Women who went to war

Women's Writing on the First World War - War Plays by Women - Lines of Fire - Women Writers of the First World War
May 12, 2000

Historic and literary representations of the first world war have traditionally been male centred, constructed around the powerful imagery of trench warfare and the haunting words of a small group of tragic soldier poets. The past two decades of the 20th century saw an upsurge in scholarly interest in those forgotten "other" voices of war, pursued through the writings of women who lived through, served in or otherwise experienced the nightmare firsthand.

Feminist researchers such as Margaret Higonnet, Claire Tylee and Sharon Ouditt produced valuable books, assessing the impact of the war on the development of women's literary and social culture. But despite their success it was still easier to pick up a copy of the war writing of Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves than of Mary Borden's ground-breaking The Forbidden Zone or Ellen La Motte's The Backwash of War . Carefully chosen reprints from Virago put some important women's war books, such as Helen Zenna Smith's Not So Quiet and Irene Rathbone's We That Were Young , temporarily back in circulation, but for the most part the continuing lack of availability of women's war writing systematically reinforces the androcentric myths that shroud our cultural memory of 1914-18.

Late last year there was a significant move by writers and publishers to rectify this imbalance. On November 3 1999, a group of women gathered at London's Imperial War Museum to discuss their aim of bringing the forgotten words of women of the first world war back to public attention. These four new books should reinforce those efforts.

Ouditt's Women Writers of the First World War: An Annotated Bibliography shows the breadth and range of what is available. The material is clearly categorised as fiction, contemporary accounts, diaries, letters and autobiographies and journals, revealing in detail the extent of the research undertaken to create the greatest possible resource. Ouditt's inclusion of an additional section on archives directs the reader geographically, while her selective survey of secondary material indicates the extent of current interest in this relatively new field. Ouditt provides an accurate and informed commentary on the vast majority of items. Many of the entries are linked by effective cross-referencing and are easily accessed via a comprehensive index.

The bibliography is given a boost by the simultaneous publication of three anthologies, which bring to life the words of many of the women listed. The longest and most wide-ranging of them is Higonnet's Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War One . This is truly global in conception, bringing together the voices of women from Europe, America, Armenia, Turkey, Australia, India and Malawi, to name but a few. The contrasts of genre and subject matter are equally distinct and a number of striking illustrations are included that reinforce links with other artistic movements.

The lengthy section of political writings contrasts the patriotism of Emmeline Pankhurst and Gertrud Baumer with the pacifism of Rosa Luxemburg and Claire Studer Goll. Women's journalism from both the home and battle fronts is well represented. Personal testimonies are drawn from both public and private writings. Established figures such as Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen, even semi-mythical ones such as Mata Hari, sit comfortably alongside harrowing stories such as that of Gadarinee Dadourian, an Armenian refugee, and the anonymous Louise E., describing the German deportation of 20,000 French citizens from the Lille region in 1916. Higonnet includes short fiction and poetry too, asking important questions about "truth" and "representation" in her detailed and informative introduction.

Higonnet's book broadly illustrates the enormous variety of different roles that women were able to play during the first world war. Their involvement in medical care is covered in detail, as is frontline experience. While the image of woman as Red Cross nurse is well established, that of woman as combatant soldier is almost absent from western culture. Higonnet includes an extract from the writing of Flora Sandes, the only British woman to see active military service in 1914-18, in the Serbian army, but she frames this with other, international testimonies, such as accounts of the Russian women's Battalion of Death, including a lengthy piece from the battalion's leader Maria Leont'evna Botchkareva. Overall, this is a diverse collection, with the editor intent on dispelling the stereotypes that so often limit the writing of women's history.

There is some overlap between the anthologies. Women's Writing on the First World War inevitably includes several writers who also feature in Lines of Fire. Ellen La Motte's bitterly ironic "Women and wives", and Sidonie Gabrielle Colette's powerful "The child of the enemy" enrich both collections, while selections from key writers such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, Gertrude Stein and Berta Lask lend literary weight.

Women's Writing places much more emphasis on established writers, anthologising only previously published work, which gives it a rather different overall flavour. The focus is on Britain, Europe and America and is confined to prose. As with Higonnet's book, each writer is introduced through a short piece conveniently alongside the relevant entry, though there are some small biographical inaccuracies. However, this is a balanced collection, succinctly framed and with a clear chronological structure.

The publication of War Plays by Women: An International Anthology highlights one of the biggest gaps in women's literature of the first world war. In a detailed and fascinating introduction, Tylee provides evidence of the many significant plays by women that the editors discovered but were unable to include, which suggests a large and virtually untapped field for future research. The appendix provides a comprehensive list of these other works.

This is an interdisciplinary volume, and Tylee points out the varying importance of these plays in terms of history, gender studies and literature, complementing Turner's illuminating introductory section on "Drama". Again, each author is discussed in detail, which gives valuable additional context to the plays themselves.

The playwrights can be divided into two groups. The first five all lived through the war, and their work reflects their own experience, politics and ideas. The four others view the war in retrospect. Thus the anthology has voices that are both inter-generational as well as international voices, since some of the plays are translations from French and German.

A variety of political and artistic positions is represented. Stein and Lask are again included. Stein's short pieces highlight the dramatic use of her modernist experiments, whereas Lask's much longer play translates the politics of her time through a series of distinct variations of dramatic form. Feminist and pacifist perspectives appear in Marion Craig Wentworth's War Brides (1915) and Marie Leneru's La Paix (Peace) respectively, while Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Mine Eyes Have Seen considers recruitment from an African-American angle.

The later, retrospective plays reaffirm the symbolic and dramatic importance of the war in the culture of the century. Playwrights Muriel Box (Britain), Dorothy Hewitt (Australia), Wendy Lill (Canada) and Christina Reid (Northern Ireland) interpret the politics of their own worlds, their own battles, through the struggles of the men and women who went before them.

The overriding impression from these books is of richness and quality, and of the large amount of women's war writing that awaits discovery. There is, of course, more work to be done, but these four books ensure that those who choose to do it will have a fascinating, detailed and creative starting point.

Angela K. Smith is lecturer in English, University of Plymouth.

Women's Writing on the First World War

Editor - Agnès Cardinal, Dorothy Goldman and Judith Hattaway
ISBN - 0 19 812280 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 374

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