War horses

First published: Mslexia Autumn 2014

The centenary of the First World War is providing a rich seam of fiction by women for publishers, says Danuta Kean

Anniversaries are important to publishers. They provide a useful hook upon which to commission books – especially non-fiction. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has, however, provided a rich market for fiction. A crop of novels and children’s books based on the Great War and its aftermath have been published over the last year.

Judging by publishing schedules for the next two years, it looks like Great War novels will continue until 1918 at least, so don’t despair about your work in progress, there remains ample opportunity to get your book out while memories are revived. It is obvious to see why the war is catnip for authors. Louisa Young puts the war’s attraction into six words: ‘Drama; life and death; everything extreme.’ Young has written two critically acclaimed bestsellers based on wartime stories of her family: the Richard & Judy pick My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and its sequel The Heroes’ Welcome, published earlier this year.

The popularity of the war among writers is not just because of the horror of the Front documented in contemporaneous film and photographs. The war was a culture shock to a generation brought up to believe the Empire was the peak of civilisation with God’s backing. Shock at the destruction of that myth reverberated through the 20th century. Also, as the first modern war it introduced technology – from planes and tanks to Tommy guns and gas – that are still used. More importantly it was the first universal war with participation – even before conscription was introduced in 1916 –widespread as entire communities volunteered men for the Front. Women were also involved: scooped from domestic duties to work in factories, hospitals or on political campaigns.

One particular reason explains why the war impacted so heavily on modern sensibilities: it was the first literary war thanks to the emergence of an educated working class who recorded its experiences, hopes and desires in letters, diaries, poetry and memoirs. Every family has stories, many repeated down the generations. Alongside an exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, one such family story inspired Young’s two novels. ‘It left me with the constant thought, “How would I have handled that, would I have shaped up?”,’ the writer says.

For Adele Parks the absence of women in family stories made it seem ‘so entirely masculine’ as to be remote. But when she discovered that 750,000 women were left with no husband or option of marriage – the traditional route to economic stability for women at the time – she was inspired to write Spare Brides. ‘These women were the ones denied the traditional “career” of marrying and had gone on to forge a new path,’ she says. The consequence of this social change was significant for modern women, she adds. ‘They became the first female lawyers, doctors, engineers. That’s a story worth telling. That’s inspiring! ‘

The rich literary heritage of the period means there is much for writers like Parks and Young to draw upon when creating period detail: for the Front, there’s Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front; for the hubris of empire there’s Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston memoirs; and for the experience the women try Vera Brittain’s searing A Testament of Youth, which has been reissued as an exquisite new hardback by Phoenix priced £16.99 .

But, counsels Sarah Waters, to get a really authentic feel for the language and lifestyle of ordinary people, writers should read beyond the classics and look at the bestsellers of the time: middle brow novels such as Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son – though she describes the gender politics as ‘pretty awful’. Her latest novel The Paying Guests is an at times terrifying tale of love and betrayal, centred on an illicit love affair between Frances Wray, a young spinster left with strained finances after the war, and Lilian Barber, who with her husband Leonard, is lodging at Frances’s family home.

Through reading 1920s texts she discovered the era had a range of voices from antique and modern, high-brow and middle-brow, literary and commercial very different to later years. ‘It meant, among other things, that I had to work harder to find the right register for my lead character’s story,’ she says. ‘I settled on a pretty traditional one in the end, but with regular swoops into slang, and occasional swearing – something you find in the diaries and letters of, say, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, who clearly relished their liberation from Edwardian drawing-room mores.’

Another rich source are newspaper and magazine archives – many of which are available online. Don’t just read the articles, look at the advertisements to get the names of products, appliances and fashion accessories – Waters’s novel is a masterclass in how to use research into household products without looking showy.

Adults are not the only ones being treated to powerful fictionalised accounts of the First World War, children’s publishers are also rising to the occasion with novels aimed at children from eight years old. Lead among them is Kate Saunders’s Five Children on The Western Front. Inspiration for the book came 40 years ago when she read E Nesbit’s classic Five Children and It. ‘I realised that the children would all be old enough to be in the Great War,’ she recalls.

In Saunders’s novel the eldest children are grown up when the Psammead, one of the most wonderful magical creations in children’s literature, returns for one last, important adventure. Children’s knowledge of Nesbit’s original was less of an issue for Saunders than their knowledge of the war. ‘When I was 14 all the old people knew about World War I,’ she explains. ‘Nowadays you can’t sing Pack Up Your Troubles and expect the average 14-year-old to understand the same references.’

But, she hopes, by addressing the war through a magical adventure – and who on earth can resist the Psammead’s return? – will encourage today’s young people to ask questions about a period that had a dramatic effect not just on high politics and international relations but their own ancestors. As reasons to mark anniversaries that has to be near the top of the list for including novels in publishers’ commemorations.



The Reading List

Five Children and the Western Front (Faber, £10.99) Have you ever wondered what happened to the children in E Nesbit’s Five Children and It. In this lively reimagining of the children, Saunders has taken the children ahead to the Great War: Cyril is fighting at the Front; Anthea is at art college; Robert is a Cambridge scholar; and The Lamb is now 11 with little sister Edith in tow. Into this world the Psammead returns for a last adventure. A bold reimagining that should bring children back to one of our greatest children’s novels.

The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young (The Borough Press, £12.99) Young’s sequel to the phenomenally successful 2011 Richard & Judy pick My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You. It is 1919 and childhood sweethearts Nadine Waverney and Riley Purefoy are married, though coping with the wounds to mind and body carried by Riley. In Kent, Riley’s CO Major Peter Locke disappears into Homer, while his wife tries to reach her husband through the haze of alcohol and suffering. This is a powerful read about the effects of war on those left to make the peace.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago, £20) It is 1922 and the Frances Wray and her mother have been forced to take in lodgers (or paying guests) Lilian and Lionel Barber because they have no men to support them: Frances’s brothers were killed in the war and the recent death of her father revealed he had speculated with their money. Soon Frances and Lilian are pulled into a dangerous love affair that leads to cataclysmic events. Waters evokes the period in this claustrophobic but powerful novel about loneliness, regeneration and hope.

Spare Brides by Adele Parks (Headline Review, £19.99) Parks moves from contemporary fiction to new year’s eve 1920 and a world where wealth and beauty are needed to ‘win’ a husband: Beatrice is neither rich nor attractive. Ava is both, but she longs for freedom. Widowed Sarah is grieving her husband, while ambitious Lydia bitterly resents her husband’s cowardice for staying at home and not fighting. Parks deals with traditional themes of wartime fiction – bereavement, hope and longing – through the tropes of commercial women’s fiction – romance and rivalry.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (Phoenix, £16.99) As war begins in 1914, 20-year-old Vera Brittain is preparing to study at Oxford. Within four years she has lost every man she valued and has seen first hand the enormous suffering inflicted in an age of Total War. Brittain’s memoir of her life as a VAD nursing wounded soldiers at the Front and as a peace activist post 1918 is a must-read text for anyone who wants to understand what it was like for women of the time and what they faced when peace returned.

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