Remembrance Sunday is going to be very different this year as we’re in lockdown, so I’ve decided to remember in the way we book bloggers do; by writing about books on war and its aftermath. My relationship with remembrance has changed enormously as I’ve grown older. I’ve gone from sixth form pacifist, through research on representations of disability at university to a greater understanding of the aftermath of the Great War. Through marriage into a Polish family I understood from first hand accounts how war shatters, dislocates and transforms families. Then through the deaths of my husband and his family, beyond my own personal grief, I felt a sense of an important story being lost. I realised what happens when we lose those that bore witness both to the Holocaust and both world wars. Now after spending a few years with my fiancé, a veteran of 22 years in the RAF, I began to understand more about service and the effects that war can have on the minds of those who undertake a career in the military. I’ve learned that I can be a pacifist, but understand other people’s experiences and empathise with them. Remembrance for me isn’t about glory, it’s simply about remembering servicemen’s sacrifices as well as their families. For me these weekends are remembering the effects war has had on all people, the men at war and the women they left behind. So over these two days I want to share with you a list of books about both world wars, from many different perspectives. It’s not an exhaustive list, nor does it cover the classic war novels or non-fiction. It’s simply a very personal journey through books I’ve read that stayed with me, books you might not think of as ‘war’ novels and what they taught me about wartime experience.
WWI and it’s Aftermath
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – I think most people would be surprised to see D.H. Lawrence’s novel on a list of war novels, but this was one of the books I read about disability post – WWI. The war left 9.5 million people dead, but for an estimated 20 million service men the effects of war lasted long after the guns fell silent. In Britain alone 2 million men came home with a disability from facial disfigurement, blindness, lung damage, amputations or shell-shock. Lady Chatterley is caught between two men affected by their service in the Great War. Her husband Clifford Chatterley has been left a ‘cripple’, a wheelchair user who is struggling both physically and mentally. He feels the pressure of being responsible for his family estate and its future. He can no longer perform sexually, but must have an heir, so informs his wife she may have an affair with someone with the caveat that they are of the same social class. Connie feels coldness from her husband, he spends a lot of time with his nurse, and is preoccupied with the engineering of his wheelchair and the machinery of the mine. His world now revolves around the mind. Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper, is his opposite. Connie first encounters him making pens for the pheasant chicks and he lets her hold one. This is no coincidence, Lawrence is aligning him with fertility, nature and the physicality of living, and loving. He desires Connie, something she has not felt for a long time. Their love making is outdoors, they run naked in the rain, and thread flowers through their hair. However, Mellors isn’t unaffected by war. His scars are more mental, he needs the peace of the outdoors, his simple life and to be accepted wholly as he is. He doesn’t see Connie as an aristocratic lady of the manor, he sees her as a woman. Their love story is actually quite beautiful and borne from all of their experiences of war.
Photographer of the Lost and When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott – These are the most recent books I’ve read based on the Great War and they are truly incredible. I have just taken part in the blog tour for the second novel and I was so moved by the story of a man who doesn’t know who he is. With the backdrop of the burial of the unknown warrior we see a man, named ‘Adam’ by the police, who remembers nothing but wears the uniform of a soldier. He is taken into the care of another man coming to terms with his own war. Hawthorn thinks that with talking therapy, and a range of other techniques, he will gradually remember. Eventually, he has the idea of putting his picture in a national newspaper because surely someone will recognise him? Yet three women come forward claiming he is theirs; their Mark, their Robert, their Ellis. In this way the author cleverly shows us the cost of war to the women left behind. This novel is haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.
In Photographer of the Lost we meet Edie. It’s 1921 and as people are putting their lives back together, coming to terms with loss or welcoming men back home, Edie’s husband Francis is still missing in action. So why did she receive a postcard from him? Unable to move on she starts to search for him, but she is not alone. Francis’s brother Harry is at the Western Front photographing grave sites for grieving families, but he also wants to find his brother. Their paths converge and together they start to piece together the truth. I love that this book covers a period of the war often forgotten. We often imagine that wars end and life carries on neatly, but the truth is some people are left never knowing what happened to their loved ones. Scott writes about the in-between people, the lost, broken and the left behind. I loved both novels.
Spare Brides by Adele Parks – This is a great book, set in the early 1920s – a decade promising glamour and progress, focuses solely on women’s post-war experience in the story of four friends. This is a generation touched by trauma and loss, especially for Sarah whose husband died in the war. Lydia’s husband was safe behind a desk in London, but she can’t help feeling he’s a coward compared to the men who fought. Ava feels suddenly restricted by the men’s return, after the newfound freedom she felt in the war. In fact so few have returned that those without husbands will have to be beautiful or maybe wealthy enough to shore up an aristocratic estate crippled by the loss of heirs and death duties. Poor lonely Beatrice has neither and looks likely to become a Spare Bride. Beatrice is the reason i fell in love with this book, because she was the answer to a question I’d always asked myself when working in a nursing home back in the 1990’s. I looked after three pairs of sisters and out of the six women, only one had been married. I should have realised but didn’t at 19, that the reason was the Great War. I felt for Beatrice who would have excelled at university and in an academic career, but is like a square peg being forced through the round hole of the old ways. When one of these women encounters a handsome soldier, still haunted by his past, it sets off an explosive chain of events. Adele Parks attention to detail for her settings, the women’s clothing and that feel of luxury in this set of friends is brilliant. It also gives us insight into how the initial trauma ripples out into family and friends, then down the generations.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – like many people I first read this novel at university and without the incredible background to modernism we received at the same time I think I might have dismissed this as a very slight book. It is stream of consciousness in style and on the face of it is about a middle class woman going out to buy flowers. However, as always with Woolf there is so much more going on. It’s not long before other lives and voices join in and it becomes a very shattered and multi-layered narrative. This was done deliberately to have several different effects: it showed that what is a normal day for one person can be extraordinary for someone else; that what we see can be very different from what’s going on inside; to break away from the traditional linear narrative common to Victorian literature and represent the feeling of post-war Britain, broken up and with parts missing. The more obvious reference to war is the character of Septimus Smith, a veteran who is suffering from shell-shock. A car backfiring in the street is nothing to most people, but for Septimus it is a trigger taking him straight back to the battlefield. His wife is desperately trying to understand but struggling to know what to do. He has a mental health problem in a time that doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to help him. Mrs Dalloway herself shows signs of neuroses, an inability to deal with life or to reconcile the society she’s in with her inner self. In that way both of these characters are the same, their inner lives leave them struggling with the roles society expects of them; the hostess and the hero.
A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot – This is a beautiful novel translated from French and it caught my attention for two different reasons. It was a story of war from the French perspective and our heroine Mathilde has a disability. I came across it during my dissertation research at university and saw the film starring Audrey Tatou. The novel is a mix of love story, war account and mystery. It starts in January 1917, when five wounded french soldiers are bound and forced into no-man’s land at Picardy, left to be caught in the crossfire between French and German troops. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, who has been a wheelchair user since childhood, sets out to find what happened to her fiancé who went missing in action. The lack of a definite answer to whether he’s alive or not sends her on a mission to determine his fate. She has been given a hint, in a letter from a dying soldier, that the official version might not be all it seems. Mathilde is a determined, shrewd and sarcastic soul and I love her resilience and ingenuity. Through sheer determination she uncovers a web of deception and coincidence, but she also learns a lot about what her fiancé’s war experience might have been like. She starts to uncover the horrors, courage and incredible kindnesses of war so gains an understanding of the men’s experience, beyond that of most other women. The men were cold, starving, dirty and infested by lice in trenches overrun with rats and relentless mud. One of the things I enjoy most is that her disability is actually an aid to finding information. Most officials see her as harmless and she willingly uses their assumptions about what she can and can’t do, if it will get her further on the road to the truth. This book shows the effects of the war on those left behind and a wonderful warmth from surviving soldiers for their fallen comrades. We don’t find out what happened to Mathilde’s fiancé till the very end, but it engaged me completely until that moment.
The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason – When WWI spreads across Europe in 1914, Lucien is in Vienna training to be a doctor. Inspired by the thought of performing surgery on heroic soldiers in a battlefield hospital, he enlists and is sent to the remote Carpathian Mountains. Rather than the well organised hospital he expected he finds a commandeered church that is freezing cold and riddled with typhus. There are no doctors, just one lone and mysterious nurse who is expecting a surgeon, but Lucius is only 22 and has never even used a scalpel. He was expecting to be trained by battle hardened surgeons. The lessons he has to learn are fairly brutal ones, the surgery he has to perform is rudimentary and a long way from a clinical operating theatre in Vienna. Even more unsettling, he finds himself falling in love with Sister Margarete. Then one day a soldier appears with strange drawings in his uniform, he is named Horvath and seems beyond saving. Lucius makes a decision that changes the course of the war for all of them. I enjoyed that this book didn’t stint on its battlefield detail, there are times you might even wince a bit, but it’s clear that the author has put in the research on what was possible at the time for different injuries. As always, it is the nervous disorders that are the most difficult to treat. However, the beauty of the writing, the stories of the men and the love story balance out this gruesome detail. The story emphasises the separation of people, the precariousness of life and the triumph of love in even the most dire circumstances.
And more …
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Wake by Anna Hope
Tomorrow I will share some thoughts on novels about WWII.