11th Jul 2012
Women and War in Modern Fiction
The way in which we reflect upon the past through fiction is never more strongly marked than how we approach times of great sorrow, such as times of war.
Modern fiction seems to approach the way we write about war in three ways; how it directly affects those fighting, how it affects those innocents caught up in it, such as refuges and victims of holocausts and genocides, and how the war affects those left at home.
This last year I seem to have read nothing but fiction set in WW1. As well as the excellent Regeneration series by Pat Barker, the third of which The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize, I’ve loved her latest novel, Toby’s Room, which is published at the end of the summer.
The Regeneration trilogy manages to encapsulate both the experiences of the soldiers returning from the front, and the social upheavals going on in Britain.
The way the war affected the status of women cannot be ignored; for the first time wages in factories rivalled or superseded men’s, women were given autonomy, in some cases a break from their husbands misogyny and this is reflected in the experiences of Barker’s characters.
Factory girl Sarah Lumb is an amazingly vivid character who makes her own money, is in control of her sexuality and is in every way the ‘modern’ woman.
Contrast Sarah’s freedom with the constraints placed upon middle class Elinor in Toby’s Room and Pat Barker shows how the class system is as big a constraint on women’s liberty and equality as the patriarchy.
If you read one book set in WW1, make it The Eye in the Door, the second of the trilogy and possibly one of the best structured books I’ve ever read.
Books dealing with the experiences of women in WW1 published in paperback this year include the excellent My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young, which goes into the emergence of the beauty industry in a very interesting way I would have never thought about.
Romance in wartime is a great staple of fiction, and a real guilty pleasure of mine. Last Easter, I saw Sarah Harrison speak at Scarborough Lit Fest. I was so taken by her I immediately went out and found her first book Flowers of the Field, set in the beginning of the war.
It shows the perspectives of two sisters; one gives her house over to the war effort as a host to a field hospital (Downton much?), and the other becomes a prostitute for Officers in Paris. The book really shows war from the opposite ends of the spectrum.
One criticism I have is that many books see women’s roles as care providers for men – but it could be argued that this was a lived experience and therefore a perfectly valid meme within fiction.
This book is one of my favourite reads from this year and I loved every single character in it. It’s about 400 pages long and I read it in three days, so romance/suffragette fans, get on that!
The story of three very different women who end up working together and becoming firm friends is both moving, beautifully written, and romantic as hell as the three women meet and fall for soldiers, airmen, and farmer’s son Joe.
If you have never read any Angela Huth before, do. Not only does she write beautiful romance, she is also the author of the tragically brilliant Virginia Fly is Drowning, a short intense novel about a middle-aged teacher desperate to lose her virginity.
Then, of course, there is Sarah Waters‘ The Night Watch. Dreadful television adaptations aside (yeah, I said it), this book is a bold experiment she pulls off with aplomb, working backwards from 1948.
It looks at ARP wardens, the lesbian experience of wartime and includes a chapter that should have anti-abortionists hanging their heads in shame.
Being evacuated to a small Welsh village, city girl Carrie and her brother Nick find comfort in the friendships of the local wise woman and her family.
Carrie’s story is followed on in the not-as-good-as-but-still-worth-a-read Rebel on a Rock. Nina Bawden, along with Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and my sister’s favourite I Am David were staples of my childhood, and are now set texts in some schools.
Then there’s one of my favourite children’s writers, Michelle Magorian. I remember Goodnight Mister Tom being read to us as a class when I was ten. Last year I had the great pleasure of introducing the book to one of my close friends who fell completely in love with it.
Her books about normal children coping in wartime are classics, and should be rediscovered by every generation. I especially love her for the creation of two of my childhood heroines;
Ruby from Back Home, a gutsy tomboy who was evacuated to America and struggles to find her place in a strict English boarding school the year after the end of the war, and Elsie Hollis, a working class girl from the large Hollis family who get a series all to themselves, who becomes a child actor whilst re-discovering a relationship with her soldier father.
Whether literary fiction or YA, the sad fact is that sometimes the most inspiring periods are the most harrowing. Whilst we might dream of World Peace, war continues to haunt the globe.
But by looking at the modern historical fiction of war, we can make sense of how it affects us, and those that fight in it. And we can hope for a future where such devastating conflicts are only seen in fiction.
There are so many wonderful, popular books set in the wars. Which is your favourite? And which could you do without?