The Author: Jennifer Robson
Genre: Historical fiction, set from just before the outbreak of World War I (July 1914) to after its end (January 1919, following the worst of the Spanish flu epidemic in England).
How I Found It: A friend read it early last year, and though I haven't read very much historical fiction, I was intrigued by the premise. Later that year I happened on Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, a major inspiration for this novel, and became intensely interested in women's war work and the War itself.
My Review: "Ah, don't begin to fuss!" wailed Kitty. "If a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn't written to her for a fortnight! Besides, if he'd been anywhere interesting, anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he'd have found some way of telling me instead of just leaving it as 'Somewhere in France.' He'll be all right." (opening lines of Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier )
Robson didn't draw her inspiration from West's novel, but it's impossible not to put her work in context with other accounts, fictional and not, of the war I've been exposing myself to for the past year. Women of those fraught days during the war and after universally experienced uncertainty, heartbreak... and profound social change.
The novel's heroine, Lilly Ashford, finds the war to be a chance to make the changes in her life she's always wanted. Lilly has longed for an education and the chance to do more with her life than to marry young and devote her life to having children and keeping house, as a woman of her class is expected to do. Helping her in this fight was Robbie Fraser, her older brother's oldest friend, who inspired her to fight for a governess to give her a broader education than a lady's normal accomplishments.
With England on the edge of war, Lilly and Robbie's paths cross again at a ball at her family's grand estate (or one of them, anyway). There are obvious sparks, but Robbie comes from an impoverished background, and Lilly's parents are staunchly against her attraction to him. When the war breaks out, taking Robbie to work behind the lines as a surgeon and Lilly's beloved brother Edward to the front lines, Lilly seizes her chance to do something with her life. She defies her parents' wishes and breaks with them in order to join the WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) as an ambulance driver. Luck later puts her in the way of a chance to join Robbie at the 51st Casualty Clearing Station in France. With women and men bound by strict laws against fraternization, and their days dominated by blood, muck, and the seemingly interminable horrors of the war, Lilly and Robbie's attraction might well be doomed. Constantly in harm's way, horrified and exhausted by their everyday experiences, the would-be lovers struggle to stay afloat in a time of great uncertainty.
Anyone reading this review who's familiar with Downton Abbey will immediately recognize the similarities: yes, the plot is extremely similar to Sybil's path in Series 2, between her joining the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment, the organization with which Vera Brittain served) and being in love with Branson, who wasn't of her class. And yes, the cover model looks disturbingly like Michelle Dockery. I found myself a little caught up in comparing the show and the book as I read the first portion of the novel, which didn't feel any different from the hundreds of variations on this story I've seen before.
But my slight reservations with the book's resemblance to that story dissipated as the book went on--after all, these stories, written one hundred years after the fact, simply reflect the realities many women lived at those times, so any apparent similarities simply stem from the stories imitating life. I found Robson's carefully-crafted story and characters engaging. There were several things I truly liked about Robson's take on women's war work and the horrors of the war:
- The novel passes the Bechdel test several times over. Alison Bechdel, author of noted graphic memoir Fun Home, is credited as the creator of this test, in which a work's diversity can be evaluated partly by whether it features two named female characters who discuss something other than a man. This isn't always an easy feat given the time period--Lilly and her peers in the WAAC are women of marriageable age, and when they're both surrounded by wounded men and finally free to openly discuss sex and relationships, of course some talk will be devoted to men. However, Charlotte, Lilly's former governess and now a friend, and Lilly have lengthy discussions about the war work available to women, and Lilly and her friends in the WAAC discuss dancing, their upbringings, vehicle maintenance, etc. Lilly's friends are also of different social classes than she is, but they become genuinely friendly, cooperate and work together to help the men under their care.
- The novel portrays sex as an experience both the man and the woman should find pleasurable. Robson does not shy away from the reality that women and men engaged in casual sexual relationships during the war; at one point it is mentioned women have been dismissed from the WAAC for becoming pregnant. She manages to show the depth of ignorance of Lilly and some of her peers about sex and male anatomy, but treats the subject with respect and delicacy. Readers who prefer no sexual situations in their books should know there is a sex scene spanning several chapters, but it is in no way lewd. Rather, it was one of the more tender and equitable sexual experiences I've ever read in a novel. Lilly's sisters embody typical upper-class women of the period, lying back and thinking of England, whereas Lilly and her peers are allowed the hope of experiencing sex with a partner who truly cares about their pleasure as well as his own.
- Lilly's relationships to several characters are explored in detail and help to flesh out her character. We get to read about Lilly's relationships with Robbie, her brother Edward, her former governess Charlotte, and her fellow driver Constance (and to a lesser degree, Bridget and Annie, two of the other ambulance drivers). I did wish that once Lilly was at the 51st, we could have had a few more letters from Edward and Charlotte in order to know how they were faring. Still, Lilly's relationships with each character helped to illuminate different aspects of her personality: stubborness, compassion, a fierce desire to help others.
- Lilly's relationship with Robbie does not dominate the book. A novel set during a war where two central characters are in a relationship risks focusing on the characters' romance while ignoring the horrific realities of the war. Robson manages to balance Lilly and Robbie's burgeoning romance with the reality of working in a CCS: the constant danger of being shelled, the arduousness of driving the same route several times a day to pick up the wounded, the terrors awaiting any soldier who gets lost in no man's land. This is rightfully classified as a novel, rather than a romance; the romance isn't the sole focus, which I appreciated, as that would have diminished the feeling that Lilly and Robbie were living through a period of great fear and anguish.
My small quibbles with the book only have to do with Robson leaving several plot threads dangling in order to pick up the subsequent stories in her two following novels, After the War is Over and the just-released Moonlight Over Paris. However, since I will be reading both books incredibly soon due to how much I enjoyed this one, I can't complain too much! I was pleased with Robson's evocative portrayal of the war and hope that her novel will help others on the way to learning more about the role of women during World War I. (I particularly enjoyed the interview with her historian father at the back of the book; I am greatly interested in his nonfiction now.) I highly recommend Robson's book both to anyone with an interest in World War I and to anyone who's interested in learning a little more about it, with the help of interesting, layered female characters.