Monthly Archives: August 2014

A new book group

Have you ever started a new reading or book group? What was your experience? We have found it challenging, so I give you our story and ask for your comments and advice.

120 C18 groupEstablished readers of this blog will know I moved to Devon just over a year ago. I had got the number of unpacked boxes down to 100, so I met with my daughter to discuss establishing a reading group in the area. I missed talking about books with friends and wanted to meet bookish people and to read books recommended by others.


  • We faced a number of questions:
  • How to get people to join us?
  • Where to meet?
  • How frequently?
  • At what time of day?
  • What books should we read?
  • How would we choose the books?

Initial practical arrangements

My daughter knows more people in the area than me because she has lived here for several years. And she was now engaging with other mothers at the school and pre-school gates. She approached various people and suggested meeting once a month, in each other’s homes, at 7.30. The host would provide refreshments but not a meal. We decided on the dates of the first two meetings.

From the start all members were busy women, and it has proved difficult to establish the right practical arrangements. After a few sessions of changing the date and time and meeting place Anna suggested we set the dates and books ahead and keep to it even if people’s commitments changed. By that time we had enough members to see us through times when readers were busy elsewhere.

Choice of books

120 GrassWe wanted our first books to signal the seriousness of our reading. Doris Lessing had recently died and she won the Nobel prize for Literature. We began with The Grass is Singing. For me it was a re-read and my goodness I had forgotten but was soon reminded the searing sterility of the marriage at the heart of the novel, and the connections Doris Lessing made between the oppression of women and of the Rhodesian native black population.

The second book was meant to be a contrast: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Our discussion about it showed that the group enjoyed up-to-date writing and could be critical. Our third book was Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Having read our three nominated books, the choice became dependant upon all members. We were, in the words of one member, ‘very polite’ about making suggestions for future reads. It quickly emerged that the group wanted variation: modern and older classics, lighter (but not too light) fiction, including translated fiction, as well as non-fiction and poetry. But nothing very long. When I asked group members last month about their observations for this blog most of their comments referred to the choice of books.

New members

Another decision we reflected on was whether to have a closed group or not. We know of groups that have fixed membership, new members only being inducted when people leave. One reason for this is that the group’s books are supplied by the library in fixed numbers. We decided to remain open, and so far haven’t used the library to supply our books.

Benefits of the group

120 Reading-GroupWhy would busy people join a reading group, especially when they are frequently unable to finish the book before the meeting? One reason is that having the book group allows them to prioritise reading, gives them a little more incentive to find time and space for the reading.

Here’s a list of books we have read so far:

  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
  • A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
  • If only it were true by Marc Levy

And here are our plans for reading in the next few months:

  • Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (a collection of poems, from which we will choose and say something about our choices).
  • The Bear by Claire Cameron
  • A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

And in December we will have a Christmas feast and plan for next year.

It is very hard to establish a reading group. We keep going even if only two of us turn up, and so far that has worked. We have to recognise the busy-ness of our members. We have had a good discussions even with only two people.

Please Comment

What books would you recommend for a reading group such as ours as it approaches its second year? How do you choose?

What difficulties have you experienced with a book or reading group?


Some on-line resources for reading groups

The Reading Agency supports Reading Groups for Everyone.

A site that offers lots of resources for organising a reading group is The Reading Club

A Book Club Blog: Book Club Girl

120 R Group fo logo 

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Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Stan-The-Man we called him. He was living in a house across the street when we moved to the Dalston/Stoke Newington area of London. He shared it with three other Jamaican men. Our St Lucian neighbour introduced us and we soon understood that he looked out for her, a single parent. When we wanted our house painted he did it at mates’ rates. He was unfailingly courteous, friendly, and cheerful.

We became aware that not all was well in his house when we heard loud arguing one day. Soon after their front window was broken by something heavy thrown from the outside. Our neighbour told us that Stan had taken in a troubled youth, but it hadn’t worked out. Corrugated sheet over the window stayed until the danger was passed. Then Stan told us he had made enough money over the decades in London and was returning to Jamaica to retire. Soon after his house was bought by an upwardly mobile white couple. We missed Stan.

119 MangalI was reminded of Stan and his companions when I read Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo. The axis of the action is Kingsland Road. It runs across the top of my street. Turkish cafes are mentioned, even I get a mention in a potted history of population movement of Stoke Newington.

The socialists, feminists and workers revolutionists descended on Stoke Newington over time. … women with short hair, men with long hair, our people with balloon hair; donkey jackets, dungarees, dashikis, bovver boots of many hues; and so forthly. (p120-1)

Reading Mr Loverman I feel aching nostalgia for London, for the metropolitan rich variety of Hackney, including the dandified appearance of some of the older male black residents.

118 Mr LovermanThere are more important reasons to enjoy Mr Loverman. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is a very attractive character, a charmer and a bit of a dandy. I wanted him and his life to come good, especially as he has reached his seventies. He is soft as anything as regards his lover and his daughter, Maxine. He treated his wife Carmel very badly. Here’s how he describes himself.

I am still a Saga boy. Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on, Barry, bring it on . . . (p6)

The characters in this story suffer, from the poverty of opportunity in Antigua, which brought so many from the West Indies to a new life in Britain. Barry invests successfully in property so that by the end of the novel he is a rich man, able to support himself and to be generous to those he cares about. His wife Carmel suffers from the humiliations of a loveless marriage, and the betrayal of her hopes for their marriage and life in Britain.

Barry may be an attractive character, but he is weak, fearful and secretive about his strongest attachments and concerned for his own comforts and ease. He is gay and has been in a constant if not monogamous relationship with Morris since they both lived in Antigua. Being gay in Antiguan society was not acceptable. Nor was it in Britain, and especially in the Black community. In a vivid scenes Barry recalls the murder of another black guy known to be gay and was himself beaten up and taunted with being a ‘batty boy’. He is still fearful, and it takes connecting with much younger gay men to enable him and Morris to be more open.

But more then anything, Barry is afraid of revealing the truth to his wife Carmel, who believes he goes with other women. He has deceived her about his sexuality since they married, and it creates different hells for them both. He wants to end the lie, but fears her reaction and those of her friends. Here Carmel and her friends are discussing what will happen if Daniel (Barry’s grandson) turns out to be gay. Daniel storms out of the room.

A voice wades into the conversation. ‘Look how you upset this young boy.’

Is this me talking?

‘You should be ashamed . . . insinuating things. How you think that make him feel? And my daughter don’t need to justify herself to anyone in this room.’

Merty blinks and swivels her head away from me, as though her head is set on ball bearings and can do 360-degree turn. …

The two Gorgons sit there.

Pumped up. Victorious. Primed.

Candaisy, who rarely says peep anyway, keeps her eyes averted from everyone.

Asselietha’s wearing that screwed-up expression she favours, like her lips are tied into a bunch with invisible string.

The whole lotta them should clear out of my house.

Carmel starts to rattle up the plates.

After such melodramatics, is time for everybody to calm down.

This is when Asselietha decides to pitch in. Why Carmel keeps company with such a nut job is beyond my reasoning.

‘Those homos are rightly suffering,’ she says. ‘God saved us to make us holy Mr Walker, not happy.’

This is what I truly believe happened to Asselietha. Someone sliced off the top of her head , scooped out her brains, put them in a blender and turned on the switch. Once it was all mash-up, they poured the mixture back in through her scalp and stitched it all up.

Maybe that’s why she never takes off that narsy ole beret. (p61-2)

So Barry and Morris have been living a lie for fifty years. The story takes off in the summer of 2010. Carmel goes home to Antigua to attend the funeral of her dreadful father. While she is absent Barry comes out to his grandson, Daniel, and one of his daughters, Maxine. Neither of them respond as he might have expected. Barry, for all his sharp observations, knows no one very well. The lie unravels as Carmel’s return approaches and he faces telling her the truth.

119 Hackney_districtsThe only weak aspect of the novel for me was the sorry figure of Carmel, who had achieved a great deal since she came to Britain – a degree, a career in local government including head of department status, a lover of her own, a strong friendship group. But as we see her, through Barry’s eyes, she is an irrational and rather pathetic creature, influenced by her monstrous friends. In the chapters that she recounts (songs) we see her with more vigour. But Barry’s description remains dominant.

I liked the inversion of the father coming out to his kids, and their different attitudes. And I loved the rhythms of the narrative, both in Barry’s voice, and in Carmel’s songs. And I liked the rare depiction of older people and their predicaments.

105 Fict un

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013 and included in the Fiction Uncovered list for 2014.

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Telling stories: fiction and truth

Does this happen in your writing group? Someone reads a short piece, a poem or a story. They lay down the paper and look around the group saying, with a defiant tone, ‘it’s true! It really happened.’ This occurs so often I am wondering what the writer-reader intends.

Is it meant to forestall any critical comments? Does it imply that because it’s true you can’t improve on it? Or does the truth provide a little enhancement – you might not rate this if I call it fiction, but as the truth it can’t be slated? Musing on this as both writer and reader leads me to some thoughts about truth and untruths in fiction.

‘You’re making it up!’ we are told when someone doesn’t believe us. But we know that making up stories is part of the joy of books and reading, and the pleasures of fiction can be enjoyed from a very early age.


118 Mr LovermanTruth in fiction is a curious concept. Fiction – the clue is in the word – it’s ‘made up’, fabricated, a product of the writer’s mind. And yet the writing must be authentic, believable, based on shared (true) experiences. I have just read Mr Loverman, set in the area of London in which I lived for 30 years. I found myself responding to the names and descriptions of streets, the ethnic mix of the area, the rhythms of life that Bernardine Evaristo includes. I found myself responding: Yes that’s right, that’s how it is. But the main character is made up, although I might have come across him … The made-upness and the authenticity go together and are part of the charm of reading. And in Mr Loverman being shown a place I know very well extends my experience so that I look at something familiar in a different way.

Suspending belief

When my daughter was young one of our favourite read-together books was The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams in the psychedelic style of its time (published 1969). It’s a charming story about a little boy who asks his mother to help him deal with a lion in the meadow. At first she denies the lion’s presence. Reader and child can clearly see the lion hiding in the very English meadow. But the mother, who is busy in the kitchen (it’s 1969!), deals with the little boy in an unexpected way.

“Little boy, you are making up stories – so I will make up a story too …. Do you see this match box? Take it out into the meadow and open it. In it will be a tiny dragon. The tiny dragon will grow into a big dragon. It will chase the lion away.”

The little boy took the match box and went away. The mother went on peeling the potatoes.

Well, of course the dragon chases the lion into the house. The little boy and the lion hide in the broom cupboard.118 Mother

“You should have left me alone,” said the lion. “I eat only apples.”

The mother is perplexed.118 Lion

“But there wasn’t a real dragon,” said the mother. “It was just a story I made up.”

“It turned out to be true after all,” said the little boy. “You should have looked in the match box first.”

“That’s how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true and some aren’t…”

And the boy and the lion go and play in safety on the other side of the house.

I love the way this story plays with the notion of truth, as all fiction does more or less overtly, The Lion in the Meadow is, in some ways, a meta-story!

All the same, the mother doesn’t sound very authentic. What mother calls her son ‘Little boy’? And the lion’s observation, ‘I eat only apples’ would more usually be written thus: ‘I only eat apples.’ Perhaps the unlikely nature of lion-speak is being indicated here.

Believing in fiction

Reading The Lion in the Meadow my daughter and I believed both in the truth of the story and knew that lions neither speak nor eat only apples. We negotiate the territory of truth and fiction from an early age. It gets switched on by the magic phrases, ‘Shall I tell you a story?’ and ‘Once upon a time …’

I always left out the final line of the story, however, because I didn’t want it to be true, or to allow my daughter to think it were true.118 Never

The mother never ever made up a story again.

I hope the mother is still making up stories for the little boy, the big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion and the dragon. She should. It was a good one: a dragon in a matchbox.

Here’s a link to the review of Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo that I wrote immediately after this post.


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All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

When women’s destiny is marriage, what is one to do with the unassuming wife of a Very Great Man when she is widowed at 88 years of age? Here is the opening paragraph of All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband was an exceptionally eminent and venerated man (former Viceroy of India, former prime minister), and she was his exemplary wife.

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, find reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise old age as a sign of excellence. (p5)

117 All passion coverThe dilemma concerning Lady Slane’s last years is faced by her six children (in their 60s themselves). They decide that she will stay with each of them in turn. She has other ideas. She is in for the long game. She waits until p33 to become active in decisions about her own life, even in the novel of which she is the protagonist. We already know, however, that she has thoughts concealed from her adult children. To their consternation, she announces that she saw a house in Hampstead thirty years before and that it will do for her now. She rents it and lives in it with her maid.

This decision brings three new friends. The owner of the house, Mr Bucktrout, is a rather other-worldly man, with unusual ideas about the imminence of the end of the world, and about Lady Slane’s needs in the house. They become friends, along with the handyman, Mr Gosheron. Mr Bucktrout is rather a comic figure but kindly towards his tenant. Here is Lady Slane’s first encounter with her landlord. She had entered the house before him and was upstairs when she heard him arrive.

… peeping over the bannisters, she saw, curiously foreshortened to her view, a safely old gentleman standing in the hall. She looked down on his bald patch; below that she saw his shoulders, no body to speak of, and then two patent-leather toes. He stood there hesitant; perhaps he did not know that his client had already arrived, perhaps he did not care. She thought it more possible that he did not care. He appeared to be in no hurry to find out. Lady Slane crept down a few steps, that she might get a better view of him. He wore a long linen coat like a housepainter’s; he had a rosy and somewhat chubby face, and he held one finger pressed against his lips, as though archly and impishly preoccupied with some problem in his mind. What on earth is he going to do, she wondered, observing this strange little figure. Still pressing his finger, as though enjoining silence, he tiptoed across the hall, to where a stain on the wall indicated that a barometer had once hung there; then rapidly tapped the wall like a woodpecker tapping a tree; shook his head; muttered ‘Falling! Falling!’; and, picking up the skirts of his coat, he executed two neat pirouettes which brought him back to the centre of the hall, his foot pointed nicely before him. (p51-2)

Her third old gentleman friend is Mr FitzGeorge, a rich connoisseur and collector. They met years before in India, and each had very favourable reactions to the other, but took things no further. He has waited, and she has cherished her memories. After a brief rekindled friendship FitzGeorge dies leaving his fortune to Lady Slane. Her children are excited about the prospects of inheriting in their turn. She confounds them again by donating it to the nation.

Years before, she sacrificed her desire to be a painter to her marriage, and in her peaceful retreat in Hampstead she has time to reflect on what might have been if she hadn’t slipped accidentally into marriage. Her family, it is revealed, know nothing of her interior life, her youthful ambitions, or indeed of her desires now she is a widow.

So what are we to make of the title: All Passion Spent? Lady Slane has not indulged hers. Perhaps the title refers to the effects of ageing to disperse passion over time. Lady Slane’s passions were for painting and – unacknowledged – for the young FitzGeorge. Both were sacrificed to the Very Great Man.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

Lady with a Red Hat by William Strang.

All Passion Spent presents an attractive picture of an old woman. She confounds the expectations of everyone. She strikes out on her own (albeit with her maid) and finds new friendships. She spends her time as she chooses. These are all good things for an old woman to do. But she is hardly a role model, however as she has had to wait until she was 88.

Perhaps the best thing she does is free the next generation but one from the same fate. Her donation of FitzGeorge’s fortune to the nation frees her grand-daughter from the expectation of a good marriage based on her prospects. Deborah comes to see her and reveals that she would like to be a musician and, no longer seen as an heiress, can realise her hopes for her future.

There is much pleasure in this book, like the three gentlemen’s characters. They are depicted with humour and more than a touch of caricature. The same is true of Lady Slane’s French maid Genoux. She says ‘Miladi’ to everything, but plays no real part except to expedite and account for the smooth running of the domestic stuff. She too is an old woman, but her situation is not of concern to Vita Sackville-West. The author’s attitude is perhaps typical of her time and class – the novel was first published in 1931. And Lady Slane’s charm, despite all those years in the great man’s shadow, is genuine. I finished this book with a sense of a life squandered by the social expectations of the time, and only a little pleasure at the heroine’s resolution.

 Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe

Vita Sackwille-West con sombrero by E.O. Hoppe

One more observation about Vita Sackville-West – she looked good in hats! I think she knew.

This novel was recommended by Emily and you can find her enthusiastic review on her blog EmilyBooks. Thank you Emily.

Book Snob also reviewed it on her blog, in 2011, and found that the novel confounded her expectations that it was going to be a light read. She highlights the loneliness of Lady Slane in her marriage.

All Passion Sent, by Vita Sackville-West republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1983. Introduced by Joanna Lumley.

Next in Older Women in Fiction series is The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, published in 2009. It will be posted in October 2014.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (again)

It is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, today, 9th August 2014. Yes, another centenary! To celebrate this amazing woman’s life I am re-posting this review – first posted in February in my series exploring older women in fiction.

116 TJ with Moomin 1956Tove Jansson’s writing will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between the generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

One of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

The episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.


Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Here’s a link to a BBC piece by Mark Bosworth, Tove Jansson: Love, war and the Moomins, looking at her life as writer and artist.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?

Older Women in Fiction: The next book in the series will be Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. It will be in my next post.

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Women’s Poetry and The Great War

I am posting this on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War. How do we remember that war? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

115 poppy wreaths

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication. The price was 10s 6d. I was part of a generation that believed in ‘telling it like it is’, and was fiercely pacifist.

115 W OwenThe cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice and is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An up-to-the-minute example of this side-lining is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

115 Ipplepen poppies

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains in part the neglect of women’s experience – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

115 Scars coverI only know one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain called To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (p15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:

The world gyrates too. God is good

That while his wind blow out the light

For those who hourly die for us –

We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (p100)

115 silhouettes TommyWomen paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all once had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancees, wives, daughters …

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,

And when I leave the meadow, almost wait

That you should open first the wooden gate. (p2)

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of women after the war:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead

But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (p22)

The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice women had to adjust to life with an unbalanced demography. A woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’.A woman might suffer considerable hardship having to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

115 Women of B

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us include also the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we can remember.

Among the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose novels are still available, we can name:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the website.


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