I become savage at the futility: Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…

Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War. The Feminist Press, New York, 1989; first published 1930

Helen Smith, the protagonist of this novel, is a prim, callow woman of 21, daughter of a jam manufacturer who considers himself solidly middle-class. She’s sufficiently bourgeoise to be considered suitable as a volunteer ambulance driver in France in World War I. Only girls from the upper classes were accepted, partly because they could pay for the privilege of volunteering, and also, as Helen cynically muses at one point, because they came from that ‘stiff upper lip’ class that would keep quiet about the truth of the horrors and carnage of trench attritional warfare.

Women ambulance drivers WWI

Female motor ambulance drivers with their vehicles, Étaples, France, 27 June 1917, during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2015 and Imperial War Museums website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205078785)

Hers is one of the grimmest, unflinching accounts of that war that I’ve read. What makes it more harrowing, in many ways, is that it’s not the usual male-camaraderie viewpoint of fighting in the front line. Although not a combatant, Helen gets to see the worst of the aftermath of modern warfare. Here’s a typically hard-hitting sample, one of countless descriptions of the horrors she witnessed:

We hate and dread the days following on the guns when they boom without interval. Trainloads of broken human beings: half-mad men pleading to be put out of their misery; torn and bleeding and crazed men pitifully obeying orders like a herd of senseless cattle, dumbly, pitifully straggling in the wrong direction, as senseless as a flock of senseless sheep obeying a senseless leader, herded back into line by the orderly, the kind sheep-dog…men with faces bleeding through their hasty bandages; men with vacant eyes and mouths hanging foolishly apart dropping saliva and slime; men with minds mercifully gone; men only too sane, eyes horror-filled with blood and pain…

It seems churlish to take issue with what some readers might consider the overwrought style here, the thumping rhetorical repetitions and parallel structure; for the awfulness of the scenes described surely justifies such verbal excess. It’s the language of anger and despair. Even the echoes of Wilfred Owen resonate and chill. Smith has the same anti-war sentiment; she too uses the word ‘futility’ to sum up the scenes through which Helen is required to drive her wounded, dying men – it makes her feel ‘savage’.

The senselessness is heightened by the contrasting levity of Helen’s letters home to her jingoistic ‘flag-crazy’ parents: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it”, she gushes deceitfully. It’s ‘the only kind of letter home they expect, the only kind they want’. They don’t want to hear the truth: that she hated and feared it, is ‘terror-stricken’, and has lost all ‘ideals and beliefs’:

You don’t believe in God or them or the infallibility of England or anything but bloody war and wounds and foul smells and smutty stories and smoke and bombs and lice and filth and noise, noise, noise – that you live in a world of cold, sick fear, a dirty world of darkness and despair – that you want to crawl ignominiously home away from these painful writhing things that once were men, these shattered, tortured faces that dumbly demand what it’s all about in Christ’s name…

No, all the parents want to do is boast to their smart friends, competing to exceed the patriotism of their rivals and to recruit more innocent young men (including Helen’s own teenage brother) to go to their slaughter, brag that their daughters are ‘doing their bit’, examples of ‘England’s Splendid Daughters’. They don’t want to hear that she’s been ‘pitch-forked into hell’. ‘Nobody cares because I’m going mad, mad, mad’, has ‘no guts’ and is ‘white-livered’, a ‘rank coward.’ There’s no heroism or nobility in the abject, often terrifying routine she endures: vile, dysentery-inducing food, sleep deprivation, a sadistic, megalomaniac female commandant known unaffectionately by the girls as ‘Mrs Bitch’, who delights in meting out ‘punishment’ duties on the already exhausted, starved and freezing drivers (their ambulances have open cabs and they have to drive the shell-pocked roads at night without lights; the winter winds cut through them until their lips bleed) on top of the disgusting menial cleaning tasks they already do as part of their daily routine. Descriptions of the daily cleansing of their filthy vehicles of every kind of human effluent and effusion are stomach-churning.

HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverIt’s not a misery memoir, however. In her Afterword , academic Jane Marcus gives useful literary-historical, political and socio-cultural context for this novel (and provides an interesting explanation for its strange subtitle). Smith was the pen-name of Australian-born Evadne Price (1896? – 1985), an unusual woman who began adult life as an actor, turned to journalism, then became a prolific author of romantic pulp fiction and children’s stories; she was even house horoscope writer for women’s magazines. Marcus suggests these less than right-on credentials have caused her to be unjustly neglected by feminist literary historians and critics.

I learned a lot from her essay (though it has some strange flights of fancy, such as war’s frenzied blood-letting being ‘menstruation envy’ from men). She places this novel in the context of canonical war literature by men (Hemingway, Ford, Graves, etc.) – but also by less canonical women (about whom I only began to learn recently when I read and researched Edith Wharton’s WWI novel about life on the home front in Paris, A Son at the Front). She has some interesting, fairly convincing theories about masculinized women and feminized men, female ‘potence’ and male impotency.

Not So Quiet…, as its title suggests, was commissioned as a spoof riposte, from the woman’s point of view, to Remarque’s best-selling novel about the German experience of the war, All Quiet on the Western Front, first published in 1929; it was first published the following year. Not having witnessed the trench war at first hand, Smith used an unpublished diary by a real-life woman ambulance driver called Winifred Young for source details. The narrative certainly rings horribly true. There were four sequels, tracing Helen’s decline in post-war, depressed Britain.

Smith was keen to depict the gender confusions arising from the women who served behind the lines, in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, in support roles to the fighting men. Unlike the more traditionally caring role of nurse (who ‘domesticates devastation’, says Marcus memorably), often the only women portrayed in this literature, these well-bred young women driving ambulances in danger zones challenged the gender stereotypes. Back home it would have been considered unthinkable, unladylike for them to drive solo, let alone with a load of shell-shocked, gangrenous wounded men, unchaperoned. Just as these girls risked being jeered at as ‘she-men’, unfeminine (Helen worries about losing her ‘womanliness’ if she cut her hair short like her braver colleague, to reduce the torments caused by lice), so the men in novels like All Quiet tended to be considered unmanly, cowardly, if they showed fear or lack of bellicose aggression towards ‘the enemy’. (There’s a powerful passage in Not So Quiet…in which Helen reflects with bitter passion on the real enemies: the politicians and armchair elderly who start wars but don’t participate themselves).

Marcus’s literary analysis is also interesting when she considers Smith’s fragmented, modernist prose style, with its breathless present tense narrative and prevailing use of free indirect discourse in multiple voices. Smith’s anti-imperialist and socialist-realist, feminist depiction of the class elements in the war are also well covered (Helen pointedly rejects class privilege towards the novel’s end – to the horror of her friends and family – when, disillusioned and shattered she leaves the ambulance convoys and re-enlists as a lowly cook’s orderly, working alongside working-class girls from the urban slums).

As Lissa Evans showed in Old Baggage, the women who’d learned to organise themselves and fight the patriarchy in the suffragist movement reacted in many different ways to the challenges to their struggle posed by the war, and the transitions they had to consider. The Pankhursts famously handed out white feathers to conscientious objectors and enthusiastically joined in the jingoism of the likes of Helen’s blinkered parents. Some made use of their new-found discipline and taste for rebellious direct action to become proto-fascists, as Evans shows in her novel.

There’s one aspect of this novel that took me a while to figure out, but Marcus spells it out with withering clarity: Smith was partly engaged in a PC counterblast to the prevalence of lesbianism among women ambulance drivers in Radclyffe Hall’s wartime sequences in The Well of Loneliness (1928). A sub-plot involves the unedifying persecution and ultimate banishment home of a couple of women in Helen’s group who are lesbians. Smith dutifully narrates this sequence, but turns it into a harsh critique of the crazed values of wartime Britain: a woman was forced to see out her driving duties no matter what crime she committed, or how cowardly or inept was her performance; only show ‘immorality’, however, and she was kicked out with alacrity.

I find, once more, I’ve gone on too long. This is an indication of what a fascinating, powerful text this is. It may not be the best written (anti-)war novel, but it’s probably one of the most memorable and unusual, and it packs a terrific punch.

 

 

Rouen, Monet, Flaubert, Maupassant

Last week I had a short break with Mrs TD and a friend in Normandy. We spent a long weekend, after a couple of days in London, based in Rouen. Went by Eurostar and SNCF trains to keep it green. Plenty of time to read on the trains, too. Finished Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet (post forthcoming), then moved on to local boy Maupassant (see below).

The main reason for the trip was to visit Monet’s garden at Giverny, a few miles along the meandering Seine from Rouen – another short train ride. Our visit coincided with the recent European heatwave; mercifully the Friday when we went to the garden wasn’t as hot as the weekend, and there were plenty of shade trees, and an excellent restaurant for lunch, where I had the deepest quiche I’ve ever seen.

The Monet pond seen from the famous Japanese bridge

Monet water garden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The gardens were breathtakingly beautiful. The famous water garden was of course the main attraction, but the rest of the site was also gorgeous. Inside the house, now a museum, there were plenty of Japanese prints, attesting to the influence on Monet’s art, and his design of the garden. A meadow in the grounds was full of wild cornflowers and poppies, a lovely contrast with the formal gardens next to the house.

Rouen cathedral west front

The west front of the cathedral catching the late evening sun on our first day there. The lantern and spire can’t be seen here

Rouen itself has an attractive city centre (beyond is pretty average), with plenty of ancient timbered buildings (most of them restored, I’d have thought, after heavy Allied bombing during WWII). The cathedral, dedicated to Notre Dame, has a graceful wooden lantern and spire. Inside is less elaborately decorated than many continental churches, and has a peaceful atmosphere. It too was badly damaged in the bombing raids, and has been carefully restored.

Nearby the gothic church of S. Maclou has a highly decorated facade with multiple arches and statues, but is also quite austere and serene inside. Its gargoyles are magnificent.

I wasn’t able to fit in a visit to the Flaubert Museum – which bizarrely also houses a Medical Museum, complete with Cabinet of Curiosities. He was born in the city in 1821, and lived there until 1840. Eventually he returned to Normandy, and died in 1880 in Croisset, just outside Rouen.

Another literary association with this part of the world is Maupassant. Although he was born some miles away on the coast near Dieppe (in 1850), he spent some of his youth at nearby Étretat (with its famous cliffs). Aged 13 he attended school in Rouen; he hated it, and used it as the basis for his story ‘La Question du Latin’ – I hope to give some thoughts on this, from his collection Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories, which I started on the Eurostar home, in a later post.

Fourié, Un repas de noces à Yport

We particularly liked this enormous painting (this reproduction can’t do it justice) by Albert Fourié, Un repas notes à Yport (1886). The sunlight dappling the table spread with the wedding feast is beautifully done. There’s a real story going on among the guests, too.
Via Wikimedia Commons, Par Adoc — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66709288

I didn’t discover until I was home that there’s a statue of him in the park opposite the Musée des Beaux Arts. This houses a fine collection of Impressionist works, including some excellent Monets (his famous painting of the facade of Rouen cathedral is reproduced everywhere across the city). You have to search them out, however, for there are two separate staircases leading to different sections of the gallery, and we nearly missed it. First we went round the section with earlier works, including a depressing number of deathbed and martyrdom scenes.

At 18 Maupassant returned to the city to attend the Lycée at which his mentor Flaubert had been a student some years earlier. It’s named after the dramatist Corneille (1606-84), also a native of Rouen.

Caillebotte, Dans un café

I liked the tricky mise en abime in this one by Gustave Caillebotte, ‘Dans un café’, c. 1880. The back of the man in the hat gazing out, glass of absinthe on the table behind him, is reflected in the mirror behind him, as are the men seated in front of the space he occupies; but the artist isn’t (maybe a pun on Las Meninas by Velázquez)

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Bookshop. Everyman’s Library 3-vol. edition (with Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower). First published 1978

I usually find that seeing the film version of a novel before reading the book is a mistake. This was definitely the case with Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Bookshop.

The novels I’ve read by her so far all have an astonishing immediacy in terms of period detail, setting and dialogue; from The Blue Flower (1995), read some time ago pre-blog, set at the time of Romantic poet Novalis (d. 1801) in a Germany that’s palpably realised, to pre-Revolution Moscow in The Beginning of Spring (1988).

In Offshore (winner of the 1979 Booker Prize) the hazardous life of an impoverished mother on a Thames houseboat in the early 1960s is evoked with the sharpness of a monochrome photograph. Human Voices just as vividly represents the people working on propaganda radio programmes during the London Blitz of 1940.

Fitzgerald 3 novels cover Florence Green, the slightly adrift middle-aged widow who’s the protagonist of The Bookshop, is another typical Fitzgerald heroine: a bit eccentric, idealistic to the point of naiveté, gifted at connecting with other people (but with a tendency to be too open and honest, which costs her dearly with unscrupulous or treacherous types – of whom there are several lushly drawn examples in this novel), tenacious but with a tendency to be wrong-headed.

It’s set in an East Anglian town called appropriately Hardborough. Florence opens a bookshop in a narrow-minded place that’s more philistine than present-day Southwold – where in real life the author worked in such a shop. The plot concerns Florence’s struggles to make a go of the business against the odds, and the oddball characters who populate this marginal town.

This is the only Fitzgerald novel I’ve read so far where I didn’t feel she conveyed a sense of the place very effectively. I know East Anglia quite well, and have been to coastal towns there like Southwold quite often, and I didn’t find the scenery described in this novel particularly convincing, or sufficiently present to contribute much to the texture of the narrative.

It’s a neatly plotted novel, with some crisply drawn characters and the gentle, perceptive humour, laced with a harder element, found in her other lighter novels. But it was spoilt for me by the vision that kept intruding of twinkly-eyed Emily Mortimer as the over-pretty, slightly vacuous,  and much younger heroine of the 2017 film version by Catalan director Isabel Coixet.

Mrs Gamart, the Cruella da Ville villain of the piece, was played well by Patricia Clarkson, cast presumably to please the American audience, but I couldn’t help associating her with other things I’d seen her in, from Sally Potter’s excellent chamber comedy The Party to the melodramatic Netflix drama House of Cards.

Perhaps the most intrusive actor, though, was Bill Nighy, turning in one of his usual turns as himself. He plays the reclusive but sympathetic old widower Edmund Brundish who in the novel champions Florence’s enterprise out of fellow feeling and antagonism towards mean-spirited provincial snobs like Mrs Gamart. To make the film more popcorn-friendly there’s an unlikely and rather silly suggestion of a romantic attraction between him and the widow.

The film’s ending is also made to conform more to the demands of a cinema audience, whereas Fitzgerald sensibly keeps things low key and unsentimental.

The best characters in the novel are the children – as they were in Offshore – especially the near-feral Christine, a ten-year-old with more street awareness than Florence could ever dream of.

I must stick to my rule of ensuring I’ve read the book before seeing the film. I’m afraid that it made this slightly twee but charming novel something rather more saccharine as a reading experience than it would have otherwise been – despite its having much darker elements than the film.