War writing is almost by definition writing by men about men.  It also, almost universally, centers on the climactic moments, the engagement between foes, the risking it all, the promise of life, the threat of death.  How unusual then to find a novel, written by a woman, in which the climactic moments are not on the battlefields but in the hospital ward, not pitting her being against another to the death, but pitting it against death for another, trying to save and comfort the maimed and screaming brought in on a nightly caravan.

Even as the soldiers under fire do, she questions her courage and fears the mark of cowardice.

“I am the type who should have stayed at home, that shrinks from blood and filth, and is completely devoid of pluck.  In other words I am a coward. … A rank coward.  I have no guts.  It takes every ounce of will-power I posses to stick to my post when I see the train (with the wounded) rounding the bend. I choke my sickness back into my throat, and grip the wheel, and tell myself it is all a horrible nightmare.”

Helen Zenna Smith, the pseudonym of Evadne Price, an author of over 150 romance novels wrote, in 1930, an amazing and little read novel of WW I:  Not So Quiet… Stepdaughters of War

Books Not So QuietWritten in the first person continuous present — “We have just wakened from our first decent sleep for weeks– eight glorious dreamless hours of utter exhaustion,” we enter from the first page into her world; no holding back.  In this present, recollections of the past intensify our immersion and describe the arc of her coming-of-age; she is consumed by a war but unrelieved by transcendent moments of battle thrill.

“the first ghastly glimpse of blood and shattered men sent me completely to pieces,”

As in every WWI book I’ve read, lice compete with shell-fire for discomfort and misery.  However, Smith brings it home more viscerally than in dozens of descriptions by men, by the simple, but desperate act of hair cutting — “her generous hair… thick, long, red as a sunset in Devon….”  Completely shorn, she takes the same satisfaction as her male peers in hearing the beasties pop as she throws them, with her hair, into the fire.

“Inwardly we are proud to think our stomachs no longer heave up and down at the sight of a louse.  After all, a few vermin more or less make little difference.  Our flea-bags are full of them, in spite of Keatings and Lysol, and our bodies a mass of tiny red bites with the tops scratched off.  We are too hard worked to spare the necessary time to keep clean, and that is the trouble.  It is four weeks since we had a bath over all, nine days since we had a big wash–we haven’t had time.

I would never have thought a description of a feminine bath  “…with different perfumes, lilac, verbena, carnation, lily of the valley… steeped to the neck in over-hot, over-scented water … clasping enormous, springy sponges, foaming with delicious soap suds…” could sound so persuasively good.

The narrator is female in other regards.  Trying to distract herself from the cries of the wounded while driving them to the triage tents, she tries to conjure the happy and the beautiful in her life, in a way no man ever has in literature.

“Did I hear something scream from inside?  I must fix my mind on something…. What?  I know–my coming-out dance.  My first grown-up dance frock, a shining frock of sequins and white georgette, high-waisted down to my toes…Did I hear a scream? …. Made over a petticoat… don’t let them start screaming….a petticoat of satin.  Satin slippers to match, not tiny—my feet were always largish; so were my hands….Was that a scream from inside?  Such trouble Mother had getting white gloves my size to go above the elbow….Was it a scream? …My hair up for the first time…oh, God, a scream this time.…”

The strongest passages, those which as Hemingway commanded, ‘don’t describe but create reality,’ come in hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness passages.  Waiting for the night train filled with wounded, she conjures up her mother and good friend, and invites them to witness with her:

“Look closely, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, and you shall see what you shall see.  Those trays each contain something that was once a whole man… the heroes who have done their bit for King and country… the heroes who marched blithely thorough the streets of London Town singing, ‘Tipperary,’ while you cheered and waved your flags hysterically. They are not singing now, you will observe.  Shut your ears, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, lest their groans and heartrending cries linger as long in your memory as in the memory of the daughter you sent to help win the War.

See the stretcher bearers lifting the trays one by one, slotting them deftly into my ambulance.  Out of the way quickly, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington — lift your silken skirts aside… a man is spewing blood, the moving has upset him, finished him…”  [for a longer excerpt.]

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When published in 1930, Not So Quiet… would have been instantly associated with the then universally popular All Quiet on The Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque.  Under the ironic title, he describes much the same horror as she does, he from a soldier’s position, she from that of a volunteer ambulance driver.  He makes one visit to a hospital to visit a friend who has lost a leg; Smith sees hundreds, thousands of men….

“Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; tone and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction…”

It is not all maimed men and ghastly scenes.  The women, even as volunteers, share many soldierly experiences of war: cruelly zealous senior officers (a woman,), and antagonism towards them, language turning blue, imaginations fired by sex, or the lack thereof, teasing the weakest among them, to the point of cruelty and despair.  As Vera Brittain recounts in her Testament to Youth, another fine telling of women on the Western Front [reviewed here], there was also great, and acted upon, antagonism from professional, paid, nurses towards the volunteers — afraid that their jobs would be in jeopardy after the war…

Despite the daily (18-20 hour days) trauma and discomfort, most of the women stay, for the same reason that men stay, not for fear of a firing squad but because  “…if they went home they would be bullied by their own people into coming out again–perhaps into something even worse…” Shame before the millennial old pressure of the tribe.

In fact, Smith does go home at last.  Out of her exhaustion she finds the courage to confront her mother who wants to know when she is going back.

“‘I have finished; I am not having anything to do with the war in future.  I hate war. I disapprove of the whole principle of licensed killing.’

Mother replies,   ‘Are you mad?  What will Aunt Helen say?’ …

… She gives a cry.

‘Nellie, you’re not a pacifist!’

‘I’m a pacifist if they’re against war.’

She sneers.  ‘You’ll be saying next you’re a conscientious objector.  (She could not have been more contemptuous if she had suggested ‘streetwalker.’)

‘I am if they are against war.’

She throws up her hands in horror. ‘To think that I, your mother, should have to stand here and listen to such dreadful things… A pacifist indeed–an excuse for cowardice.’

‘I am a coward, mother.’ I lean forward to catch her hand to try to make her understand.  ‘Mother, you don’t know what it’s like out there driving those ambulances full of torn men–torn to bits with shrapnel–sometimes they die on the way…’

She pulls herself away.  ‘At least they have died doing their duty,’ she says weeping.”

It will be amazing to many readers that Smith/Price wrote this book in a six-week sitting, not mining her own experience or prolonged research or interviews, but from a single journal kept by an Australian ambulance volunteer, Winifred Young.  Absolutely inspired writing…

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The most available edition of Not So Quiet… is the 1989 edition published by Feminist Press, with an afterward by Jane Marcus.  Though Marcus is academic in a way that reads a bit strangely following a novel — “dialogic,” “critical focus,” “textual deconstruction”– she contributes valuable linkages between Smith and other women writers of that war, their names and titles all but lost.  She also addresses the difficulty of taking seriously as a war-writer a woman who not only made a living as a romance novelist, but more than dabbled in astrology.

For more about women in war zones,  Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, is very fine [reviewed here.]

BBC did a modest, well-done series, using Brittain as a source, called The Crimson Field [reviewed here]. For those unlikely to read longer works, it serves as a good introduction to the women of that war.

Hell and Good Company, [reviewed] about the Spanish Civil War, is much about medical teams in that war, not only women, but women importantly.

And of course, no survey of women in war would be complete without the writings of Martha Gellhorn. She was too young to cover WWI, but saw the people of war zones in Spain, Finland, China, Java, , the Middle East, and Vietnam  Her The Face of War would be a good place to begin.

 

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