One corner of a female field that was for ever England

Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print

February 17, 2006

Jane Potter wrote her study of women's literary responses to the Great War "to redress the balance"; our 21st-century impressions of the war are coloured by the canon, by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, by Vera Brittain, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves. Potter's objective is to discuss a greater range of literary responses to the war, primarily those of female writers, from popular romantic novels through to war memoirs and journals.

The exercise in itself is not new ground, as Potter's considered references to other critics illustrate. Among others, Claire Tylee and Sharon Ouditt both approached women's consciousness and war writing 15 years ago; Ouditt's bibliography revealed the wealth of primary and secondary source material available. Potter chooses to cover an alternative aspect of the terrain. What does the literature of the time say about popular consciousness? The Great War caught women in the midst of vociferous debate about their role as citizens and as women. When men went to war, the women left at home found themselves between domesticity and new, more active roles, either as workers or as volunteers. The reading public was thirsty for literary escape that did not question the war but, following on from Boer War writing, reinforced a patriotic vision of empire and an heroic vision of the soldier. In books such as Florence Barclay's My Heart's Right There , home is where a woman should be, reinforcing the anti-suffrage view that a woman who deserts home creates only chaos. These debates were echoed in the publishing industry: Hodder and Stoughton's directors were extremely supportive of the war and it produced a wealth of fiction as propaganda; while the pacifist Allen Unwin published Bertrand Russell's objections.

As well as looking to dispel boredom, much popular fiction reinstated order. In Berta Ruck's Wanted - A Master , the heroine, once a suffragette, has her values changed by the war and renounces Votes for Women for "things one really does care about" (just as Emmeline Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union was shifting its own focus). Interestingly, she blames men for the misconceptions of her past. If only they were all real men - soldiers not slackers - women would never have wanted independence. If people returned to the rock of empire, modernist values would evaporate as meaningless. Potter argues against the view that the female popular imagination seized on the war's capacity to enable women to become "pseudo-men". Instead, they retain their femininity even when carrying out heroic deeds.

Much discussion of women's writing about the war has been from the perspective of modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, writing at a distance of ten to twenty years. Potter is not the first to choose several more contemporary nurses' and Voluntary Aid Detachment workers' memoirs and examine them as contemporary accounts, noting that a 19th-century narrative style accompanies less critical accounts of the war. She agrees with Ouditt that accounts such as Violetta Thurston's Field Hospital and Flying Column (1915) reveal a "dislocation between the severity of the experience and the domesticity of the language". Thurston is excited by a bombardment; "danger always adds a spice to every entertainment, and as the wounded were all out and we had nobody but ourselves to think about we enjoyed our thrilling departure from Lodz under heavy fire to the uttermost". Perhaps she enjoyed being a pseudo-man? Or perhaps the passage between horror and excitement was a way of coping? The tension between patriotism and disillusionment with the war is more apparent in Enid Bagnold's A Diary without Dates . In recounting appalling suffering, her diary allies her with a later, more critical and modernist sentiment.

Potter highlights the explosion of women's writing during the Great War, and it would have been illuminating to know more about where these lesser-known writers came from. Nevertheless, Potter's book is a thoughtful study that expands our view of the period.

Antonia Byatt is director of the Women's Library, London Metropolitan University.

Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print: Women's Literary Responses to the Great War 1914-1918

Author - Jane Potter
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 257
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 0 19 9986 1

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