While I was working on Juliet Greenwood’s guest material, I was reminded of a short review that I wrote of Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith (my edition is Virago). This was published in the reader review column of Herstoria in 2009:
Not So Quiet Helen Zenna Smith (Feminist Press at the City University of New York)
I first read this novel sixteen years ago and it has since stayed with me, literally and metaphorically. The title first caught my attention, its nod to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) intriguing. I discovered that the author Evadne Price, a children’s writer and journalist had been asked to write a parody of All Quiet. Fortunately for the canon of First World War literature, she declined to do so. She said, ‘that wonderful book…. anybody would be mad to make fun of.[it]’. Instead Price, in the guise of ambulance driver Helen Smith wrote a vivid, unforgettable novel (1930) based on the war time journal of Winifred Young.
Price gives a view that complements that of Remarque‘s book. She graphically illustrates the experiences of the women struggling to get wounded soldiers to the field hospitals. They slogged day after day, night after night in appalling conditions, the night driving often in blackout conditions under heavy bombardment. They had poor rations, lice infestation, very little sleep and a tyrannical commanding officer, nicknamed ’Mrs Bitch’ by the ambulance drivers. They may not have seen themselves as heroes, but they were. This makes it for me an inspiring read, written as it is without sentimentality.
Young’s family were proud of her ‘doing her bit’, but not keen to face the reality of her experiences. In having her journal reworked as a novel she publicised the truth. The attitude of armchair patriots is clearly condemned in the novel. There is a terrible, chilling competitiveness amongst the committee sitting, sock knitting mothers, about who is giving the most (in the form of their offspring) to the war effort. The book is harshly critical of both war itself and those patriotic souls who pressured others into risking both their lives and their sanity. But it also shows us the toughness, resilience, camaraderie and humanity of the women who volunteered. There were clashes of personality and perspective but the women functioned as a courageous team. I often wonder how I would have fared in the same situation. I like to think that if the need ever arose, I would do as well as they did.
Since this is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, it seems a good occasion to re-read Not So Quiet in tribute to the women who worked so hard for the war effort and faced dangers that they could never have imagined…