Vera Brittain

Ten Books About The Great War By Or About British Women.


Women On The Warpath, by David Mitchell. Cape, 1965. Mitchell wrote while there were still women alive who had served in uniform during the Great War and were willing to enliven his research with first person testimony. Hence his very good accounts of the many and varied roles that women took over by the end of the War. He also keeps an eye on the suffragists.

The Virago Book Of Women And The Great War, by Joyce Marlow. Virago, 1998. A compendium of Women’s writings arranged in chronological order, 1914 – 1918. Nurses, bus conductors, drivers, munitionettes and pacifists, they’re all here. Marlow surveys the same ground as Women on the Warpath but her reporting doesn’t have the same fibre content.

Diaries, 1915 – 1918, by Lady Cynthia Asquith. Hutchinson, 1968. The aristocratic Cynthia made a political marriage to the Prime Minister’s second son, Herbert Asquith. In her conscientiously maintained diaries she reported ironically on the personalities of Great War London as viewed from her superior vantage in Downing Street. While her husband was away at the Front (he served in the Royal Artillery and wrote a Great War novel, Young Orland, about a lovelorn gunner subaltern) Cynthia was courted by various suitors, the most persistent of whom is known in her diaries as ‘Bluetooth’. Her efforts to keep his advances at bay, while not scaring him off completely, is one of several themes that keep the reader engaged to the end of what is a long if worthwhile read.

Testament Of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Gollancz, 1933. The best known book by a British woman about the Great War and deservedly so. Brittain’s autobiography is a keystone of the Eng. Lit. monument to the ‘Lost Generation’ killed or maimed 1914 – 1918. A beautifully written and emotionally charged account of how one woman’s hopeful future was torn apart.

Not So Quiet, by Helen Zenna Smith. Albert E. Marriott Ltd, 1930. A pseudonymous work from an Australian journalist, Evadne Price, who based it on the diaries and recollections of a real woman who worked as a British ambulance driver in France. Even as a second-hand, novelised memoir it still contains enough matter to give a plausible tone of authenticity to its account of what happened ‘over there’, that strange place where men and women could test the boundaries of what might be permissible. The title echoes Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front and seeks to deliver a similar ‘warts and all’ evocation of war’s reality for a specifically female readership.

Ourselves, by Irene Clephane. .John Lane, 1933. A social survey of the years 1900 – 1930, written with a female readership firmly in mind. There are more than 240 photographs & illustrations, many featuring fashions, home decor and women at leisure. The book is in two main parts with the Great War being treated as an interlude with hardly a soldier in sight. The writer concentrates instead on the Home Front and themes such as recruiting, munitions, rationing and zeppelin raids.

WAAC, The Woman’s Story Of The War, by Anonymous. Werner Laurie, 1930. Another novelised memoir of an amorous female auxiliary stationed in and around the Bases and depots of the Western Front. The author gives her name as Connie but has been identified as a male journalist. However, as with Not So Quiet there is enough plausibility in the detail to suggest that, for some women in uniform one hundred years ago, this is what day to day life must have been like. The formula clearly worked because there was a prompt sequel, WAAC Demobilized, which continued the story by sending ‘Connie’ on a frolicsome trip around the world.

Diary Without Dates, by Enid Bagnold. Heinemann, 1918. This little gem of a memoir is now scarce in its first edition but is readily available in various cheap paperback reprints. The Great War bibliographer and historian, Cyril Falls, fell slightly in love with Bagnold’s writing after reading her other Great War book, The Happy Foreigner, to which he awarded one star. Diary Without Dates lacks the obvious love affair but contains some heart-rending scenes describing the London hospital where Bagnold worked as a VAD nurse before becoming a chauffeuse in FANY. The Happy Foreigner wasn’t written for another eleven years, coming out in 1929, the same year as All Quiet on The Western Front – presumably in an effort by Heinemann to capitalise on Remarque’s success. Falls wrote of The Happy Foreigner: ‘This book, mainly concerned with events just after the Armistice, is fiction obviously founded upon a good deal of fact. The heroine is an English girl, driving a car for the French, who is summoned to Metz by the general commanding there to make a dancing-partner for his officers. There are descriptions of the hardly-cooled battle zone, and a prettily-managed love affair with a French officer. All this may sound rather commonplace, and so it would be if it were not illuminated by the most fascinating of precious styles, a delicate humour and keen observation.’

Scars Upon My Heart, edited by Catherine Reilly. Virago, 2003. A softcover anthology bringing together 78 women poets of the Great War. Already known as a bibliographer of British war poets, this useful collection showed Reilly as a champion of the wives’, mothers’ and sisters’ point of view.

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