Women Writers and WW1
4th Aug 2014
Throughout history, women have generally been detached from front-line warfare; in the difficult teenage years of the twentieth century, however, women were mobilised on an unprecedented scale, and many were witnesses to the horrors of the trenches.
Even those who never experienced the conflict first-hand were heavily influenced by the brutality of modern war, and it had a profound impact on many aspects of women’s writing, from drama to essays, fiction to poetry:
Debuting at New York’s Palace Theatre in January 1915, and adapted for the screen by Herbert Brenon in 1916, Marion Craig Wentworth’s War Brides is a one-act play of intense feminist feeling.
Set in an unnamed ‘war-ridden country’ in an undetermined era, Wentworth’s Germanic-named protagonist, Hedwig, is newly married and pregnant when her husband and his three brothers leave for the Front.
Shortly afterwards, she learns of her spouse’s untimely death, and is approached by the military authorities regarding a new initiative, in which war widows are married off to departing soldiers, to provide a new generation of subjects ‘for the fatherland’.
Wentworth’s characters lead a protest against what they term ‘a breeding machine’, ‘an insult to our womanhood’, and she sets her protagonist face-to-face with the King.
Ultimately, Wentworth makes a martyr of Hedwig, whose last act is to commit suicide before the monarch, akin to Emily Wilding Davison’s last moments in 1913. The author’s message is loud and clear; women will not submit to making a further generation victims of his cold-blooded militarism.
Originally intended as a ‘novel essay’ to follow her 1929 work A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas was to convey her opinions on war and pacifism through an alternation of analysis and fiction. Eventually, though, it became an epistolary, taking the form of a series of letters in which Woolf tackles a question posed by a nameless gentleman: how can war be prevented?
Although, like War Brides, the conflict in question is not specifically the First World War, Woolf’s approach to conflicts past and future – at the time of writing, the Second World War was looming – engages the reader in debate, keen to convey her pacifist-feminist views and therefore link two key issues of the day: war and the emancipation of women.
Of course, it certainly could and has been said that the former advanced the process of the latter, but feminist critic Jill Liddington has praised Woolf for joining the dots between patriarchy and militarism, a combination which, during the four years of the Great War, proved fatal for around seventeen million people.
Alex Sandomir, protagonist of Rose Macaulay’s Non Combatants and Others (1916), is frustrated by the apparent uselessness of women at the outset of the First World War – this frustration is a common theme in contemporary women’s writing, despite many taking on purposeful war work, such as manufacturing ammunitions or nursing.
But Alex’s resentment of her social position motivates her to seek change and an end to conflict, particularly when she learns that her younger brother has been killed on the Western Front.
While writing Non-Combatants and Others and taking on other occupations during the First World War, Macaulay spent time with the British Propaganda Department, whose work ranged from gently patriotic to downright xenophobic.
Though these official outlets spouted undiluted and optimistic jingoism, the anguished tone of Macaulay’s novel conveys that she, and the vast swathes of the public, were all too aware of a different side to the conflict, in which they lost brothers, sons and friends.
Deciding to begin her own fight for peace, Alex becomes a staunch pacifist – as did Macaulay, who, in spite of her previous work, did much to further the cause of the Peace Pledge Union between the wars.
The Falling Leaves, written by Margaret Postgate Cole in 1915, is a haunting lament for the sacrifice of the ten million young soldiers who lost their lives during the Great War.
Cole was a feminist, socialist and atheist; during the First World War, she added to the list, becoming an ardent pacifist and campaigning against the conscription which would put non-professional soldiers on the front line for the first time, with disastrous consequences.
The gentle ‘snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay’ pose a stark contrast to the total annihilation wrought with the advent of modern warfare.Though Cole, like many women, was far from the battlefields, her sense of loss is keenly felt by the reader, as is her helplessness.
In a similar sense to Alex in Macaulay’s Non Combatants; her use of Biblical imagery, lamenting that the soldiers were not ‘slain by age or pestilence’, emphasises their youth, as she contrasts the men’s ‘beauty’ with the poignant reality of what will happen to them as they lie strewn on the fields of the Western Front. The men will rot, ‘all withering’, like leaves.
Women’s involvement in WW1, whether they took an active role or not, remains an integral part of our history, particularly as the centenary of the start of the war approaches.
Literary works, such as the likes of those written by contemporaries like Wentworth, Macaulay and Cole, and later by Woolf, provide riveting insights into an alternative point of view, one so distinctly belonging to women.
Often their literature conveys not only the thoughts and feelings about war, but, during the upheavals of the twentieth century’s adolescent years, opinions on the young movement for women’s emancipation, which was grow and taking shape amid the chaos of conflict. It was a fight from which women would no longer be isolated.
By Hayley J
Hayley studies Modern Languages at the University of Exeter and is about to embark on a placement abroad, exploring the medieval towns and sausage restaurants of Germany. She blogs at www.whathayleydid.blogspot.
[Main photo: Women workers in the New Gun Factory Woolwich WWI. Credit: Imperial War Museum via Wikipedia Commons]