Wake by Anna Hope

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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.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

 

We will remember them.

 

Pack Up Your Troubles by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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This is the final book in the “War at Home” series – taking us into mid-1919, and reminding us that the Great War didn’t end with the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until June 1919, and the treaties concerning Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t signed until the summer of 1920. It was many months before all the troops were able to come home, and, of course, there was the Spanish flu pandemic to cope with as well.

Many people had lost loved ones. Others had to cope with life-changing injuries and what we now call PTSD. Relationships had changed for ever, jobs that had been left often weren’t there for those coming home to return to, the role of women had changed considerably, and, despite the joy of peace and the return of those who’d survived – and most of those who served did survive – it wasn’t easy for anyone to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.

But there was happiness too. New starts. Marriages. Babies. A lot of different aspects of how people dealt with the end of the war are covered in this book, and it’s an interesting read. My main quibble is that, as she did with the Morland Dynasty books, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles created too many characters for her to be able to deal with satisfactorily in a fairly short book, and some of the people we got to know in the earlier books merit little more than a few lines here. Many of the loose ends are tied up, but others aren’t. Most of the characters get happy endings – or happy new beginnings. Others don’t. But that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it?

Although it’s called the “War at Home” series, a lot of the characters haven’t been at home at all for much of it. When the book starts, plenty of them are abroad, on active service or as volunteers. Edward Hunter becomes part of the British delegation to the peace conference – and it’s great to see that included in a historical novel, because it very rarely is. And one thing that often gets forgotten is that a general election was held on December 14th, little more than a month after the Armistice. With the huge increase in the electorate, and that fact that millions of voters were still abroad with the Armed Forces, it must have taken an incredible amount of organisation. It’s good to see that mentioned here, especially in terms of some women being able to vote for the first time – and the Irish Question being addressed as well.

Most of the book is set “at home”, though – with the various different members of the Hunter family, and their servants. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s reading this and is planning to read the book and doesn’t want spoilers, but we see a range of issues raised. How will men returning from the war fit back into civilian life? As we sadly know, they’re not returning to “homes fit for heroes to live in”, or really any sort of society fit for heroes to live in: there’s widespread unemployment, and social unrest. What effect will their return on their families? Can marriages damaged during the war be saved? Will couples who got together either before the war or during the war go on to marry? How will women whose lives have changed beyond recognition due to the war adapt to peacetime?  What should be done about war memorials?  I thought that there could have been a bit more about the changes in society as regards the class system, but I suppose that the author could only fit so much in.

That’s the only problem with it, really – the author could only fit so much in. The book really needed to be longer. Some of the characters outside the “core” family featured quite prominently in earlier books, but are barely mentioned at all here. Even Diana Hunter, who was arguably the main character in the first book, only appears here through the eyes of others. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I was left wanting more. That’s a sign of a good book, but it’s a bit frustrating when it’s the end of a series! Maybe a series about the same characters during the Second World War will follow? I’d certainly be up for reading it.

My grandad used to tell me a story about the day his dad came home from the Great War. They were going to meet him at the railway station. Grandad was only a little boy at the time: he must have been just coming up for 4. My great-grandma dressed him in his best clothes, and warned him severely not to get himself mucky before his dad had seen him. They were just about to set off when the door opened and my great-grandad walked in: he’d managed to get an earlier train, but hadn’t been able to let them know. I always liked that story, when I was a little girl. I never really thought much about what happened afterwards – how Grandad, who can only have been a baby when his dad went away, got used to having this strange man around, and how my great-grandad had to adapt back to civilian life, and how they all had to cope with their grief for the relatives – three close family members – and friends who’d been killed. Ask anyone when the First World War ended, and they’ll say it was on November 11th 1918. But its effects carried on. They still do.

The story of this book is that the war didn’t really end.  Its effects – and some of those were good, with the role of the women and the relationship between the social classes changed for ever – continued to be felt by those who lived through it for the rest of their days, and it was well after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 before people could even start trying to resume any form of normality, or find a new normality.  And this was in Britain – how much harder must it have been for people in areas where the actual fighting had taken place?  This is quite a short book, and it’s bitty because there are so many different characters involved, but there’s a lot to be taken from it.  Well worth a read.