In 1980, I remember my late friend Catherine Reilly having trouble convincing academics that the anthology she was working on, of women’s poetry of the First World War, had significance. That anthology, Scars upon my Heart, went on to great success and was on exam syllabuses for many years. The poems she sourced reminded readers that the First World War wasn’t all about bully beef and muddy trenches – it was about the experience of loved ones: the women who wait, who grieve, whose experience of war is very different from that of their menfolks.
For today’s post I have invited two other contributors to Distant Echoes, a wide-ranging anthology of historical short stories, to share with me in exploring this topic – the heartbreak and helplessness of women at times of war in the past.
We’re starting with Richard Buxton, whose powerful story ‘Disunion’ introduces us to an American Civil War situation far removed from what we’re familiar with when we watch Gone with the Wind. His focus is on the poisonous breakdown of trust in the community when people take sides:
Civil Wars differ from those between nations inasmuch as the wives and daughters were not only waving their menfolk goodbye, but trying to survive in the midst of the war themselves. Disunion is set in Eastern Tennessee, as several of my stories are. What made it so much tougher for those left behind was that, collectively, Tennessee voted to leave the Union and side with the Confederacy, but a majority in Eastern Tennessee wanted to remain part of the Union. It made this part of America a grim place to spend the war (1861 – 1865). Scores were still being settled, usually violently, many decades later.
The other characteristic of a Civil War is that it’s impossible to remain neutral, which my female narrator comes to learn in the hardest possible way. Others didn’t need persuading. Ellen Renshaw House was an ardent Confederate supporter living in Knoxville who referred to herself as ‘A Very Violent Rebel’. While I couldn’t agree with her politics, I nevertheless found her voice hugely compelling. While Knoxville was under Union control she split her time between looking after wounded Confederates and criticising the military authorities. Her diary entries leave no doubt as to the extreme bitterness felt on both sides in the city. Executions were common and Ellen bore witness to many. She was eventually expelled to Georgia.
There were more than two years of Confederate control before the Union took over. Conditions were every bit as harsh, possibly even more so away from the cities where there was no garrison to keep order. Coves (valleys) in the Appalachians held small scale communities that were relatively cut-off from the outside world and wanted nothing to do with the war. Life scratching a living on a one-mule farm was hard enough even when there was a husband and a wife. That was the story I wanted to tell in Disunion: a woman trying to endure with her husband gone but with others to care for, while all around her was suspicion and antipathy.
As the war went on the age range for conscription widened, particularly in the South, and women lost sons and fathers to the army as well as their husbands. Irregulars, desperados outside the sway of the Confederate Army and often made up of deserters, took refuge in the hills and preyed on the weak and defenceless. The women of Cades Cove were driven to form themselves into home guards to protect property and livestock, their children acting as pickets and blowing horns when the raiders were spotted. There was no escaping the war.
Even after the war the suffering went on. It was a time of great displacement. Families sick of the feuding moved away south or west and new people displaced from elsewhere arrived. The women waited for loved ones to return from the war, not knowing if they were alive or dead. Many would never find out.
Thank you, Richard.
My own story, ‘Salt’ tackles the familiar subject of women watching their men go off to war. As Richard has just mentioned, many would never learn what became of their men. That fear hangs over my main character, Ina, and her sister Mary Bella. What’s more, they are in an unfamiliar place themselves. They are Scottish herring girls – their job is to gut, salt and pack the huge quantities of herring caught by fisherman off Great Yarmouth on the eastern coast of England. For many years this was a tradition in Scottish fishing communities – men and women would travel round the coast of Britain, following the shoals of herring. Ina and Mary Bella are dislocated from what is familiar, the hours are punishing, the work extremely hard and their lodgings basic. But what they have is the warmth of sisterhood and friendship – these young women worked in teams with allocated roles and their efficiency was amazing. That female comradeship counterpoints the male camaraderie over in France, in the trenches.
I wanted to write a story that recorded my own heritage (my grandmother was one of those herring ‘quines’) but as it unfolded it became a tale where emotion was heightened not only by that sense of being in a ‘foreign’ place but by the speed of events. Mary Bella meets a man and their shared passion is intensified by its vulnerability. War stories often lead to scenes of parting – no one knows if or when the loved one will come back. The final scene of the story carried me along on a surge of swift writing and the final word fell into place with an almost audible click.
Since then, I’ve wondered what Ina’s life held for her later – maybe I’ll write about that some day!
Finally, Jasmina Svenne’s story ‘Too Late, Beloved’ jumps us to the end of World War I. Her story and my one act as book-ends, showing us the anticipatory dread and the poignant aftermath. Will my man come back, every woman must have asked herself, and if he does, what will he be? What will he find?
Here’s what Jasmina has to say:
As a writer of short historical fiction, I find that one of the hardest tricks to pull off is to evoke another era in as few words as possible and that the easiest way to do it is to go for a period the average reader knows, or thinks s/he does. So my other passion – the late-C18th – tends to be put on the backburner in favour of WWI.
The First World War, I think, still has resonance because it’s only a few years since the last of the veterans died and because so many ordinary citizens were caught up in it, in one way or another, which probably makes it easier for readers to empathise with characters that could almost be their (great-)grandparents.
For that reason, a lot of WWI stories tend to concentrate on civilian soldiers – the Pals Battalions and the families they left behind them. I chose not to do so, because it strikes me that sometimes professional soldiers like Edgar in my story – one of the Old Contemptibles who was involved in the Retreat from Mons – tend to be overlooked, as if their sacrifices are somehow worth less, simply because they had chosen the army as a career even before war broke out. (Having said that, I have a sneaky suspicion that, before the war, Victor probably worked in an office or a bank.)
The original inspiration for ‘Too Late, Beloved’ was a story told by one of the 100-and-something-year-old veterans interviewed on a BBC documentary called ‘The Last Tommy’. One of his comrades had been taken prisoner during the war, but had somehow been missed off the POW lists, so neither his family nor his sweetheart was informed that he was still alive. On his return, he went to his sweetheart’s home, only to find she wasn’t there. Instead her father told him that, presuming he was dead, she had married someone else. Devastated, the POW emigrated almost immediately and the young woman’s father never told her that her first love was still alive.
That story, combined with the Vivien Leigh film Waterloo Bridge and contemporary news stories about missing people, made me wonder what it would be like to live with that uncertainty – unable to grieve, unable to trust the spark of hope you would inevitably harbour somewhere in the deepest depths of your heart.
How long would it take before you cracked under the pressure from well-meaning friends and relatives, to accept the unacceptable and try to move on with your life? And what if you discovered you had made the wrong choice – maybe? Because I also believe it is possible to love two people just as much, but differently and for different reasons.
Thank you, Richard and Jasmina!
Distant Echoes is published by Corazon Books, in ebook and paperback and is available here . This anthology contains winners and runners-up of the past two Historical Novel Society’s short story competitions. ‘Salt’ won the HNS Oxford 2014 competition. Jasmina’s The Beggar at the Gate’ won in 2012 and is published in the ebook The Beggar at the Gate, available here – my runner-up story ‘Reputation’ appears there too.
I have also written about Distant Echoes and the small lives on the fringes of great events of history on the Historical Novel Society’s website here.
Further reading: Wake, by Anna Hope, a moving novel about women after the end of the First World War as Britain prepares its ceremonial funeral for the Unknown Soldier; Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, which follows that familiar arc from the pre-war to the post-war experience and which I defy you to read without weeping; The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch – mentioned by Jasmina. I blogged about Harry Patch some years back and you can read my post here.
About my guests:
Richard Buxton grew up in Wales and lives in Sussex. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story Award. His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, which was longlisted for the 2015 HNS award, was released this spring. www.richardbuxton.net
Jasmina Svenne was born in Derby to Latvian parents. Her writing career began with a novel, Behind the Mask, winner of the Katie Fforde Bursary, followed by nine historical novellas. Her stories have also been published in Journeys Beyond (Earlyworks Press), Wooing Mr Wickham (Honno).
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