This has certainly been an enlightening week of Great War reading, much to ponder and reflect on, pre-conceived ideas to challenge and reshape and this book has added much to the mix. On Remembrance Day it seems like a good idea to remember the women again too.
Beyond the Home Front, Women's Autobiographical Writing of the Two World Wars, edited by Yvonne Klein and published by Macmillan in 1997; a book with the most arresting of covers and which has lurked long on my shelves patiently waiting its moment. A very readable book of two distinct halves and, whilst in keeping with this week's theme I have concentrated on the Great War half, I suspect had I ventured into the Second World War half I would have been able to make some fairly clear comparisons between the roles of women in each conflict.
There is an early acknowledgement by Yvonne Klein in her introduction that the Great War has become the subject of a vast mythology and this alone has given me almost too much to think about and reconsider, because like many I've bought into that mythology unwittingly down the years,
'disillusion,the lost generation, the slaughter of the innocents, the deaths of the best and brightest, all have entered the common consciousness as the truth about that conflict.'
Another more disturbing suggestion emerges,
'Along with this collective nostalgia for innocence lost exists another, more sinister idea...that on the whole women benefited from the war at the expense of men.'
and it is this assertion that Yvonne Klein explores, extrapolates and subsequently gently explodes with her selection of women's writing from the likes of Sylvia Pankhurst, Gertrude Stein, Enid Bagnold, Vera Brittain, Helen Thomas (wife and subsequent widow of the war poet Edward Thomas) and many more lesser known names whose writing I must now seek out.
Some interesting ideas emerge on the role of the nurses which obviously hold a particular fascination for me.
Mary Borden is one, Vera Brittain another and though I had sensed as much in previous reading I had failed to really think through Yvonne Klein's suggestion,
'Cut off from whatever sustenance might be found in a sisterhood of shared experience, the nurses are left to themselves to numb the guilt they feel for surviving at all and for their inability to provide comfort commensurate with their patient's suffering.'
On reflection now I can see it clearly.
It's true, I've been browsing the book again and there is little sense of nursing camaraderie in Vera Brittain's life as a VAD in Testament of Youth. Vera frequently seems isolated and alone. Mary Borden in The Forbidden Zone does seem to be the only woman working on her wards and other writing nurses express open antagonism towards other women in hospitals. Enid Bagnold levels accusations of 'condescension and indifference', whilst Florence Farmborough finds the English nurses 'arrogant and brutal in their methods.' Florence can barely give voice to the excruciating pain that she witnesses (and I too am wincing ninety years on) at their insistence on pouring salt into open wounds.
But who can even begin to imagine the trauma faced by these women? The courage and personal sacrifices made by so many of them must have largely faded into the background at the time given the in-extremis situation of the men at the front, so this has been a good re-balancing read offering new and revealing perspectives, whilst an essay by Vera Brittain in this week's Telegraph filled in even more gaps. It has all opened up new lines of thought which will continue to inform anything and everything I read on the subject and that to me is the sign of a book worth its space on the shelf.
Florence Farmborough incidentally, who was teaching English privately in Russia in 1914, immediately offered her services as a nurse in Moscow and her diary With the Armies of the Tsar, A Nurse at the Russian Front in War and Revolution 1914-1918 was eventually published in 1974. I'm envious of one item of uniform, 'a thick sheepskin waistcoat for winter wear, whose Russian name, dushegreychka, means 'soul-warmer'.
Makes me want to put one on right now.