If the role of the wartime mother and the impact of conflict on children are so brilliantly delineated in Saplings, then Barbara Noble’s Doreen has just as much to offer.
Two mothers, one biological, one surrogate will unwittingly fight for the possession of Doreen…or is it DoReen…or maybe even Dreen. The book was written in eighteen months during the worst part of the blitz; office cleaner Mrs Rawlings, torn between keeping Doreen close or keeping her safe takes up the offer of a country billet for her 9 yr old daughter. Enter childless couple Francie and Geoffrey who will grow to love Doreen as their own, and for Doreen what follows will be utter emotional confusion verging on an identity crisis as she starts to feel ‘as if there were two Doreens.’
I love this book because it mirrors my mum’s wartime experience almost identically in every detail, fiction becomes fact. She was evacuated from Liverpool to Chester in 1939 at the age of 14, to a childless couple who absolutely adored her, sent her to The Queen’s School, a very exclusive private school and my mum was blissfully happy there. But my grandmother was having none of it. They were a working class family, my grandmother had been in service, my grandfather worked on the docks, they lived in Liverpool 8, The Dingle, in one of those streets of terraced houses that run down to the Mersey. For every reason that Mrs Rawlings wanted Doreen back… jealousy, being loved and loving someone else, rising above her station in life, not fitting in when she went home, likewise did my grandmother dispatch my grandfather to bring my mum home to Liverpool just in time for the very worst of the blitz on the city. She was distraught, doubtless terrified through the war and maybe never quite forgave her mother, keeping in touch with that couple for years. Interestingly, having suffered countless miscarriages beforehand, the couple finally conceived and raised a family after my mum had left them... who can know the impact of an experience of mothering on that woman's hormones.
‘She’s got to live the life she was born to,’ says Mrs Rawlings, Doreen is denied opportunities and the mother-child relationship could be altered permanently.
Perhaps I find it harder to sympathise with Mrs Rawlings than I do with Lena because of that family story, and of course the return of the evacuated Parker children to London in Saplings, for similar reasons of a mother’s love, has disastrous consequences. But Barbara Noble left me feeling distraught for Francie and Geoffrey too and with those words of warning from John Bowlby, about the hazards of evacuation, ringing in my ears. Though not a very small child, Doreen nevertheless undergoes serious emotional trauma as the process and outcomes of her sojourn in the country are played out.
Interestingly I feel sure there were eventually advantages for me from my mum’s experience. Whilst her education and subsequent lack of a stable and reliable career after the war were deeply affected by that experience, because her education almost came to an end at that point, it made her determined that her own children would benefit from every advantage available. I would have a good education and I would have a career that I could always fall back on when I needed to… the nursing outfit was in my dressing up box from the age of four.
So where to next in our journey around some of the mothers and children in Persephone books?