This seemed appropriate for Remembrance Sunday. It follows the lives of three women in London in the week leading up to the arrival of the Unknown Warrior’s cortege and the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, 100 years ago. The prose isn’t particularly classy, and it’s written in the present tense, which is annoying; but, after a slow start, I really did get into it and found it very interesting. It’s quite a bleak book: no ceremony and memorial are going to bring back Ada’s dead son or Evelyn’s dead fiancé, help Hettie’s traumatised brother to start rebuilding his life, heal the physical and mental injuries of the various other young men who feature in the book, or fulfil the promises of creating a land fit for heroes to live in. But it does end on a positive note, as we see that the interment of the Unknown Warrior and the ceremony at the Cenotaph form an act of national memorial and closure, and help people to begin moving forward.
It usually annoys me when people talk about historical events in terms of what’s happening today – the BBC are particularly bad at doing this! – but it was hard not to keep wondering why there was no mention of the Spanish flu. Also, one of the things which has been particularly hard about this year has been that people haven’t been able to attend funerals, and that the other religious and cultural rituals associated with death have not been able to take place. Just a couple of thoughts. But this is about 1920, not 2020, and it does say a lot about the legacy, the wake, of the Great War.
It’s rather disjointed at first, because are three different stories. Hettie’s a 19-year-old girl working in a dance club, where men pay her to be their dance partner (but nothing more), struggling to assert her independence from her widowed mother. Evelyn, despite being from a well-to-do family, worked in a munitions factory during the war, where she lost a finger in an accident, and is now working in a War Office pensions bureau, wanting to do something to help, and to fill her days. Ada’s a working-class housewife, who keeps thinking that she’s seen her dead son, and even consults a medium – who, fortunately for her, isn’t a charlatan, and gently tells her that she needs to accept that he’s gone. Eventually, it all comes together, and we learn that one of Hettie’s dance partners is Evelyn’s brother Edward, who was Ada’s son’s commanding officer.
There’s some class stuff going on, as we see that a lot of men coming into Evelyn’s office are struggling for money and that intensifies as we learn that Edward ordered the shooting of deserters, by their personal friends. But then we see that he had no choice, that he was just obeying orders, and that he’s traumatised as well. Everyone’s suffering. Ada’s relationship with her husband, who’s accepted that their son is gone, is suffering. And neither Evelyn or Hettie know how to help their brothers.
The contrast between the lives of the two younger woman is fascinating. Hettie, despite everything, is able to enjoy her youth: even though she’s working, she’s enjoying the dancing and the music, and her life’s ahead of her. Evelyn, although she’s hardly old, feels that she’s missed out, that the war has stolen her life, that young people feel that they’re entitled to enjoy themselves but that that joy in life’s gone from her. But, at the end, we see her accept a date with a work colleague, who lost a leg in the war but has been able to adapt, and we’re left to hope that a happy ending lies in store.
I suppose we think of the 1920s as being detached from the Great War, whether we associate it with the General Strike, flappers, jazz music, Prohibition, or umpteen other things. But, obviously, it wasn’t. And it’s fascinating how the first anniversary of the Armistice seems to have been a day of celebration, but, by the second anniversary, the mood had changed, and it became the season of Remembrance … as it still is, a century later.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
We will remember them.