Not So Quiet...: Stepdaughters of War - Helen Zenna Smith

Not So Quiet… was one WW1 novel that I had not heard of until a couple of weeks ago but that will now remain on my shelves for quite a while.

The book was written in 1930 novel by Evadne Price. She used the pseudonym “Helen Zenna Smith”, and given that the narrator’s name is Smith, or “Smithy”, also, the book may seem like work of autobiography, but isn’t.

In fact, Price was asked by publisher Albert E. Marriott to compose a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. She declined on the basis that “Anyone who wants a skit on this book wants their brains dusted.”

This really resonated with me because that also was the first that I thought when I read about Marriott’s proposal. As it turns out, Marriott was later exposed as a fraud and con artist.

Anyway, Price was able to persuade Marriott that he should publish a serious work telling of the work of women ambulance drivers in WWI.

So, the book is fiction but were based on the diaries of a real woman ambulance driver, Winifred Young. I gather that the diaries are now lost.

I thought the book was fantastic. It was as gripping as it was harrowing.

From the very start of the book, we are thrown into the deep end of living conditions of the ambulance crew at the front. The stench, the cold, the hunger, the sleep deprivation, the bullying, the stress of having to live up to the expectations of parents and relatives safely back at home, the inability to communicate the madness of it all to anyone outside of their group…or anyone who was not there, at the front.

Price/Smith tells all of this with attention to detail. Scratching and itching and trying to get rid of bugs and lice while avoiding the mess tent and living off Bovril because the food is entirely disgusting.

It is not comfortable reading, and this is even before we go out on duty with the women, picking up wounded – stinking, faceless, screaming – and trying to convey them to a field hospital in the pitch dark while being targeted by raids.

It made for truly gut wrenching reading.

What made it worse was to watch the characters unravel. Some die, some go mad, some we watch drifting into depression that cannot be healed by sick leave. And it is the visible detaching of the characters from any sort of feeling of life that is just heart-breaking.

With all of this, I usually start to wonder when reading books about this kind of conflict how the characters would fare once the war is over. How would they be able to adjust back to “civilian” life?

In this as well, Price/Smith did not disappoint – sorry, long quote ahead:

“What is to happen to women like me when this war ends … if it ever ends. I am twenty-one years of age, yet I know nothing of life but death, fear, blood and the sentimentality that glorifies these things in the name of patriotism. I watch my own mother stupidly, deliberately, though unthinkingly – for she is a kind woman – encourage the sons of other women to kill their brothers; I see my own father – a gentle creature who would not willingly harm a fly – applaud the latest scientist to invent a mechanical device guaranteed to crush his fellow-beings to pulp in their thousands. And my generations watches these things and marvels at the blind foolishness of it … helpless to make its immature voice heard above the insensate clamour of the old ones who cry: “Kill, Kill, Kill!” unceasingly.

What happens to women like me when the killing is done and peace comes … if ever it comes? What will they expect of us, these elders who have sent us out to fight? We sheltered young women who smilingly stumbled from the chintz-covered drawing-rooms of the suburbs straight into hell?

What will they expect of us?

We, who once blushed at the public mention of childbirth, now discuss such things as casually as once we discussed the latest play; whispered stories of immorality are of far less importance that a fresh cheese in the canteen; chastity seems a mere waste of time in an area where youth is blotted out so quickly. What will they expect of us, these elders of ours, when the killing is over and we return?

Once we were not allowed out after nightfall unchaperoned; now we can drive the whole night through a deserted countryside with a man – provided he is in khaki and our orders are to drive him. Will these elders try to return us to our conventional pre-war habits? What will they say if we laugh at them, as we are bound?

I see in the years to come old men in their easy chairs fiercely reviling us for lacking the sweetness and softness of our mothers and their mothers before them; chiding us for the language that is not the language of the gentlewomen; accusing us of barnyard morals when we use love as a drug for forgetfulness because we have acquired the habit of taking what we can from life while we are alive to take … clearly do I see all these things.

But what I do not see is pity or understanding for the war-shocked woman who sacrificed her youth on the altar of the war that was not her making, the war made by age and fought by youth while age looked on and applauded and encored. Will they show us mercy, these arm-chair critics, once our uniforms are frayed and the romance of the war woman is no longer a romance?

I see much, but this I do not see.”

I’m so glad I found this book. I now may also need to have a look at the sequels that Price wrote (also under her Helen Smith pen name).

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