousness to hint at a modernist approach. I found the narrative voice, which points out when Etta is deceived or deceiving herself with some emphasis, rather like Hardy but without Hardy's sustained ironic tone.  I'm now interested to try Death of a Hero for a point of comparison.  Women Must Work is out of print and there are no electronic copies around, although second-hand ones are available.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Elsie and Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson

Despite reading endless books about women workers during the First World War, I'd never heard of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, household names in their day and the most photographed women of the War.  This is probably because their story is so exceptional.  Elsie, a trained nurse and midwife, and eighteen-year-old Mairi, formed part of an ambulance corps which went out to Belgium in the early days of the war; they became the only women to work permanently within shouting distance of the front line at their first aid post in the little Belgian town of Pervyse.  Working independently, outside military organisations, their experience of the war was probably unique among women.

Elsie and Mairi had met before the war through their shared passion for motorcycling, and it was Mairi's ability on her bike that brought her to the attention of Dr Hector Munro when he was selecting members of his ambulance corps.  Mairi recommended Elsie to him, and the two women would work together for the rest of the war.  Elsie is an impressive character: she divorced her first husband for his violence and infidelity - no mean thing in Edwardian England - and trained as a midwife in the East End of London.  A strong-minded and determined woman, she helped develop medical understanding of how to treat war casualties, insisting that they be given proper rest and first aid before they were transported to a hospital, saving many lives and giving great comfort to those who would not have survived the journey.  She also brooked no suggestion that the Belgian front line was no place for a couple of women to work, either defying or ignoring orders to leave that came from various military authorities.

Mairi is no less impressive, a young woman dealing stoutly with scenes of death and devastation from her first days in Belgium, and enduring the privations of war service from their first aid post, a series of cellars in the bombed-out houses of Pervyse.  She had defied her mother to come to Belgium, although her father had encouraged her and for a short while joined the women, taking on the job of servicing their ambulances.  Both women made regular fund-raising trips back to Britain, speaking to large audiences and appearing alongside the music-hall stars of the day; Mairi's old school was very proud of their alumna and raised a great deal of money to support the women's work, which was entirely dependent on donations.  As well as caring for the wounded and joshing with the German troops dug in only a hundred yards or so from their post, the two women formed a little social centre for Belgian and British soldiers; Elsie eventually married a Belgian officer, changing her name from the memorable Knocker to the impressive if awkward Baroness de T'Serclaes. 

Diane Atkinson's book brings their remarkable story to light, giving a vivid impression of the hardship and effort they endured in Pervyse, and finishes the story by telling of their later lives.  Both women also entered war service during the Second World War and both were repeatedly honoured for their work.  As well as writing their story, Diane Atkinson is also campaigning for a statue of Elsie and Mairi to be erected in London.

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.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The War-Workers by E M Delafield

EMD's second novel, published in 1918, concerns the Midland Supply Depôt (EMD always uses the circumflex), a war support effort managed by its Director, Charmian Vivian. The daughter of the local squire, Charmian runs the operation (and, apparently, other operations that may not be her concern) with a combination of ruthless autocracy and cult of personality; her manifest self-sacrifice in working long hours and missing meals excites the admiration of the women who work for her. These women, mostly young and middle-class, live near the Depôt in a rather uncomfortable hostel, sharing bedrooms and providing each other with early morning tea. Charmian is joined by a new secretary, Grace Jones, who turns out to be the daughter of a Welsh Dean and of Charmian's own class. Grace is good at her job, and popular with the other hostel-dwellers, but does not participate in the mass admiration of martyred Miss Vivian. When Charmian's father is gravely ill after a stroke, she is beset by the conflicting duties of home and war-work; Grace, in the mean time, grows closer to Char's charismatic mother, Lady Joanna, and her cousin John Trevellyan, recovering from a war injury.

The book is a fascinating portrayal of women working and living together. It discounts the clichés of squabbling and bitching among women forced into close proximity; the war-workers of the hostel are mutually supportive and kind-hearted, covering work duty for sick colleagues, for example, sharing treats, and entertaining each other with music and chat. The rather different Grace Jones, possessor of a blunt frankness as well as an upper-class background, is accepted by the group and her characteristics accounted for by the term "originality". There are sometimes High Words. Miss Delmege, Charmian's other secretary, more than once attempts to assert her status and greater gentility and gives offence; and occasionally the workers simply get on each others' nerves, but on the whole this is an endearing picture of women working together and enjoying it. Charmian, for all she is admired by her staff at the start of the novel, is no feminist heroine, however. We are told that it is "part of Char's policy to always disparage her own sex. It threw into greater relief the contrast which she knew to exist between herself and the majority of women-workers" (141). The narrative is faintly admiring of her powers of stamina, direction and organisation, but the plot and other characters are critical of her motives: Char loves the limelight more than the cause. Char's mother, in a lesser way, also creates a cult of personality around herself, although this is presented as a benign and positive influence on those who admire her.

EMD uses an objective third-person narrative throughout the text, and the multiplicity of characters, and the use of their views and opinions to construct plot and character, approach modernist effect. There is no single protagonist: key plot developments revolve equally around Char, Lady Vivian and Grace, and the minor characters are well-described and characterised, although these characterisations are occasionally repetitive. EMD was a Voluntary Aid Detachment worker in Exeter, and it seems likely that she drew on this experience - perhaps her first encounter with girls not from her class - to inform the work. Char Vivian is said to be a rather unflattering portrait of Dame Georgina Buller, the only woman appointed to the post of Administrator of a military hospital in World War 1; there is more about this in Violet Powell's biography of EMD.

Kessinger Books publish a facsimile edition of The War-Workers. If you succumb to a copy, be warned that pages 284 and 285 are missing, presumably in a scanning error - Kessinger do warn of this possibility in the front of the book, to be fair. You can fill in the gaps, or read the whole thing, at